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Asteya: Stealing a Yoga Practice

Photo above by Wanda Koch

 

When our culture (our media, our power structures, our society) says, “people who look like you shouldn’t expect to have a life like that,” we’re stealing. Stealing from people capable of achieving more, and stealing from our community as well-Seth Godin

 

I feel blessed to have started yoga with my Atlanta teachers. In my 5 or so years of working with them. Never once did anyone tell me that I could not do anything. There were never any talk about the short falls of my anatomy. There were never any talks about disadvantages of my body or body type. The message was always one of approximation.  Get as close as you can to the pose.  I found that approximating challenged me to find some way to work with my particular body and get it to the pose that was being presented.

I felt that if I practiced 6 days a week with dedication and devotion, that anything was available to me. Maybe this is a naive thought, but it has not steered me wrong yet. I have found space where I thought there was none. Strength when I thought I was at my limit. Because of my first teachers, there is no doubt in my mind that I will one day land and lift my Karandavasana. Even though teachers since then have said that it is not possible or necessary for most women. It was because of my first teachers that I did not give up on external hip rotation and can now do lotuses and legs behind the head poses even though a doctor told me that my particular body was not meant to do that.

While there are definitely people with anatomical make ups that will not allow them to do certain poses, this is not as common as most people want to believe.  What is possibly more common are people who have given up on trying because someone stole their practice from them. Some one convinced them so fully that they were not capable of something that they believed it and their beautiful and powerful mind rose to the challenge of making it true.

 

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Below is an excerpt from an article called, Stretching is in Your Brain written by bio mechanics and anatomy enthusiast Jenni Rawlings

We all know that when we stretch, we experience a feeling of “tightness” at our end range of motion – a sensation that limits us from moving any deeper into the stretch. We have traditionally defined this “tight” sensation as the result of having reached the end length of the muscle(s) we’re stretching. In other words, we pulled on the ends of our muscle until we reached its maximum physical length, and once we hit that boundary, the stretch stopped and we felt the “tightness”. With enough stretching, we could increase the length of our muscle and therefore move further into our stretch with time.
But we now understand that increasing our flexibility has much less to do with the physical length of our muscle tissue, and much more to do with the part of our body that controls and moves our muscles: the nervous system. Our brain, the main control center of our nervous system, is in constant communication with our muscles and one of its main imperatives is to keep our body where it perceives it is safe. Normal movements that we make throughout our day are considered safe by the brain because it knows and trusts them. But on the other hand, our brain is not familiar with ranges of motion that we never move into, so it’s much less likely to consider those places safe. When we stretch, if we move into a place that the brain isn’t familiar with, our nervous system will end our stretch by communicating with our muscles to put the breaks on the movement.

For example, if you happen to work on your computer for 8 solid hours a day (and if you don’t take frequent intermittent stretch breaks for your shoulders – hint hint :) ), the brain becomes very familiar with the arms-forward position that you use while typing and considers that range safe. Then later, if you decide to do a chest stretch in which you take your arm out to the side and then behind you, the brain doesn’t feel that that movement is safe because you so rarely go there, so it will limit your range very early on in the stretch.

A major takeaway from this new flexibility paradigm is that when we increase our range of motion through stretching, it isn’t because we pulled on our tissues and made them longer. It’s because we visited the edge of our stretch (also called stretch “tolerance”) enough times that our brain started to feel comfortable there and it began to allow us to move deeper into that range.

 

As I mentioned above, a sports medicine doctor told me that I should stop practicing  poses with external rotation because certain bodies were not made to bend that way. I bought it for a hot second but then I talked to some other yogis/anatomy experts who called BS. Who was I supposed to listen too?  I chose to listen to my ego that was saying, “forget that, you need to finish second series”. I am not saying you should listen to your ego, but it worked out for me….on that particular occasion.  The way that I eventually increased my external rotation is by doing a pose like half lotus to the place I felt was my edge, meaning there was no pain but it definitely was not comfortable, and than sitting there and breathing deeply  until I felt my brain start to quiet and my panic dissipate. 90% of the time, my body would relax, my hip would release a little bit and the sensation would dissipate.  I would come out of the pose, take relaxing breaths again, and then when I was relaxed, I would do the pose again. I would do it three times and then move on. Over time my body would relax quicker and now, on most days, I don’t need the technique at all.

This  is a picture of me taken about a year ago doing a pose that a doctor told me  I would never do and I have no pain.
This is a picture of me taken about a year ago doing a pose that a doctor told me I would never do and I have no pain.

 

 

This is me messing around about a month ago at a workshop.
This is me messing around about a month ago at a workshop.

 

 

Kino Macgregor also inspired me with this video. Kino Macgregor has traveled all over the world teaching Ashtanga yoga and has worked with many body types. In the video, she talks about how, for every person who says they cannot do something because of how they are made, she meets someone with the same body type who has figured out a way to do it.

 

 

As a teacher, I have taken anatomy trainings and talked to anatomy experts. As a result I started to abandon my roots. I started to  caution students against certain poses based on anatomical principles. Then time and again, people proved me wrong. I am not an anatomy expert so I absolutely could have been dead wrong anyway. Then I started listening to other people who had been told things like this by anatomy experts and they were proven wrong. Then I had experiences of my own where I was proving experts wrong. Another example of experts proven wrong was seen in my article, the Demon, The Yogi and the Piriformis Injury where I did the exact opposite of what one of the foremost experts on yoga anatomy told me to do and my injury healed. It could absolutely be possible that all of these people were just dead wrong and were giving the wrong advice to the wrong bodies.

The only anatomy guru I will listen to these days is David Keil of yoganatomy.com because he rarely speaks in absolutes. This piece, from his website, pretty much sums up his perspective on it.

Many of you interact with anatomy in two key places. The first is relative to injury, either in a preventative way, or after some type of injury has occurred. The second is often when we want to do a particular asana but can’t and want to know why. In other words, you’re looking for the technique or anatomical restriction that limits your ability to do a pose.

From this, we often want “the answer” to the problem or the injury. Unfortunately there is often no simple answer or simple solution. It is not my desire to simplify the anatomy or the yoga itself, that would be an injustice to the complexity and diversity of who we are physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

 

When I speak with David, he gives me pointers to what may be going on, but then as I practice,he goes according to the picture my body is giving him and not by any perceived limitation. It is because of David that I learned the potential of my rotation. When I first started practicing with him, my knee had been hurting for about two years due to a bad yoga adjustment. He had me do a lotus. Honestly, I don’t know what he even did. It is possible that he didn’t do anything and it was psychological. He asked me if I had pain, I said, “no”. He told me to do it every day and don’t stop. A few months later after the high of doing the workshop, I fell off the band wagon because I was feeling frustration in my home practice. That frustration was just enough for me to bring back the story of my limitations and the pain. I rode that horse for awhile and then got tired of it and started with the breathe and hold technique I spoke of earlier which made it go away again.

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One of the 8 limbs of yoga is the yamas which are ways to treat others and the world around you that bring about a positive impact for all involved.  One of the yamas is, asteya, non stealing.  When someone says that, “with your body, you will probably never do this pose”, are they stealing a practice?

When people are pushed to exchange their passion and their effort for the false solace of giving up and lowering their expectations, we all lose.

Expectations are not guarantees. Positive thinking doesn’t guarantee results, all it offers is something better than negative thinking.

Expectations that don’t match what’s possible are merely false dreams. And expectations that are too small are a waste. We need teachers and leaders and peers who will help us dig in deeper and discover what’s possible, so we can push to make it likely.

Expectations aren’t wishes, they’re part of a straightforward equation: This work plus that effort plus these bridges lead to a likelihood of that outcome. It’s a clear-eyed awareness of what’s possible combined with a community that shares your vision.

It’s easy to manipulate the language of expectations and turn it into a bootstrapping, you’re-on-your-own sort of abandonment. But expectation is contagious. Expectation comes from our culture. And most of all, expectation depends on support—persistent, generous support to create a place where leaping can occur.

The mirror we hold up to the person next to us is one of the most important pictures she will ever see.

If we can help just one person refuse to accept false limits, we’ve made a contribution. If we can give people the education, the tools and the access they need to reach their goals, we’ve made a difference. And if we can help erase the systemic stories, traditions and policies that push entire groups of people to insist on less, we’ve changed the world- Seth Godin

 

We have to find the balance between fostering false dreams and stealing dreams. As Seth says above, positive thinking doesn’t insure that someone will be able to do something. It is just better than negative thinking.  By being honest about our bodies but open to possibilities, we can create an environment where, as Seth says, a leap can occur. Maybe the leap has nothing to do with actually doing the pose. Maybe it is just discovering that success is not tied to the final result but to the ability to stay emotionally equanimous and balanced in all your efforts. Maybe the leap is discovering that you are strong enough to face every aspect of yourself without attaching your well being or identity to it. Maybe the leap is physical and you figure out that by building the necessary strength in the core and finding more freedom in the shoulders that you can squeeze the knees in just enough to jump back even though your teacher told you your arms were too short.

 

Go here for more from Seth Godin

Shanna Small has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga and studying the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Mysore with Sharath Jois and is the Director of AYS Charlotte, a school for traditional Ashtanga in Charlotte NC. She has written for Yoga International and the Ashtanga Dispatch. Go here for more information on AYS Charlotte. For information on workshops, please e-mail shanna@ashtangayogaproject.com.

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