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Why You Shouldn't Compare Yourself to Yogi Superstars

Zander_prayer
Zander's amazing Pashchima Namaskarasana

Whoa?! My stepson, Zander, must have been practicing yoga since birth to have such an advanced Reverse Prayer Pose, right? He should totally be an Instagram yogi star. #yogapose #yogafit #yogabody #yogafitness #yogaaddict #yogagram #yogaholic

Aaaaactually, no. The only yoga Zander's done in his 19 years were a handful of acroyoga classes his dad and I dragged him to years ago. (His favorite pose was one where his father carried him around like a backpack.)

Zander is what you call "double-jointed." That's honestly a bit of a misnomer, though, as there's no 'second' joint. A better way to describe his structure is to say he is hypermobile, which simply means the range of motion in his elbows and shoulders extends far past the average person's. About 10 to 25 percent of the population exhibits such hypermobility.

Hypermobility is a huge advantage in advanced yoga poses, as it can enable a beginner like Zander to pop right into a visually stunning pose like Reverse Prayer, without years of practice and the stretching and strength-building that come with it. If you're hypermobile, think of it as a gift. 

But if you aren't, and most of us simply are not, don't compare yourself to those who are. Try to do Reverse Prayer yourself, and maybe your hands don't touch together, or it's best for you to grab your elbows behind your back instead, as trying to force your arms and shoulders into what Zander's got going on leads to pain.

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Here's my take on the same pose. I've been practicing for 25 years and have done Reverse Prayer probably thousands of times. At first, I could only reach behind my back far enough to grab my elbows. Eventually, I was able to touch the fingers together, and then finally, more of the hand. But this is about as good as it will ever get for me. Because of limited range of motion in my shoulders and relatively short humerus (upper arm) bones, there's simply no way I will ever get my hands up between my shoulder blades as Zander was able to perfect on day one.

And that's OK. The important takeaway here is that Zander didn't do anything to earn his stunning Pashchima Namaskarasana. He was born with hypermobile joints. So why would I hold him up as an example by which to judge my own pose? Ditto a lot of the yogis in photos you see that show some impossible pretzel-twisting feat. Their poses may take your breath away, but they might be impossible for your body's structure, no matter how dedicated a yogi you are. 

Here's another way to look at this whole thing.

Lisa chin to chest
Jalandhara Bandha, or as I like to call it, Double-Chin Pose.

Compression of my cervical vertebrae prohibits me from closing the throat bandha any more than this. I simply can't touch my chin all the way to my chest. No amount of yoga will ever change this. It's how I was born.

Compression is pretty much bone hitting bone, and it can't be altered through yoga or any other exercise. In the photo above, it's the compression of my vertebrae that won't permit flexion any further for me to get my chin to my chest. 

In the other direction, however, I have much more range of motion, slightly more than my husband, Anthony.

Lisa and Anthony
If I were warmed up, I could probably go a bit further, but here you can see I have a wide range backward in my cervical spine without even bending the rest of my spine.

So just because you have a limitation in one area doesn't mean you have it in all areas. Quite the contrary! I have a really wide range of motion in my femur (upper leg)/hip socket joint, allowing me to get my femur parallel to the floor in Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I), now that I've also built up the strength to support it. I can also touch my chest to the floor in Seated Angle Pose, at least most days, when I'm fully warmed up. Some of my fellow yoga teacher training classmates will never be able to do this, and that has nothing to do with their effort, dedication, or desire.

This whole bone structure difference thing isn't limited to yoga, either. It has bearing on other exercises as well. My friend Allyson Miller, who loves herself a gym workout, says:

Recently I came to understand that my long thighs/femurs are the reason I struggle to do squats in a narrow stance. I found a video where a professional trainer explained it, and I felt a lot better. For years I thought I was just clumsy, but certain exercises are borderline impossible for me. I have to have a wider stance to maintain good form.

She shared with me this article from the Glute Guy on how femur length and other structural factors affect squat mechanics and this one from the Barbell Physio on how to adapt the squat technique to better fit different body types.

I hope these examples will help you understand your own body and its built-in advantages and limitations. If you're interested in learning more, I highly recommend the Anatomy for Yoga DVD by Paul Grilley. We're studying it in my yoga teacher training, and I'm not exaggerating when I say it's blowing my mind. If you teach yoga, YOU NEED TO WATCH THIS VIDEO. 

Before I sign off here, let me remind you not to compare yourself unfavorably (or even favorably, for that matter) to anyone else, whether Insta yogi star or the person on the mat next to you in class. Chances are they've got some bone-length or other I-was-born-this-way advantage you don't have, and vice-versa. I leave you with these side-by-side images; remember, Zander on the left has less than a year of yoga experience, and I've been practicing regularly for 25.

ZanderLisa2
Zander's natural-born gift vs. my quarter-century of practice.    

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After 25 Years of Practice, I Sign Up for My First Yoga Teacher Training

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Here I am in Crescent Moon pose, one year into my practice. All photos taken in 1995.

My yoga practice began 25 years ago - with a yoga video tape I played on a VCR at home.

Imagine what St. Louis, Missouri, was like in 1994. There were no yoga studios to speak of back then. The only yoga I had ever encountered was on PBS, in the form of a super-slender woman in leotard, with a long braid running down her back, who led you through a series of bendy, twisting poses. She was like the Bob Ross of the yoga world. Yoga was something that people who followed gurus did. 

But then I read a glowing review - printed in the back of a women's magazine - of a yoga video. I'm not sure what it was that convinced me, maybe the white sand dune setting in the marketing image, or the fact that the yoga guide in the video was actor Ali MacGraw. But I went right out and bought it, back when you could go to an actual store, look for a video on a shelf, buy it, take it home, and pop it into the black box under your TV.

I'm convinced that purchase changed my life.

It's a beautifully done video, now a classic in the yoga world. The setting is gorgeous, and the soundtrack - by the band Dead Can Dance - became the rhythm of my breath and movement, weaving itself into my muscle fiber and psyche. While Ali MacGraw acts as your guide, Master Yogi Erich Schiffmann is the teacher here, and his calm, meditative voice is still with me at times when I practice:

Ujjayi breathing is the most important single element of our practice.

If you start to sway, don't give up. Trees sway, get more grounded.

As first yoga teachers go, you can't get much better than Erich Schiffmann, and although I've never met him in person, he narrates so well in Yoga Mind and Body that I feel like I've taken his class, in real life.

The video holds up really well after all this time, with its cast of yogis - diverse both in terms of age and ethnicity - and the distilled elements of what is yoga at its heart. MacGraw's opening profession of wanting something more than a workout, something to "still the chatter" in her mind, captures what makes yoga so transformative. It was for me then and continues to be.

My yoga practice has changed and evolved as I have over the years since that initial connection. By 2002, I had migrated out to the West Coast, where you can't throw a rock down the street without hitting a yogi. (Not that you should throw rocks at yogis!) My first in-studio yoga experience was Bikram's now-infamous hot yoga - the same 26 poses done each time in a room heated to 104 degrees. Bikram is a powerful, disciplined practice, and I recommend every yogi try it at least once in their lives. My teacher was a gentleman I knew only as Scott, who taught nearly every class I took, sometimes seven days a week, at Bikram Yoga Tacoma. The studio closed a while back, but the lessons Scott imparted are still with me. He taught me to focus on my own mat and ignore what's happening on my neighbor's, and he taught me to take Child's Pose when needed, but not for too long.

When I moved to Seattle proper, I continued to practice that style at Bikram Yoga Seattle (which has now morphed into Sealevel Hot Yoga). I'll never forget yoga teacher and owner Kevin Cooke calling out in his characteristic accent, "Ahms back, ahms back," to cue a standing backward bend. A line in a poem in my book Broom of Anger is inspired by moments in class when another teacher there told students to "look back with your eyes." 

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My beginner's Locust pose.

In 2005, I discovered Baptiste-style vinyasa flow, and that was it for me for the next decade.

Vinyasa style is free-flowing, like dancing on your mat, and the funky, cool studio where I practiced in Seattle often had music. Sometimes live music - more than once, we practiced with Steve Gold performing in the same room. Shakti was a lively, energetic, fun place to practice, and it was there that my practice reached its peak, at least in terms of the range of more difficult, challenging poses I could do. I was very lucky to get to practice with teachers Lisa Black (the studio's owner), Scott Simon, Eric Elven, and Jodi Boone - all very good guides. 

From there, I tried acrobatic yoga, Pilates, a dance style called Nia, and even trapeze.

My husband was a brave partner for acroyoga, with my stepson joining us occasionally as well. We took classes taught by two fabulous sisters, Angela DiMario and Jill Baumgardner, both owners, for a couple of years at Kula Movement. Through acroyoga, I learned to fly, and finally I could practice inversions confidently. Kula is right in the heart of Ballard, and we would practice on market days in front of a big window of onlookers. For the first time, I didn't mind.

Trapeze is another story: It put me in touch with my intense fear of heights, and I came to quickly accept the limitation. I have a newfound respect for trapeze artists, who make something look so easy that is actually quite demanding on the body.

Pilates is great for your body, but it's very expensive and rare to find the one-on-one Reformer classes that have the biggest impact. Mat Pilates didn't quite do it, not when I can do yoga instead.

I practiced a somatic dance style called Nia for two solid years at Embody, a studio that became a sort of second home to me. Owner Christina Wolf is a fantastic teacher with true-blue leadership skills, and it was an honor to learn from her and her crew of fellow teachers, especially Rachael Prince (Nia, barre) and Greg Bowles (yoga). There I earned a white belt and a Moving to Heal certificate, which meant I could teach the dance style in both its more energetic form or its slower, more healing-focused pace. But life had other plans...

Now I find myself back in a transformed St. Louis, where there are three yoga studios within walking distance of my house, let alone in the city as a whole. And at the closest one, I've found the perfect place to take my first teacher training. 

I feel really self-conscious telling people I've been practicing yoga for 25 years. Inevitably, it raises the expectation that after all these years of practice, I should be able to flip around in handstands with ease, twist my body into a pretzel shape, or even levitate.

Lisa_Crescent2
It's funny to see these pictures, taken on a pre-digital camera at a time when the Internet and email were both brand new. Loooong before Insta yoga photos.

But I can't do any of those things. I realize we're conditioned - especially by inexperienced yoga teachers - to believe that over time, any depth or achievement in a pose is possible, as if yoga can be represented as a line graph, the arrow soaring upward and to the right over time. Truth be told, my yoga trajectory looks more like a bell curve.

And that's OK. Because of a lifetime of car accidents and a 22-degree scoliosis S-curve, I have pain in my left shoulder and right hip that has signaled to me it's time to recalibrate. Here in my late 40s, my body craves a slower, more contemplate practice. Fortunately, the teacher training I've enrolled in fits with that recognition exceptionally well. You can tell by the fact that my fellow students range in age from their 20s to age 70, encompassing a wide variety of yoga expressions. Our teacher espouses the snowflake principle - no two yoga poses are ever alike. 

The teacher training also includes private lessons. During my first one, the instructor expressed delight with what she could see in my practice as evidence of a long history of good training. That's part of why I decided to honor my past teachers in this post. I thank them deeply for sharing their lessons, helping to calm and center my mind and make my body stronger and healthier. They have been amazing guides, and I will endeavor to continue their examples.

Wish me luck as I begin my yoga journey anew, and tell me about your experiences in the comments below. How long have you practiced? How has your yoga changed with you?

 


Hello!

Lisa_Blue

Lisa Brunette is an award-winning novelist, journalist, game designer, and longtime blogger. Originally from the Midwest, she spent 20 years in "outer space," otherwise known as Miami and the Pacific Northwest, but now she's returned to her roots... to dig in the soil and define good living for herself. 


Cool Announcement Coming Soon... For Now, Lessons from the Garden

Table w coreopsis

 It's hot today, with the thermometer already at 94 degrees and steadily climbing. So I'm inside, working on a cool announcement I'll be making this week, hopefully. In the meantime, here are some pics of my garden. 

I keep moving my household to different homes, so I haven't been able to get to the point of a well-established garden yet, but the upside is that I've experimented a lot. It's fun and creative in a different way than writing. I love playing with the color and texture of leaves and flowers, growing my own food, and the challenges and victories of a totally organic garden. I've rescued many a rose and turned lackluster yards into whimsical retreats. I always leave a place better than it was when I found it.

Rose swirl

Like many of you, I'm sure, I often feel emotionally shredded by dismal environmental news, like bee colony collapse. I'm very sad to have witnessed the reduction in the numbers of butterflies in my lifetime. So much of that feels outside my control, but the garden is all mine. I plant the flowers the bees and butterflies like, and my own hands are the only weedkillers. 

Chive flowers w bee

The garden is great therapy, too. I know I feel restored when I can putter around out there planting, relocating, deadheading, trimming, and the like. But did you know there's scientific evidence that gardens really do reduce depression? There's a microbe in the soil that could actually improve your coping ability, according to this study. Mice exposed to the microbe were much less likely to give up trying to find an exit route when submerged in water (sucky thing to do to mice, though). So working in a garden might actually make you better able to escape the next time you feel in danger or trapped, or at least find a solution to your next big problem!

Other studies show that the microbiome of your garden can be good for your gut. And since we seem to be finding out more and more how important gut health is for general wellbeing, it's safe to say a little dirt can do you good.

As soon as it cools off, I'm going to pick some arugula for dinner. (I love that pungent green, which works well in both stir-fries and salads.) Happy Sunday!

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That Reaction We Have to Our Bodies in Photos

LIsa-Email-Banner

So here I am, for the first time my body used in an ad.

The dance studio I belong to draws on its members for depictions to help celebrate—and yes, advertise—its offerings. The owner only uses images of members who have given permission to do so. 

Over the past six months, I have given and then rescinded and then given my permission again, struggling with the power of seeing photos of myself in motion. Not controlled. Not posed. Not sucking my belly in but breathing fully.

I’ve seen many images like this in my Facebook feed--showing other women. I even have a calendar on my kitchen wall, each month a photo not of Photoshopped models but of the women I see every week on the dance floor, in all their sweaty, smiling glory.

Without exception, I’ve viewed these photos as beautiful and inspiring. But when my own image, the one above, graced the top of an email banner one day, and a slew of other photos followed close behind on Facebook, I felt mortified with embarrassment.

And this surprised me.

It still does.

You see, I’m someone who’s done all the work. I long ago tossed aside Hollywood beauty standards, have never wanted to be New York thin, and have always praised myself on my body-positive attitude. More than a decade ago, I brought the multimedia production bodyBODY to the college where I taught so that students could participate in a show that celebrated the diversity and health of real women’s bodies.

Apparently seeing what women really look like is great as long as I’m not one of the women in the photos.

I can keep doing the work. That’s why I’m sharing this post.

But you have to do it, too. 

When I lose weight, even if it’s from illness, I am praised, mostly by other women. But if I gain even within a healthy range, no matter what amazing feat I’m achieving on my yoga mat, there’s no praise.

I’ve been asked if I’m pregnant when I was merely bloated. By the way, “Are you pregnant?” is a question that should never be asked.

When dating in my late thirties, one man told me flat-out that he preferred “skinny Asians.” Another said a weight-loss and exercise plan would be “such a great trend” for me.

The very photographer who took the picture above told me the only way to photograph “curvy” women like me in a flattering way is from above. I was criticizing her, and she was being defensive, but this still came out. 

Once, my own mother went through every one of our family photo albums, cutting herself out of all of the pictures.

Why wouldn’t I react to seeing myself in photos?

How did you react?

Did you think I was being brave?

Consider that for a moment.

To paraphrase comedian Amy Schumer, no woman wants to be told “you’re brave” in response to sharing a picture of herself.

Because here I am, dancing my dance, working every breath on loving myself. And I could use a little help.