Too long didn't read (TLDR):
Instead of regurgitating the most overused phrases in yoga, learn the material well enough to express yourself in meaningful ways. Avoid universal statements and commands that you yourself can't uphold and that gloss over the intricacies of human life.
"Everything is music."
"Live every moment in love."
"Be your true self."
"Open your heart."
Maybe the first thing I should mention is that in addition to being a yoga teacher, I'm a writer and an editor. Language use is important and interesting to me. Perhaps others don't care as much. But I find the above phrases floating around the yoga world to be replete of meaning and utterly uncompelling. I would have been better off left in silence.
You've probably noticed that it seems like yoga students and teachers are recycling around 20 phrases. How many times can you ACTUALLY see the same quote about peace in one week? The echo chamber reaches across studios and social media posts. At a festival I was sponsored to work at, I found that every time I opened my ears to the workshops around me I was tuning it to yet another cliche. When you hear a phrase 500 times, and frequently in the context of marketing, no matter how nice it once sounded, it's going to start to make you cringe. You are going to automatically recoil when you hear it. Or perhaps just roll your eyes.
The thing with language is, even (especially) the most useful and powerful words become degraded by overuse. I now have red flags on passion, purpose, authentic, heart, love, manifest, connection, gratitude, healing, purity, energy, and even trauma, among others. There is nothing intrinsically problematic with these words--in fact they are important words. It is their (over)use and the conceptions built around them that leads to their meanings--or lack thereof. When you see foundations of yoga printed on kids' shirts in K-mart then you know that something has gone awry.
Words in Isolation
Tied together with the problem of overuse is the problem of superficiality. Phrases that are used all the time will always be phrases that are highly accessible. They may have become accessible via a famous voice, a popular spiritual text, or a large company. People naturally repeat what they have heard recently, whether or not they have any deeper context for it, so the more a phrase is used, the more that phrase is used. The frequently used phrases then become like brush with no roots, flowers with no stems, or eggs with no nest. If the phrase isn't coherently anchored to anything else, then it has no ecology. It may sound pretty, but in isolation, it doesn't function. It has no meaning. It has no dynamism.
Frequently, phrases are used as universal truths. The consequence is oversimplification. The habit can also be understood as a teacher claiming an indisputable moral position, which cements her power. For example, "love is always the answer." These phrases dismiss the complexities and uncertainties of human experience. They position the teacher as infallible.
There is a way to speak (about anything, not just yoga topics) such that the topic emerges in an ecological way. A writer or speaker may refer to a number of points and then illustrate the ways they are connected. This can be scientific, poetic, and/or analytical. There is framing, detailing, connectivity. There are unexpected analogies that demonstrate the speaker's deeper understanding. There is no need to be flowery, though beautiful language may be skillfully used. The way I know that I am listening to someone weaving one of these ecologies is that I can FEEL my mind rearranging. I can feel a shift of mind.
Respect peoples' intelligence and promote original and thorough thinking by offering not what "sounds" yogic, but what is actually interesting and important to you.
Conflict Between Speech and Action
Apart from diluting the meanings of choice words and phrases, practitioners who are not careful in their speech make yoga itself seem meaningless. A teacher may in one moment preach about how yoga fosters love, and in the next disrespect her colleague. So if you said "be kind to everyone," and then you clearly contradict that, you've abused your position of authority. Now, people are people, and yoga teachers aren't perfect humans who will never cause harm. If you want to retain your integrity and credibility, selecting speech carefully is important. Instead of "be kind to everyone," which glosses over the complications of human interrelationship, a more complete way to talk about this topic might be, "Consider the things that make it harder for you to be kind. What is it really that challenges you? Where do you draw the line? Why?" This will inevitably promote a more meaningful train of thought than a platitude like "be kind."
A colleague of mine once closed her class with "Remember, everything is music." When I politely asked her to end her class on time and not move my class flyers out of sight in the studio, per the demand of the owner, she interrupted me and informed me in a shrill voice that she would do whatever she wants. The music thing seemed to be quite irrelevant all of a sudden. She later quoted the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali to let me know why she was hiding my class flyers from students. If I had only her interpretation of the Sutras to go by, I would think yoga is really stupid. But her argument came from her interpretation of the text, not from the text itself.
It is not entirely uncommon for teachers to assert power over others by using ancient texts to validate their personal opinions against all other possible perspectives. This finality and the silencing of others it requires is clearly antithetical to key elements of yoga philosophy.
Agency and Creativity
Because spirituality requires interpretation of the broadest, deepest, and most detailed parts of life, we end up with incredible variety in understandings. People become avid defenders of their interpretations when they think they are being protectors of "true spirituality." Like morality, spirituality is not clear or fixed. Spirituality resists our delineation--it isn't made for cages and bridles. This brings us back to the dynamism I referred to earlier--life invites our continual engagement and personal decision-making. When we reach into the bag of quotes and toss them out to students without any deeper understanding, we've declined that invitation in favor of pre-made options.
Based on the patterns I've observed, I have a prediction. The more that cliches are used, the more sick everyone will be of it. As the bombardment becomes intolerable, we will see a shift toward very practical language. Flowery, fluffy, inspiring language will go out of style. People will trend toward simple and direct language. Then, when this new style of spirituality gets abused and overdone, we'll shift back toward the way things are today.
Or, if we get out of the cycle, we can even hope for something different to happen. I think it's possible. But we have to not just recycle the things we're hearing. We have to engage deeply enough with the material to be able to shape it from our unique perspectives and connect it intelligently with diverse pieces of our experience and knowledge. That way we refer to the same themes of yoga but in different and interesting ways from one another.
Also, every time we super-emphasize and raise emotions around our beloved perspectives and strongest beliefs, we risk dooming them to being "so yesterday" by exhausting people. Yes, I just quoted Hillary Duff, an artist who was given her allotted time in the sun by people who understand these patterns and then allowed to fade into vague memory. Like all those cliches you've been using.
If there is something that is really important to you, keep at it, but subtly, and creatively. I mean, just follow your heart and the divine kindness of your eternal soul will shine like the radiant love of the cosmic singularity.
When something significant happens, our response does not start and end all at once. We start with one emotional reaction (or nonreaction if we repress it) and pass through its transformations over time.
This is because when something complex and meaningful happens, we can't account for all our thoughts and feelings toward it instantaneously. It takes time to process. There are many angles to consider and different parts of ourselves that each need a turn in touching and reacting to the stimulus. This process can't be rushed, but it can be stalled or corrupted if we refuse to engage with our inner world.
It's very likely that the initial reaction is one of simply feeling overwhelmed--there are many implications and no clear indication of where to begin. Mixed feelings compete for attention and hormones rush around. I have learned that when I'm in this stage, unless it is important to take immediate action, my best option is to just create time and space for thoughts and feelings to unfold. I don't commit to solving anything or drawing any conclusions. I have to let my reactions run their course.
For example, one time when I lost my job, I professionally ended my Skype call and then burst into tears. Questions swarmed me. "How will I pay rent?" "What if I have to move?" "How long will it take to find a new job?" "What if I have to get a job I hate?" "How will it feel not to work with my dear colleagues anymore?" "How do I say goodbye?" "What will feel good to leave behind?" Pressure mounts with each question but this is not a time to really do anything. The most productive thing at this point is to let the natural emotion (sadness, anger, confusion) express healthily. Anxiety comes from a feeling of needing to analyze and resolve everything at once. Commit to just feeling what you feel and agree to address the details at a later time.
Once that initial emotion stabilizes, honestly, just sleep. It may not be worth visiting this problem for a couple days, especially if you have a lot going on. Even when you are not thinking about a problem, your mind is working on it. Focus on caring for yourself. Eventually, revisit the topic and see what comes up emotionally. You may have transitioned from shock to anger or anger to sadness. Whatever your next phase is will also require expression. That might mean venting, or writing a letter you never send, or journaling about how you feel.
Depending on the event and how much you work with it, the process can last months or years, certainly decades before stabilizing, at least for the most profound events of our lives. A couple years after my childhood cat died, I finally mourned her one night while in meditation. I didn't let myself before then, because it was too painful to think about what she meant to me. It's interesting to think that I was carrying that seed of emotion for so long. I have a sense that too many of those (or holding for too long) turns us into agitated people.
When we provide space for our emotions to express and change, we are essentially getting ourselves "on course." We are allowing things to take their natural places and permitting change. The truth is that we HAVE to move through each phase. There is no skipping to the end.
Each time we follow and document the phases of a significant emotional event, we become more emotionally intelligent. Watch for patterns long enough and you will learn to predict them, just as you can learn to predict the weather or what chord will likely come next in a song. Also, significant emotional experiences are the soil of creative work. Becoming artistically engaged with your inner world is a powerful way to guide yourself through your emotional content.
Given all this, consider the implications of "giving" someone an emotion. If you do or say something to someone that causes a significant emotional response, you may actually be giving them months, years, or decades of emotional transitions. We can't just NOT react to the world. If you give someone an emotional experience, they either have to repress it or work with it. This means we have a responsibility to others to be careful in how we choose to engage. It's not that life shouldn't be emotional, but rather that if a person is on one emotional journey, there is not much room for another. So if someone needs to grieve the death of a family member, and then they are robbed, they are going to become less able to focus on and live out the life cycle of the grief of their loss. Or, they may be so traumatized that they don't allow any emotions through, and then suffer depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and/or the many other coping mechanisms out there.
We really do affect others. There are many complex emotional journeys taking place inside every person at any given moment. Each one informs our everyday actions. We can acknowledge this and strive to help guide ourselves and others to be on course and seek out pathways through each necessary phase.
I discovered Nadia on instagram and immediately started following her based on her impressive contortion skills, authenticity, and intriguing reflections. To my delight, Nadia agreed to answer some questions for this blog. Please enjoy reading her perspectives on contortion and martial arts!
Sara: How did you get into martial arts and contortion? Which came first? Did one lead to the other?
Nadia: When I was a child I was always doing contortion without even knowing what it was. Contortion was definitely first since I was doing splits in diapers. But my mom started teaching me various martial arts techniques at the age of two. I took my first official taekwondo class at age 7, but I made it to yellow belt and had to stop. I didn’t start training contortion seriously until I was twelve. But I wouldn’t recommend self-training. Many things can go wrong.
Sara: Do you find that martial arts supports you in your contortion practice or vice versa?
Nadia: Yes, they do complement each other very well. Martial arts has provided me with great balance and core strength. Which are very essential to contortionists for different skills like the needle. And the core has to be engaged in every pose. Contortion has provided me the flexibility needed to throw a high kick and kick my opponent in the head.
Sara: What do you love about martial arts? Contortion?
Nadia: The thing that I love about contortion is the hard work that goes into it. I have done a lot
of things and contortion is the only one that has kept me engaged. No matter how good you get there is always that next level. Martial arts gives you discipline and it’s also good to take classes because you never know when you might need to defend yourself.
Sara: What is the number one challenge for you in martial arts/contortion?
Nadia: My number one challenge for martial arts is not holding back. I hate hurting people so I always hold my kicks and punches. Even though you are supposed hit hard. For contortion conditioning for handstands is the hardest part. Also breathing and holding the pose.
Sara: What are your goals/dreams/visions?
Nadia: My dream is to be happy, but I also want to become a professional contortionist. And maybe a stunt double too. I really want to be able to do one arm handstands one day and own a contortion school.
Sara: What have you observed about the culture of/modern stereotypes and interpretations of martial arts and/or contortion?
Nadia: For contortion, once you get to that next level of flexibility everyone thinks you aren’t human. And of course there is also this idiotic idea that you have to be born flexible to be able to do contortion. That is not the case at all. I’m not sure if there are any for martial arts.
Sara: What did it feel emotionally like when you started to achieve really deep poses in contortion?
Nadia: For me contortion always feels normal, no matter how deep I get. But I’m always elated when I nail a new move.
Sara: What is it like to be a woman participating in the discipline of martial arts?
Nadia: To be a woman in martial arts is just like living life as a woman in general. Male peers will think that you are weak and underestimate you. If you show exceptional talent as a martial artist with a male instructor your talents will be wasted due to your gender. Male students will always be upheld and applauded more than female students, even if you have superior ability. Also, in the martial arts community they fetishize female martial artists. I don’t see the allure, but they are obsessed with feet and being kicked. Just like any other sport or activity the female practitioner will be fetishized.
Sara: Anything else you'd like to add?
Nadia: Thank you very much, Sara for letting me share my experiences on your platform. Happy stretching!
Follow Nadia on Instagram: contortedmartialartist
General Silks Skills & Capacities, why they are important, and how you can cultivate them (crash-course turbo-speed ultra-condensed version!).
Visit this page for aerial instructional videos.
Visit this page for meditation that supports body awareness.
Why: Supports intuitive, efficient movement, safe practice, innovation.
How: Yoga, meditation, visualization of skills, repetition of skills.
Why: Prerequisite for climbs and any intermediate/advanced silks skills.
How: Coffin hang sit-ups, hammock knot crunches, pull-ups, inversions, climbs, shoulder shrugs, anything core-related, hip flexors.
Why: Allows for a more diverse portfolio of tricks, increases comfort in poses, aesthetics.
How: Splits training, backbends, shoulders/hips/hamstrings/spine.
Why: Supports execution of drops and complex wraps. Reduces chance of slipping/mistakes that lead to injury.
How: Slowing down movements when training, being conscious of what exactly you are doing. Think about getting your muscle groups to work together to create an action—notice when you might be literally working against yourself.
Why: Saves energy, aesthetics.
How: Find out how to allow the fabric to support you (where can you lean into it?) Learn to work with gravity. Become aware of what doesn’t look smooth (video yourself) watch lots of videos of professional, skilled aerialists. Find out where you are wasting energy and revise. Identify your weaknesses. Embrace them. Forgive them. Let them deepen your understanding of your body. Then see what you can do about them!
Why: Saves energy, creates better-looking poses, prevents you from losing height.
How: Focus on keeping all wraps close to your body. Avoid creating slack unless the trick specifically calls for it. Minimize hand placements/grip switches. Remember Occam’s Razor—the simplest way is the correct way.
Aesthetics (pointed toes, hands, lines)
Why: Demonstrates professionalism, connects you with your music and your audience in its deliberateness and visual intrigue.
How: Stretch ankles when standing around day-to-day. Practice hand and leg shapes in front of the mirror at home. Watch professional aerialists, dancers, and yogis. Dance intuitively at home to different types of music. Practice flowing to a song on your apparatus when training at the gym/studio. Video yourself training and critique it later.
Why: Prevent mistakes/injuries.
How: Be deliberate in your actions when training. Notice if you become more sloppy as your energy declines. Be careful not to overtrain.
Theoretical/visual understanding of wraps
Why: Contributes to a holistic appreciation of aerial silks and dramatically reduces chance of injury.
How: Look at what your wrap looks like while you are in it as well as from an outsider’s perspective. Take pictures of peers’ wraps if you are a visual learner. Retrace your steps mentally, figure out how exactly you got from point A to point B.
Connection/relationship with the fabric
Why: Supports happiness, enthusiasm, and peace in the silks journey.
How: Intentional hand placement/touch/presence before and after training. Breathe when moving in the fabric. Acknowledge achievements and growth. Be aware of perfectionism and intervene if it is interfering with your enjoyment of aerial arts. Periodically reflect on your aerial journey and what it means to you. Set tangible, specific goals nested into larger principles. E.g. my goal is to perform for an audience by April 2020 – while having fun and not losing sight of how much I love training just for what it is.
Click play to listen to this blog post. Apologies for sound quality, had a technical difficulty.
The bird calls of this desert evening are delicate and the air has a hint of a nip to it--fall is coming. We are shifting from heat and dessication to visible breaths and the smell of soil lifted into the air by rainfall.
As we complete another seasonal cycle, earth continues her pattern of healthy change, liberating us from summer into autumn. As nature continues to weave beautiful ecologies, humanity finds itself suddenly a little bit more aware of an ugly, frenetic, desperate pattern that has been repeating for a long long time.
The Kavanaugh hearing signals nothing new, nothing novel, and nothing unfamiliar. This event simply hyperfocuses our attention on the inequality that has been disrupting our collective growth. I would like to take rape culture and patriarchy into the contexts of body awareness, emotional intelligence, and creative action. Warning: I'm going to do this in a rather analytical and heady way. There are many other ways to explore this, and I intend to. This is only a starting point. And before I proceed, I want to acknowledge everybody who does not identify as a woman or a man, or who identifies as both and apologize for being limited in my ability to say what I would like to say while being inclusive of all. I am very open to alternate perspectives, phrasing, and foci; please reach out to bring your voice to this platform and fill in what I am missing.
One of humankind's exciting but unfulfilled journeys is that of embodiment--of familiarizing with and being present in the body; of learning how to move well and become attuned to the spectra of emotions and sensations that unfold within this body. Body awareness is both awareness of one's own and other's bodies. In the context of rape culture and patriarchy, our body awareness deficiency is many-faceted. The following list of considerations is not exhaustive.
1. A failure to critically read the signs of one's own body and an inability to recognize and transform potentially abusive physical inclinations. Of course, assault and rape are also mental and emotional, but body awareness is an important foundation for choosing how to act. Being deeply attuned to one's body helps one distinguish between surface urge and deeper need. Morality, of course, plays a role too.
2. A failure of empathy; a failure to draw from one's own physical experience in life to imagine what one's actions will do to another person's body and mind. There is not a pervasive awareness that the actions we engage affect other people's nervous systems. Anxiety, panic, insomnia, depression, substance abuse, and PTSD can be and are outcomes of the so-dismissed "10 minutes of action." The duration of abuse is not the point. The fact of abuse is the point. Attentiveness to the body makes clear to us when things are out of order and why they have come to be that way. Attentiveness to the body motivates us to support healthy functioning in ourselves and others.
3. A failure to understand or arrive in physical power. Power has nothing to do with overwhelming anybody or anything. Power in the body means awareness that supports intelligent, creative, connective action, just like power in nature comes from many features of the environment working together to give rise to a diversity of thriving creatures. Power can be enhanced when two bodies mutually integrate. Whatever high or ego-gratification comes from physically overpowering another is profoundly dwarfed by the body's real capacity for power. But we do not talk about this healthy power that both men and women have equal access to. What if we lived in a world where we prided ourselves on high standards for body awareness and sought after that greater, peaceful power? If we did, rape would theoretically be less interesting to those seeking power.
Another of humankind's exciting and promising journeys is that of emotional intelligence; familiarizing and skillfully engaging with the vast and nuanced spectrum of what we feel. This journey is relevant whether one is highly sensitive or not. Emotional intelligence applies both to oneself and to others. In the context of rape culture and patriarchy, the failures of emotional intelligence are many. The following list is not exhaustive.
1. Self-knowledge. Emotions run deep within us, but if we remain on the surface of our consciousness, we are not able to see their complexity, their layers, and the ways they infiltrate our thoughts, beliefs, and actions. Anyone who looks closely at their own feelings and rests with them long enough to see how they unfold will have certain characteristics, including humility, confidence, empathy, and patience. They know that if they follow the initial feeling through they will find its roots. This awareness and insight can also arise spontaneously/involuntarily through trauma. Once you've dived deep, it is extremely easy to tell whether somebody has also taken this exploration. I suggest Kavanaugh has not. If he had, we would be witnessing a very different scene. People who have taken the journey are generally safer to trust.
2. Empathy. Many people will repress and pivot away from emotional experience--because it's hard stuff and also because there is little guidance available in our culture to work with our inner content. When we confront the profound depth of what we feel, from love to grief, the ways we engage with others change in accordance with this awareness. Knowing that another's experience is profound, rich, deep, nuanced, and personal is then more than enough to take a decidedly mindful approach to our interactions. In an effort not to cause further suffering (there is plenty already), and in an effort not to disrupt joyfulness, especially knowing it is rather rare these days, there is a clear path not to engage violence. There is no need to "take power" because no power worth having can be wrested from another. The problem is, instead of meaningfully acknowledging our own inner experience, we reside at the surface of the pain and search for who we might be able to blame for our suffering, or who we can direct that anguish through violence to get a sense of control back.
For an actual meaningful change and not just a repetition of the same pattern in a different color or octave, we need to be creative. That is, we need to do something we haven't done before. Yes, we need to keep working on the projects that have raised awareness and triggered real progress but clearly the work is not done. There are always so many approaches, and they are all important. Right now I urge creative action for three reasons:
1. It helps us process the highly emotional content we are all encountering these days.
2. It changes the way we perceive.
3. It changes the way others perceive.
And we need to be perceiving things differently, clearly, to be able to move into a new, more beautiful, more intelligent paradigm.
Girls and women: If you don't have a creative outlet, choose any, today. If you have grown distant from your creative outlet, reconnect with it, today. If you are actively creative, tell us what you are working on. Tell boys and men what you are working on. See how they respond.
Boys and men: Start/keep asking questions. Start/keep listening. Many of you have supported us without undermining our identity or power. Thank you. We notice you.
Now night has fallen, and I've retreated from my porch to my bed. I hear the wind in the leaves and a trickle in the pipes. A storm is coming soon, and the desert basin will receive the welcome reprieve of rainfall. My mind is cluttered by the frantic news and my body wound with tension and anticipation. Soon I will go out there, and listen to the mountains, to clear the contents of my interior and to find out what to do next.
Additional resources and ideas:
Body Connect Meditation Program
Journey of the Self Meditation Program
Body Narratives Project
Ever wonder why you're not becoming more flexible even though you stretch? Did you know there is mechanism in your body that detects stretching and tells the muscles to resist the stretch?
The muscle spindle stretch receptor is a cell in the heart of every skeletal muscle (i.e., NOT smooth muscle such as in your stomach). Its job is to detect stretching in the muscle. When it does, it sends a message through the spinal cord--it doesn't even reach the brain. The message reads "Hey, we're stretching now!" Upon receiving the message the spine sends instructions back to the muscle to contract.
Wait, I thought we were stretching. Why on EARTH would the muscle contract?
The purpose of this automated feedback loop, called the spinal reflex arc, is to protect you. It's a default setting to prevent injuries if something were to happen unexpectedly. If you were to fall and you braced yourself with your left hand, your shoulder may be pushed back really far really fast. The muscle of concern, which would likely be the anterior deltoid in this case, immediately receives a message of stretching and before you even know it, that muscle is resisting the stretch and pulling the shoulder forward again. Injury is mitigated, but of course not necessarily avoided. The body does its best to keep us safe.
This is really important for us when we're stretching. If your stress levels are very high or you are being too aggressive, this feedback loop is going to be harder to disarm. The muscle spindle stretch receptor can also become oversensitive and overreact, but as far as it is concerned it's responding appropriately (YES that is a life metaphor!). This can cause increased stiffness in the body and makes stretching less effective and more likely to cause injury.
The autonomic nervous system needs to believe that you are in a safe setting or it's going to be reluctant to let you stretch. But it's the autonomic nervous system--it's unconscious. We have to work through the somatic nervous system (voluntary action) to communicate with the autonomic nervous system. Buckle up buttercup!
So how do you get the nervous system to cooperate?
1. Proper warmup. A systematic warmup tells the body that we are doing intentional training. The more times you do this, the more quickly the body sets itself for the activity.
2. Massage tools. Tools like the peanut communicate with your nervous system (more on that another time). They can be used to prepare muscles for stretching.
3. Stress reduction. Whether through breathing, meditation, massage, spending time with animals, or being outside, frequently, intentionally reducing stress is going to be helpful for disarming this feedback loop when you want to stretch. This is part of what makes flexibility a holistic practice. It feeds into and draws from many different areas of your life.
4. PNF. Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation is the practice of gently contracting and then relaxing the muscle you want to stretch. This helps dissolve the block created by the muscle spindle stretch receptor.
5. Breathing while stretching. Lengthening and deepening the breath triggers a cascade of messages through the body and also increases blood flow and oxygen levels. It helps muscles reduce their contractile states.
6. Be intentional. Flinging your foot into your hand for 5 seconds after you run is not enough to give your quads and psoas the care they need.
I am able to do a no-handed splits on aerial silks because I have developed this pose in a healthy, holistic way. I have developed strength in the position at the same rate as flexibility, so that I can be stable here. Balance is important too! Brad captured this moment of intense focus this summer in Santa Cruz CA.
Splits is a fundamental and signature skill in so many athletic disciplines and movement arts. This pose is also a popular flexibility goal for those who don't specifically need it in their movement practices. But splits is more than a visual delight and expression of physical prowess; training splits can help us to attune to the body, correct imbalances, and support nervous system regulation.
Note: you do not have to achieve splits to receive the following benefits. You just have to train them. If your hips are very tight, you will benefit primarily from the intention you bring to your practice and your preparatory poses.
It is totally okay not to be able to do the splits.
Splits as a personal-cultural counterbalance
Therapeutic benefit: training splits corrects strength/weakness imbalances in the hips and legs and addresses muscular tension.
Tight and weak hip flexors, glutes, and hamstrings are hallmarks of a sitting society. Our legs begin to freeze up into our sitting positions, resulting in weakness and tightness, and therefore injuries and chronic pain. Splits can be a great practice for addressing some of these imbalances and health risk factors in our world today.
How we practice matters so much. Only practicing forward/back hip opening postures will result in further imbalances in the body. Only stretching passively (relaxing in the pose) will result in instability, increasing risk of injury. Addressing the hips holistically in flexibility training, meaning involving their full range of motion and incorporating strength, supports steady and healthy progress in the splits. It allows you to have a highly functional splits, as in the no-handed splits in aerial silks.
Splits for nervous system training
Therapeutic benefit: training splits while observing the nervous system helps us to learn whether our nervous systems are accurate, underreporting, or overreacting. This allows us to enhance body awareness through careful study, and begin to notice when this is happening in other situations. This is huge for anxiety management!
In splits we approach muscle groups that are typically out of balance, and the process of developing strength and flexibility can feel very intense. The nervous system will detect this intensity and is liable to flag an injury threat. When this happens, pay careful attention to every sensation to make sure there is no risk of injury. At the same time, critically examine the nervous system's signals. Is the nervous system sending an important message, or overreacting to strong sensation? The opposite can happen too, when the nervous system signals are dull or unclear, and you end up pushing too far as a result. Watch, listen, feel. What's taking place?
The beauty of flexibility training is that nobody outside of you can tell you if what you feel is safe or not. You have to learn to understand the body's signals, distinguishing valid warnings from any anxiety that comes from the intensity. Always err on the side of caution, but take care to examine whether that line of caution has been drawn in the right place. If the nervous system is overreacting, slow down the breath and soften the face. If it has a valid point, ease out of the stretch a bit. Learning the difference is incredibly rewarding and accelerates the process of developing body awareness. Developing body awareness is a beautiful way to build confidence, but that's a whole nother blog post!
What's happening in splits?
Balancing poses: pigeon, butterfly (baddha konasana), twists
Here is a guide for leading up to, into, and out of splits. It must be preceded by a warmup to be practiced safely!
For additional guidance in holistic, healthy flexibility, have a look at the personalized flexibility program I offer. Send an inquiry through the contact form for a discount code.
What pose do you want to see broken down? Let me know!
Sara Kaiser is a certified, experienced yoga teacher. She brings a holistic approach to teaching yoga, aerial silks, meditation, and flexibility.
Photo by BVD Photography
Limited Body Perceptions
Perceptions of the body differ across cultures and change over time. Today, in many societies, we've drifted away from sacred relationship with the body. We don't integrate deep listening and compassionate body awareness into the structures and systems of our everyday lives.
Instead of nurturing a beautiful and happy relationship with ourselves, much of today's messaging about the body plays off of the human craving for validation, making judgments about appearance, putting pressure on individuals to look good in the eyes of others, and focusing on external means of change (beauty products, for example) that can be purchased to achieve beauty.
Being surrounded by narrow, judgmental messages about the body tilts us into unhealthy fixations and mind-body dissonance. This condition distracts us from the journey of cultivating and practicing connective, compassionate body presence (although this dissonance can be a powerful starting point for that journey).
We're not doing everything we can to restore heart-body-mind-world connection and body love--we do not have sufficiently accessible and effective educational frameworks, practices, and role models for lovingly exploring and cultivating a healthy relationship with the body, and seeing this body as continuous with the ever-unfolding processes of nature. It's not obvious to most of us that the ocean and the forests are in fact our own organs--lungs that, though they may be outside the distinctive human body, we need to be healthy to be able to breathe.
The combination of negative messaging and an absence of adequate alternative perspective and guidance culminates in an ethical problem: the common sense ways we talk about and engage with our own and others' bodies holds us back from an important source of happiness, and has a role in alienation, suffering, environmental degradation, and violence.
The key to moving through this challenge is recognizing that it is not our bodies that are the problem--it's the messages about our bodies that require reconsideration.
It is important to note at this point that, contrary to some common discussions, this situation does not exclusively or even predominantly affect women and girls. The problems of repressed body and ecological awareness, inhibited body-world intuition, and narrow self-perception constitute a shared human and non-human problem.
Discussion about the connection between emotional and physical experience is limited. Focus on how inner inquiry can facilitate inner awareness and well-being is missing. Even basic physiology education is inadequate. At the same time we have the vast majority of people turning to destructive activities and substances to get away from painful and uncomfortable sensations, emotions, memories, and anticipations. Practices for mind-heart-body-nature inquiry and resolution are not considered "basic education," yet if we knew how to confront and engage with the contents of our bodies, hearts, and minds, a variety of wonderful pathways would unfold before us.
Controlling, repressing, and running away from the expressions of the body are strategies supported by our institutions, sometimes purposefully and systematically, and often out of pure and simple ignorance. Students are told not to fidget in class and might even be considered in need of medication if they do. But wait a second; is it comfortable and healthy for children or adults to sit in one position for 7 hours a day? Who is in their right mind--the slumped over, sedentary white collar who sits at a desk 40+ hours a week, or the child who can't sit still at school who becomes disruptive?
Students in college pull all-nighters to study for finals (and maybe that doesn't even strike many people as problematic), and some universities open their libraries 24/7 to support this prioritization of grades over rest (mental achievement over health). Is studying between 2am and 6am going to make us more intelligent? More compassionate? More healthy? More effective members of society? Or is it going to aggravate stress and burnout? We value the conventional knowledge systems of math, science, English, and so on, but we don't consider body awareness to be on par with these disciplines--so body intuition and intelligence is not included in core curricula, and we don't even think a thing of its absence. If we prioritized body awareness along with emotional, physical, and spiritual intelligence in schools, we would see change in mental health across the board.
In P.E. classes I observed teachers pressuring students to keep up and try harder without asking how they are feeling in their bodies first. Nobody ever offered me the option to inquire into what my body was telling me, they just told me how many jumping jacks to do. I had lots of enjoyable experiences in P.E. and I liked my teachers, but if I hadn't taken up meditation, yoga, and acrobatics, I would not have the beautiful, happy, healthy relationship with my body I have today, and I wouldn't know what to do with feelings of pain, anxiety, and so on. P.E., at least in the United States, is a missed opportunity. Think of the hours upon hours that could be spent cultivating deep awareness, encouraging compassion, and actually learning about critically important features of inner experience, such as the connections between respiration and the nervous system.
When I listen carefully to the conversations around me, I notice that people almost only talk about the body in the context of pain or discomfort. I rarely hear anybody talk about how they experience pleasure in their body beyond food or drink tasting good. Abuse of pain relief medications is rampant. Healthcare facilities are overburdened, with far too little time spent on cultivating the doctor-patient relationship, an important feature for the mental aspects of healing, due to such a high demand for care. Discussion about the body's intrinsic resources for healing is emerging, but integration into our institutions and culture is yet to come.
If I expressed that forests and oceans are part of our bodies, requiring our awareness and care just like our muscles, organs, bones, and joints, I'd be saying something strange according to most people and get quickly categorized and dismissed as a tree-loving hippie. Yet, in my three years of supporting a science-based conservation organization, over and over and over again, the data said: living beings are connected with one another and their abiotic environment. To skeptics of a unified body-earth metaphysics, go ahead: imagine trying to maintain physical health without biodiversity, oceans, and clean air.
There are exceptions to these trends. There are people all around the world teaching and modeling body awareness and love in powerful, responsible, and creative ways. Growing popularity of yoga and meditation are hints of this that I am familiar with, though these are frequently compromised by capitalistic agendas and have severe socio-economic oversights.
We can't confidently say that in general, throughout our collective societal dialogues and institutions, the body is viewed and treated with respect and love, or regarded as continuous with the soil, birds, and rivers. When you recognize that the forests and oceans are essentially lungs that are outside the body you normally identify with, it ceases to be controversial that we need to care for the natural world.
The Reason for Hope
We need to learn how to listen to, nurture peace within, and explore the body in compassionate ways. Once we begin to do this, we can immediately take the next steps to break free from the limiting and defective narratives we've been drawn into. Then, ignorance can swiftly give way to insight and understanding, and we will see a revolution in the ways we live in, talk about, and relate to our bodies.
As I encounter so many people who have never been told they can regulate their nervous system through breathing, or quell anxiety with mindful awareness, or don't realize that depression can arise merely from being sedentary, or have come to believe that their body's worth comes from other people's judgments, I feel a responsibility to speak up--to point to something far better than what we've become accustomed to. It's time to inquire deeper into this pattern of heart-body-mind-world disconnect and anxiety that is repressing our greatest human qualities. It's time to create a shift. We have the choice to liberate ourselves from the rigid narratives that silence the body's subtle language and loving presence. We have the opportunity to reject the status quo and restore our relationship with this sacred ground--and recognize this body is sacred ground without distinction from the sacred ground that is nature.
We start by looking within without attachment. We begin to believe in the possibility of understanding our bodies well, and we support ourselves and others in that journey. We discover dismantle the destructive body narratives that distract us from the wonder and joy of physicality and our inner resources for pleasure and pain-relief. We create opportunities and platforms for individuals and groups to create and share a diversity of body narratives that acknowledge the diversity of bodies, and nurture connection, exploration, and peace. Schools, media, and everyday conversation support healthy body connection. Body love becomes a familiar and celebrated feature of life--not a radical thing that the rare individual here and there enjoys. People know how to engage in ethical, compassionate, curious exploration of what it is to be human, free of judgment. We choose to see, feel, and express the beauty of being alive in our own ways. We surprise one another with our creative, compassionate ideas and actions. We recognize that our body extends beyond the skin.
When we come into true peaceful connection with and acceptance of the body, healing takes place. There is so much potential for change, because we are not already doing everything we can to get in touch with ourselves, and ultimately, nothing stands in the way of that journey. There are many resources and opportunities that society's self-serving power structures will ensure you never have in life. But nothing and nobody can stop you from listening in and connecting with yourself. Distract you? Yes. Discourage you? Yes. But ultimately get in your way? No. Absolutely not. You have the option to inquire within right here and right now.
The Call to Action
One by one, we can reject the narratives we know well and redefine our relationships with our bodies. Collectively, we can shift the predominant body narratives toward connection, dignity, love, and delight.
Below you will find my first creative project to encourage us toward a loving, resonant union of body, heart, and mind. I hope my work (and play!) inspires you to construct your own project. Together we can learn more about ourselves and one another than we ever thought possible, and we can create an interwoven narrative unimaginably better than what we have now.
What you can do:
The body speaks a wordless language. As the writers of this narrative, it is time for all of us to get quiet and listen.
Read and view my take on the Body Narrative project, begins September 2nd.
Lewis Carroll's caterpillar famously asked Alice, "Who are you?" This question turned out to be not very simple, but incredibly meaningful.
What is the Self?
Human identity is often based in a very limited concept of the “self,” and as a result, our efforts to change are often like a grinding away at something—a “rearranging” or “assembling” which is not quite the same as transformation. Change is the natural course of all materials and living things, but by attaching the narrow self's agendas to our actions, we get in our own way and come out of accord with the patterns that support connection and life. Thus it is important to ask, what is the self?
Photo: Mike Monaghan
Flexibility involves more than stretching muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Hydration, stress, and inflammation are some of many factors that play into your limits and potential for developing flexibility--on the scale of a day as well as a decade. This blog post focuses on stress.
Check in with intentions
Before we dive in, I want to reinforce an important point in my philosophy of flexibility: the point is not to achieve a particular depth in a particular pose. Training flexibility is a way to deepen body awareness and stimulate healing processes within the body. Training flexibility is a universally available course of action for correcting imbalances in the body, clearing the mind, and grounding. I say this because popular attitudes toward flexibility over-emphasize physical achievement, glossing over the deeper, subtler values and benefits of this intimate practice.
Okay, now that we've oriented ourselves in a healthy and open way toward flexibility, what does stress have to do with how much we can bend?
Long story short and stripped of the anatomical details, when we perceive a threat, the body engages our muscles in preparation for self-defense. When we strengthen our muscles, we protect our vulnerable organs and tissues--this is not a time to be bendy! For the nervous system to allow muscle length, we need to believe that we are safe. Your outer environment (social, weather, airflow, temperature, sensory input, etc.) and inner environment (emotional, mental, physical, spiritual, etc.) are both contributors to your nervous system state and therefore muscle state.
If you are under constant stress, whether inner, outer, or both, the nervous system instructs your musculature to remain permanently contracted just a bit. Then as you become more stiff from that perma-contraction, that stiffness makes you uncomfortable and leads to more stress. Thus is born a perpetual cycle of increasingly tight muscles. Sounds exhausting doesn't it? And I'm not even touching the adrenals in this article!
In this self-protective state, you are likely to find limited results from attempts to stretch. When dealing with chronically tight muscles, it is helpful to approach flexibility through the nervous system before approaching the muscles.
Nervous system intervention
To interrupt the cycle of muscle tightness, we need to regularly calm the nervous system. This is simply re-training your body. The more frequently you practice calming the nervous system, the more accessible relaxation will become. Intentional relaxation exercises are more effective when practiced consistently over time.
Do not make peace conditional
Why are you stressed in the first place? This could be a question that has a practical solution or launches you on a spiritual quest. But important to note is that you do not have to resolve all of your stressors to abide in a relaxed state. If you tell yourself you can never be at peace unless x, y, z, you will never be at peace. It can seem absurd to abide in perfect calm when we know all the things wrong with ourselves and the world, but it's essential to reach beyond this mentally constructed limitation. Being at peace is not a logical matter--it arises as a result of a transformation of consciousness. We can embody peace without resolving or denying our problems, confusions, and fears.
Meditation teaches us that we do not need to muscularly react to our inner stressors, or to most of our outer stressors. Meditation helps us to be present with everything that would normally make us tense up. Remaining at ease in the midst of stressors is a skill. Anyone can train this skill.
Slow, deep breathing is one of the clearest signs the nervous system recognizes to mean: safe. Initiating intentional breathing patterns can redirect a fight-or-flight response, bringing greater clarity and calm in just minutes.
Yoga systematically challenges the stress response and then returns the nervous system to calm. Moving through a variety of postures, some challenging and some relaxing, is helpful for familiarizing with the nervous system response and becoming more skillful in directing inner energy.
Practice relaxing when already relaxed
As you become more familiar with nervous system regulation, you will start to recognize when you are being triggered into tension. You will remember techniques to calm the nervous system. This is great, but will be more effective if you also practice calming the nervous system when you are already at ease. Not only does consistency in this practice help you shift states more easily, but it also makes it more difficult for you to be triggered in the future. Many people will not feel motivated to practice calm when already calm, missing the point that it is a powerful form of prevention. Prevention may not feel as explicitly rewarding as resolving an anxiety spike, but it is exactly what will empower you to be able to do just that.
Work with Sara on a personalized integrative flexibility program.