August 30, 2014
I think that most people live in the past, the future or in fantasy. In all of those cases, we are creating some memory of greatness that we either were or will be despite evidence that may indicate otherwise.
When we live in the past, we often believe that somehow life was perfect then. We knew everything, had everything. But somehow, in the present, all of that has been taken away. Usually some greater power (usually God) is blamed for taking it all away.
When we live in the future, we believe that our wanting it badly enough and putting it on a list will make it so. We imagine that, one day, we will reach perfection and everything will make sense in our lives. We will make the right choices, live the right way and be happy. (It is interesting to me that we are not ready to make the right choices now but we truly believe that something in the future will change all of that).
When we live in fantasy, we tend to cook up an image for ourselves that is not aligned with our truth, but rather with the truth of others – whether it is what the media or our peers tell us is the truth.
The trouble is that none of these options work out well for our lives. Living in the past suggests that you are not good enough now; the future depends on a list of “to-dos” and not the now; and fantasy is well, just a fantasy. It is unachievable if it is not aligned with your true self.
The woman of sixty-three who dresses in leggings and midriffs and starves herself because she wants to weigh the same as when she was eighteen and the most popular girl in school; the overweight person who chronically stuffs himself with junk food after a stressful workweek promises himself on Friday that he will start a stringent diet – on the following Monday; the person who acts hard and tough in her career (because that’s what strong women do according to Cosmo) but who really would like to be a housewife and take care of kids – all of these people are doomed to frozen lives, unless something happens to bring them to present-moment living.
Very few of us embrace the present moment although all the yogic texts, Buddhism and great spiritual teachers tell us that this is where happiness and peace are to be found.
However, what they did not know was how different our world is than when they wrote their guidelines. In our adrenaline-jacked, 100 mph, multi-tasking world, being in the present moment is well, boring and often frustrating. Our world is a “just add water and stir” kind of world where everything is to be had right now whether it is the purchase of a cup of coffee or a fitness certification. Beating ourselves up with work, or exercise, or multi-tasking is often admired in our culture. What is not addressed is that, in time, that “beating up” mentality leads to outcomes we don’t address: addictions, depression, fatigue, breaking down.
There is a delusion about “striving.” Striving is working toward a goal, not straining or forcing toward a goal. It requires focus, persistence and consistency – all to be found in the present moment. A successful diet program requires small steps done consistently and takes time. A crash or fad diet can result in weight loss – if you’re able to stick with it – but the results are usually not long lasting in which case I would suggest that that diet is not successful at all. In addition, there is no way of knowing what the deeper physiological costs of such a diet is until later on. In much the same way, it is impossible to work out for three hours straight one day to make up for the last five days without working out and expect the same results. Doing fifty leg lifts instead of ten focused ones is not better and the only result is that you get really good at doing leg lifts.
So, if we are not used to present-moment living, how do we acquire the skill to not only live in those moments but to be comfortable with them?
Classical yoga gives us the opportunity to be healthy in our minds and spirits by addressing these very issues. Since classical yoga does not follow a rote set of asanas, the student is somewhat compelled to be in the moment physically since they do not know what’s coming next. A good teacher – one with proper education as well as the wisdom that comes from experience – guides the student from one asana to the next based on what that student needs now (which may be different tomorrow).
In a classical yoga session, the student will come into moments where they are uncomfortable. They may be asked to be still for a longer time than they are used to; they may be asked to do an asana that they don’t like because it doesn’t come easily. In these moments, a teacher can be there to encourage you but it is you who must become your own voice of strength.
What goes through your mind in these very moments? If it is anything other than being at peace and steadiness then there is your work. This is where you work on being steady in those uncomfortable places. This is where you work on present-moment being.
Notice the messages that flood your mind. Most of the time they are there to distract you; the mind can be stimulated by external or internal factors but it really prefers the external so that’s where it will try to take you. If all you’ve ever done is react every time an external stimulant flags your attention then why would you expect something different? You will have to train yourself to not react.
So, why is this important? Well, better decisions are made from a place of centeredness and calmness. Those qualities can only be found in the present moment. I don’t know one person who wouldn’t like to make better decisions whether they involve personal, business or social choices.
Focus becomes laser-like in the present moment. Think of the last health crisis that you or a loved one faced. I’ll bet there was no monkey mind to distract you then but where was it? Did you make a conscious effort to get rid of the monkey mind? No. You just didn’t give it the attention that it wanted. Sure, maybe it was by default but now you have proof that you can do it – whether you are in crisis or not.
Present-moment living deepens relationships and experiences. Imagine meeting a friend for lunch and she spends the whole time checking her smartphone, greeting other people or interrupting your chatter to tell you all about her exciting experiences? These are the people who, in later years, will regret not being in the present moment. I often hear from older people that they wished they had been more aware of others and appreciative of their lives in their younger days. This type of regret may be something that you yourself have experienced. Recognize that it is only by living in the present moment can we experience the full joy of being with those that we love or truly absorb what it is we have to learn.
August 23, 2014
True story #1: I was teaching a yoga vinyasa when a small voice in the back asked: “Can I do this other pose instead of the one you’re asking for? I do this other one much better.”
True story #2: In another class, I had a student who made a habit of asking others in the class what they were feeling. This student was particularly limber and she asked a rather stiff girl this question while they were in a straddle pose. It was clear that this limber student had a need for attention.
Both stories are examples of what Classical Yoga identifies as the poisonous Ego identity. The Ego is false and needy. It does not act in your best interest; it acts in its own best interest.
When a student indicates that they are at an Advanced level, it is understood that one is advanced at a mental, spiritual and physical level and of those, the physical is the least important. While it is common for a beginner yogi to ask others “what they are feeling, anyone with a year or more of practice would – and should – know better.
Likewise, substitution of one pose for another that you “do better” suggests that this student lacks the fortitude to tackle what is hard for her – or to even try. She would rather do something that is easy for her. (Interestingly enough, this student often complained that her own practice had become boring. Hmm, wonder why?)
In both cases, we can see that Ego played a big role. The term “ego” carries a lot of baggage in our culture and when you say someone has a big ego, you’d better be prepared for a fight. So, let me see if I can clarify ego from the perspective of Classical Yoga.
Certainly, there is your identity. You may be a mother, a father, a stay-at-home caretaker or an entrepreneur. It is who you are in your daily life.
And then there is this cloak of persona that most of us tend to wear. I suspect we develop these cloaks because we don’t feel that we are enough as we are. Our cloaks make us feel bigger, better and more important than other people. This cloak is the Ego that Yoga warns us about.
We know that the cloak is a phony. What we don’t realize is that the cloak is also a prison. When we are wearing our cloaks, we can’t make a mistake or do something silly or – God forbid – fall out of our Crow Pose. What would people think? So we choose what we are good at. Every. Time.
And yet, every successful person – yoga practitioners included – will tell you that they learned more from their failures than their successes. A “safe” life, inside your cloak, is barely any life at all. There is no growth, no maturity, and certainly no liberation.
It is said that how you do your yoga reflects how you approach your life. Imagine if you chose to live your life as if you’d stayed in First Grade in elementary school. Certainly, you’d have fun; after all, it’s First Grade! You’d know everything because it was the same stuff you’ve been doing for the last thirty years. Think of how impressed all the new kids would be to see you master First Grade poses!
Maybe that’s enough for you. And that’s okay. Those yoga Stretch and Tone classes are just fine.
But isn’t there a small part of you that looks at those people who are beyond First Grade, struggling in their practices with new ideas and concepts and says, “I want to be there!” It probably won’t be fun at first but something inside you recognizes it as a chance for growth.
Classical Yoga asks us to face these growth challenges not just as learning new gymnastics or a great stretch for the body but also stretches for the mind and the soul. It asks you to face fears, feel small sometimes, and fail other times. But you will grow into a more realized person and free human being.
And you can’t truly do that without throwing off the cloak.
False Prophets and Blind Faith
July 20, 2014
I was raised Catholic but, like many Catholics, distanced myself from my religion as I became more aware of the “we know best” attitude of the Church. I was taught to obey without question, to accept without question and to repress any feelings that ran incongruous to the Catholic teachings.
This attitude of complete obeisance also pervaded my home environment, even when it conflicted with my gut instincts. So I grew up feeling one way on the inside (which I was told was not right) and acting differently on the outside (which I was told was the right way). The conflict between these two choices caused me years of mental anguish and emotional pain.
So, after much work, I freed myself from any restrictions placed on me by someone who suggests that they “know” and I do not. They may indeed “know” but I am entitled to question to see if it is authentic in my own life-or determine if they are just to sell me some b—s—.
Yoga philosophy is all about this level of freedom. I believe that level of freedom is what all of us want. What we are seemingly unwilling to accept, however, is that that level of freedom requires a great deal self-responsibility.
I suggest that even though yoga is more popular now than it has ever been at any other time in this country (although Amrit Desai would say that what is popular is not yoga), too many American-style yoga participants (I hesitate to use the term “student” as students study on their own as well as participate in the classroom) gladly turn over their mental and emotional care to those who profess to “know.”
There is no need for Yoga “life coaches,” for example. The study of Classical yoga is in itself a life coaching. My favorite ad of the week came in an email offering a yoga “get-away” to a Caribbean resort where you can sail the sea with a certified “Dolphin Energy Healer.” Not a regular dolphin energy healer, mind you, but a certified one.
That term implies that they “know” and you do not. As if you were to take a boat out into the sea, came across some dolphins swimming alongside you and felt something deeply connected to Nature, it would not mean as much as if you’d taken a certified dolphin energy healer along.
How about the wealthier yoga teachers among us who, while excoriating Monsanto and other corporations for environmental destruction, will turn around and offer us yoga “enlightenment” trips to the Swiss Alps? How do you suppose one gets from the USA to the Europe? Hmmm?
Can you say “carbon footprint”?
And yet, these trips and get-aways will be well-attended because we want what these people say they can give us: peace, contentment, and connection and we will pay whatever we can for as long as we can to try to get that.
All of our lives we are told what to wear, what to say, how to act. Our socio-economic class and mindsets determine whether we vacation in Panama City or St. Thomas, whether we drink beer or wine, whether we shop at Kohl’s or Niemann-Marcus. We turn over our self-esteem to anyone who looks like they are in the class we aspire to be in. We turn to celebrities we’d like to be friends with for anything from their political views to their favorite iPod tunes.
And now we’re doing the same thing in yoga and other types of mind-body modes- at least in this country. We’re turning to celebrity yogis or “certified” healers to show us the way to happiness and freedom, instead of spending time with ourselves. Yet the yogic texts are very clear on this – they tell us that no one can show you your way to happiness; only you can show you.
It is amusing, in a sad sort of way, that so many people who will scoff at religion and the church – any church – because of a perceived repression of their rights will blindly follow some skinny tattooed guy in tights because he just looks the right part.
July 17, 2014
What is your knowledge of yoga? Is it stretching for stretchy people? Is it for young, fit – and preferably blonde – types? Do you have to give up your religious beliefs and become pagan? Buy overpriced outfits? Become a vegan?
In other words, when you think of yoga, does an image come into your mind that maybe doesn’t look like you?
Well, we can thank the marriage of the fitness industry and marketing together with the selling out of the yoga industry for those images because the truth is that yoga is for all of us. Especially interesting in yoga is the fact that as one gets older, one gets better with yoga provided he or she has a consistent practice, of course.
I have taught yoga for over thirty years but have made a decision in the last few years to distance myself from what I term American yoga. I do not teach this American-style yoga which has seemingly applied a fast-food mentality to a beautiful system of health in order to make a buck off everything from videos to music to yoga shoes. American yoga teachers are often aerobics- cum- yoga teachers after some weekends of training. Teacher training has become big business and often just includes field trips to other yoga studios, sing-alongs and learning new tricks. Certification is no assurance that your “teacher” will know what the hell they are doing – or why.
And by the way, Yoga Alliance does not certify teachers just in case it comes up in the future. If someone tells you that they were certified by Yoga Alliance, they are intentionally misleading you or just careless. Either way, those qualities are not what you want in a yoga teacher, either.
No, I teach what I call Classical Yoga. Classical Yoga is designed individually and for individual needs. Why is that important? Because Classical Yoga (CY) for thousands of years has been a system of health for so many people and, much like going to the doctor, no one prescription is applicable to everyone.
Alignment in the asanas is important but there is no one “perfect” pose that one should aspire to. The perfect pose is the one that is perfect for you. How do you find the perfect one for you in a class of thirty people?
Even something deceptively simple as breathing exercises must be tailored to individual needs which may change daily – because we as humans are different every day. The wrong breathing practice at the wrong time can agitate the mind and/or certain physical conditions.
Modern medicine is beginning to appreciate how significant individual differences are in treating patients. There is a growing number of doctors who practice what they term “functional medicine” which is looking at a person’s lifestyle behaviors in addition to their blood work and general observations to arrive at a proper treatment protocol. For example, depression is a common complaint and the response used to be to prescribe a pill and send the patient on his way. However, doctors who practice functional medicine understand that depression can be related to many factors: low thyroid function, folate deficiency, prediabetes to name a few. Inflammation may be related to mental as well as physical stress that will not ease by just taking a pill.
Individual prescriptions for individuals in the pursuit of optimum health.
Classical Yoga works the same way. Best of all, CY helps you age in ways that allow you to move the process as effortlessly as possible; it allows you to maintain strength without encouraging degeneration; to keep flexibility of not just the body but the mind and spirit as well which often become stiff and angry in their own ways.
Aging brings its own set of unique challenges for the teacher as well as the student. Unfortunately, too many of these “teachers” have boiled down the “Over Fifty” classes to just lying around over bolsters. While that is certainly nice it ignores a large group of people who were active all their lives and continue to be so in their fifties and sixties but also recognize that they don’t want to beat themselves up in the competitive atmosphere of an American yoga class.
Middle-aged people and seniors should not have to choose either/or when it comes to yoga classes. It is unfortunate that this group is not often catered to but it is easier (as well as much more lucrative) to sell images to younger, impressionable people than older, wiser people who understand when they’re being played to.
Just remember that yoga is not the sexed-up, name-brand wearing, tramp-stamped product that you see advertised in magazines nor is it just for yuppie-cum-hippie types that you see coming out of the local Bambi-yoga studio down the street.
Classical Yoga is smarter, wiser and bigger than all of this and it will survive intact when the Twitter crowd moves onto the next thing that takes its short-lived attention.
July 6, 2014
When I was little – about 6 years of age or so – my grandparents lived in a house in a coal patch town in Pennsylvania. I don’t remember much about the house itself but one thing I do remember is the rather strange green paint that seemed to be on every bit of kitchen cupboards, closet doors, chests and tables. When my grandparents died, some of the pieces that were deemed heirlooms were stripped of this ugly green color and what was found underneath was beautiful deep-colored wood. My uncle and my parents took great care to refurbish these pieces and, as an adult, I couldn’t understand why anyone in their right mind would take these beautiful pieces and paint them!
What I learned was that when my grandparents were young newlyweds hardwood floors, wood furniture and wood closet doors were considered “old-fashioned.” The “new” thing was to paint these things green (or a Pepto-Bismol pink), as that would make them more “modern.” Only much later did anyone realize that that belief was only a momentary trend and a delusion; it did not result in improving the furniture at all. The true beauty was to be found in the natural deep wood and craftsmanship of the piece. In other words, the “traditional.”
Such is the way of American cultural trends. In the haste to “innovate,” “improve” or “modernize” we often ignore the fact that some things don’t need to be innovated or improved upon. They are perfect just the way they are.
Sometimes, changes take beautiful things and turn them into junk. It can happen to furniture, Coca-Cola and even…yoga.
For example, I have an acquaintance who has signed up for a teacher training program at one of our local yoga studios. She recently made a comment that got my attention because I have noticed something like it in articles I have read on yoga sites. The underlying theme seems to be that traditions are “old-fashioned” and “out-of-date.” These comments are often followed by a “new, improved and up-to-date” approach that is “more suited to these modern times.” The result is classes without substance or depth but with plenty of sparkled-up surface.
For example, there is one yogi who advertises herself as the “Punk Yogi” and she’s got the full schtick going: hair in a punk style, clothes are punk style. The wording in her recent book is street and she tries really hard to sound rebellious but to me she comes off like Cher in Clueless – in yoga clothes of course.
Another friend in another one of these training programs, took a field trip to a studio where they had ropes and various props on the wall. She was all excited, as if she’d never seen such a thing. I said that Iyengar has long used wall ropes and my studio has wall props as well.
She stopped mid-sentence and responded that yes, she already knew these things but that I was more “traditional” whereas this other place was offering a new kind of yoga wall ropes work. She went further by stating how great such a thing would be for old people who couldn’t hold poses – hey, they could do it at the wall with support!
I didn’t have the heart to tell her that yes, and that is why Iyengar yoga has long used a variety of props. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that Iyengar already figured that out a long time ago.
I also didn’t have the heart to tell her that there is so much information about yoga that should be communicated in a teacher training course that there shouldn’t be any time for field trips.
It is truly sad that just anyone can call themselves a teacher – and I am not referring to any of my friends here but rather the people who call themselves their teacher trainers. It is sad that yoga has been turned into a sexed-up, name branded fitness- without-brains activity; it is sad that more time is invested in the yoga “look” than the yoga practice. Ugly green paint has been dumped over the traditional and yet those who are dumping the paint are telling us they are making it more modern.
It doesn’t need to be made more modern. Traditional yoga is always on the mark because it is concerned with people and people haven’t really changed. We still suffer from anger, frustration, job loss, divorce, grief over the death of a loved one, a health crisis. We still struggle with life’s changes. We need tools to make our way through that fog and those tools do not include a new pair of yoga pants or a new trick.
I have been part of the fitness industry for over thirty-four years. I have seen many trends come and go and they pass not because they are not valid but because most people get bored. They do not have the capacity to go deeper than the superficial – the look, the stretches or the physical tricks. Such is the mentality of the masses.
My hope is that a few of these people can see beyond the ugly green paint to connect with the beauty of the tradition that is Classical Yoga.
Sunday, June 15, 2014
For those of us whose fathers have passed, Father’s Day is filled with memories rather than present moment experiences. Depending on your relationship with your dad, those memories can be bittersweet or better forgotten.
In my case, it is a bit of both. My father died almost three years ago from Korsakoff’s syndrome brought on by years of alcoholism and malnutrition.
“Toxic and metabolic encephalopathy” and “history of recurrent alcoholism” are on his death certificate as the causes of his death. These are not emergency room diagnoses – these diagnoses were years in the making and most likely known by the physician he’d gone to for a long time. Yet I don’t blame the doctor for anything; what he knew was privileged information.
I do, however, have a problem with those around my father who knew of his alcohol problem and chose to stand by and do nothing other than to shame and guilt him for being a failure for it. It is a big issue for me because I’d spoken out about what I suspected was a problem almost thirty years ago; it drove me to ACOA, Al-Anon and therapy. I begged for my family to rally around my dad, to get an intervention together and to understand alcoholism but I was told I was imagining things, that I was a drama queen and that I thought too much.
I’d eventually had enough and moved away from my hometown. A year later, my dad had a seizure, got scared and finally went to AA. He sobered up. I was ecstatic at this return to health. I sent him cards on his sober anniversary date and told him how proud I was of him.
What I didn’t know is that he fell back into drinking within two years of that seizure. I wasn’t aware of it because I’d only seen my dad once a year or so. Apparently, what I thought was fatigue was a hangover; what I thought was crankiness was withdrawal from alcohol. It turns out that a few days before I’d visit, he’d try to dry out. I didn’t smell the alcohol and didn’t see the stumbling so I believed my family when they told me he was just tired.
The last year of his life was the worst. My husband and I had gone home and Dad was angry, irritated and foul-mouthed. It was a horrible weekend. As we drove back to Illinois, I turned to my husband and said, “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say my dad is back to drinking.” My husband asked, “How do you know he isn’t?” and I just scoffed at that idea, “Are you kidding? My mother almost lost her house years ago. She’d never put up with him drinking again!” Surprise……….
Seven months later my dad was dead. He’d had another seizure, was rushed to the emergency room and never came out of the coma. The doctors just kept pumping alcohol out of his system but his brain was totally gone – literally and figuratively.
I think it has been one of the most devastating events of my life and not just because my dad died but also because of the events and fallout surrounding his death. There were those around him who could have helped him but instead either ignored or enabled him; there were others who used him and took from him but never gave back. Many of these people would profess that they “loved” my dad but what was their definition of “love”?
Certainly not my definition.
Another devastating thing was that I knew him when he was young, fresh, ambitious, healthy, gregarious. I worked for my dad a year out of high school before I went to college. He was just starting his own business then. He worked very hard but he loved it; he was very passionate about his work. He had a unique ability to connect with everyone regardless of the business they were in and especially enjoyed young business start-ups.
My dad’s fiery passion inspired me and those days are my favorite memories of our time together. When I leave my studio at night, I believe I can feel his presence around me just like in the old days when we’d wrap up at the office and head home for supper.
My dad was funny, charming and curious about things. People loved being around him.
He was great at his work and became very well-known and sought-after as a management consultant and tax advisor. He’ d achieved everything he wanted.
But as life does for us all, it threw him some serious curves: he lost his best friend and mentor, my mother went through some health crises and the business climate changed.
I think that life does these things to challenge us to see what we are made of and while my father could handle any tax problem put before him, a culmination of catastrophic emotional events threw him into a tailspin.
For all of his strengths, emotional fortitude was not one of them. He felt emotions deeply but was ashamed to show them. Drinking made it easier to numb them and since he came from an alcoholic family, I think the genetic component just added fuel to the fire.
By the time the late eighties came, the problem was chronic and the personality changes were there. I had come back to Pittsburgh after spending five years in Tampa and noticed them immediately but wasn’t sure exactly what was happening. When I finally figured it out, I got myself to ACOA.
There is no doubt that my dad’s alcoholism hurt a lot of people. My dad had lost himself and chose a way of coping that resulted in devastation.
Yes, my dad was brilliant, funny, passionate and a joy to be around. We loved to debate each other and I really miss that because I have no one to do that with anymore. He loved all of his kids a lot and in his healthier days, we enjoyed some really great times.
He hurt me when he drank. He hurt me when he died. It hurts me still that he died the way he did.
But I loved him very much.
June 1, 2014
Today I found an old clasp-style envelope simply labeled “Pilates” on the outside. Inside were my application to the Pilates certification program offered by the Pilates Studio® of New York, a list of my fellow classmates and pictures. It is hard to believe that as of July, 2014, I will have been a Pilates teacher for 21 years.
I have seen a lot happen to Pilates in those years, too. When I first became certified, there were less than 500 of us nationally. In my hometown of Pittsburgh most people who were not dancers pronounced it PIE-lates – a two-syllable word.
The program I studied under was trademarked which I thought was a good thing. It keeps the riff-raff out.
Unfortunately, the trademark was a weak one and the riff-raff outnumbered us. Combine the riff-raff with class-action lawyers and you get exactly what we have today: a confusion as to what Pilates is and is not plus at least a dozen hybrids combining Pilates with Yoga, Ballet Barre and God knows what else. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone has created “hot” Pilates!
I also have an envelope full of correspondence dated at the time of the trademark lawsuit. It is full of such meanness that it is hard to believe it came from groups of people who’d otherwise describe themselves as empathetic artist types. The term “greedy” is used a lot as is “ownership of the method.” This is what the people who ganged up on the Pilates Studio® of New York (PSNY) would have you believe: that they were against ownership of the method since they felt everyone should be able to teach it.
I don’t think Sean Gallagher was completely blameless; I think the idea of a trademark is a good thing but I would have liked to have seen more effort made in forming a community rather than making enemies if someone didn’t agree 100% with him.
Anyway, after the trademark was busted, the especially tacky riff-raff held “victory” parties. Classy.
In 2001, the Pilates Method Alliance was formed. Why, I have no idea. What I was told was that an organization was formed to “bring everyone together.” In 2004, I attended a PMA Conference and I did not observe an organization seeking to bring anyone together. I observed old teachers who were not associated with PSNY – but who had studied with Joe and Clara – basking in the glow of the sudden attention of it all. Basking in the glow of victory as it were. I learned nothing from these people. One woman just seemed to enjoy being the center of attention while she told funny stories. Totally worth my time – not. Others told tales of being certified by Joe (not true – Joe did no such thing), or by SUNY Purchase (Sorry, nope. SUNY Purchase never has certified Pilates teachers). And others I felt just saw potential riches in getting on board with PMA.
I observed big Pilates equipment manufacturers selling their wares. Not a good sign of things to come.
While there was discussion on whether there should be a certification test or not, at that time no one could come to an agreement on just how that could be achieved. The biggest problem I saw was the conundrum of the “navel to spine” or “neutral spine” argument. The idea was sloughed off by saying that all schools were valid and the PMA was merely a way for all the schools to get together once a year to share ideas. Certification would be left up to each individual school.
But now, PMA has a certification test. Or is it Balanced Body? Or is it Stott? Or some other equipment maker? Because it is not the individual instructors who run the PMA or control Pilates – it is the big equipment manufacturers. It doesn’t really matter because, as I see it, the PMA was just the vehicle to hand over all those instructors – past, present and future – to the makers of Pilates equipment and it sure ain’t the method the manufacturers are vested in!
And for all of the hot air about PSNY’s control of Pilates, the PMA is no slacker when it comes to digging its own dirty little claws into the thing, either. They have conducted their own PR onslaught of the fitness industry to boast that they are the “premier” Pilates program - of the world! (insert Dr. Evil laugh here).
The PMA has turned into the very thing it initally fought against. So I gotta wonder – what was the real fight about? The Pilates method itself or the money-making potential?
Aaah…to reminisce of the days where you were taught by teachers and not by the machine.
A few months ago, I was consumed with resuming tap dancing. I’d done it a lot as a kid but hadn’t put tap shoes on in over six years. I’d begun noticing stiffness in my lower legs and ankles. At night, my feet felt tingly even though I massaged them prior to going to bed. I remembered the flexibility I had in those joints and thought that perhaps tap dancing would bring some of that back.
But it brought more than I bargained for. For the first few months, my knees began to ache and stiffen. I’d never had problems with my knees before and was perplexed. Since both knees were affected in the same places at the same time I knew it was movement-related and so I wasn’t too concerned. Dancers are used to pain and sore muscles.
The knees are fine now but the whole process of tap dancing brought soreness in the shins and calves, too. My ankles were not sore but they seemed, well, confused.
My feet are back to full flexion movements without cramping. And my wing steps are just fine, thank you.
As is often the case when I am my own guinea pig, I begin to pay more attention to the same musculature and usage in my clients. And I don’t think most people realize how important feet are and how powerful well-performing feet facilitate movement. From pain in the low back, hips and knees to plantar fasciitis and bone spurs, feet have a lot to say as to whether you will heal or continue down the pain path.
Too often when our feet hurt, the doctor tells us to stretch the calves. From what I have seen, most people do not know how to do this effectively or, once the pain goes away, they stop stretching. I prefer to look at pain as a yellow flashing light heralding danger ahead; the yellow tells you that you still have a chance to stop it.
Most people don’t see it that way. They seem to think that it once the pain has stopped, all the dynamics that brought the pain into existence are gone, too.
Unfortunately, this type of thinking takes people into the red light zone.
At this point, the pain will not go away by just repeating stretches; now they are on painkillers, getting orthotics and maybe even surgery or injections.
What is not seen can be even more insidious – the small adjustments the body does to avoid pain. Your body seeks balance (even if your mind doesn’t!) and will compensate for obstacles. This is when we may begin to get signals from the back, knees, and hips and may confuse where the pain is originating.
Where does this come from? Certainly aging and obesity are strongly contributing factors but in my practice, my clients do not tend toward overweight or obesity. Aging, leisure activities such as “serious” walking, running or other impact activities and/or poorly fitted shoes are factors I consider for a client’s program. Other factors I include in my observations are:
1. Do they often wear clogs or flip-flops? Yes, they are comfortable but the musculature of the foot tends to “grip” or “claw” to hold the darn things on. If the muscles are gripping, then the plantar fascia is, too, and we know where that leads.
This gripping tendency does not stop at the feet, either. The change in the foot dynamic causes subtle changes in the ability to fire the calf muscles effectively and/or the knees to tighten. For runners, this is especially a detriment as they are most likely firing muscles at less than their optimum ability. This could also lead to degradation of the joints such as the knees, which are meant to be hinges and not weight-bearing. What this means is that, essentially, they would be pushing off of their knees and missing optimum use of the gluteus muscles.
2. Do they go barefoot a lot while at home? Most people wear technically complicated sports shoes to correct everything from inversion and eversion to supination and pronation; from bunions to corns to neuromas. Their work shoes have arch supports and perhaps gel inserts and/or lifts.
But when they get home, they kick off the shoes and proceed to roll, lean, curve and pound into those very feet. My guess is that there is not much thought as to how the feet are hitting the floor at this point.
I never did understand why people don’t get that the orthotics are a helpful solution to the immediate predicament of problematic feet but are not a cure-all for the problem. When the shoes are off, the problem is still there!
You are left with two choices, my friend. Either you wear your supportive shoes ALL the time or work your foot muscles. Unless you like that pain and achiness.
3. Are they a “heel-walker,” a “toe walker, or” a “slammer”?
Here are some suggestions for you to try in case you’d like to learn if you’re getting the most out of your feet and ankles:
1. Observe whether you might be a heel-walker, toe-walker or a slammer. When you are doing your daily walk (whether out in nature or on the treadmill), observe how you land your on feet. You don’t need to do anything but observe yourself but you will need to put away the smartphone, the iPad or other distractions.
2. Practice heel raises or, as we say in ballet, releves. Stand facing a wall, placing both hands on the wall (this keeps the body square to the front). Rise onto the toes and then come back down – about 10x. Then try the exercise with one foot. Notice if your body tends to twist and torque (this is usually occurring at the knee – not good). If so, try to correct the torque by engaging your core and using the hands on the wall to help you. Do not “push through” the torque.
Note: do not do this exercise on the edge of a step so that your heels drop below the level of your toes. That is a different exercise for a different purpose.
3. How nimble are your foot muscles? Sit on the floor and bend one knee. Place your hand on the toes (of the bent leg’s foot). Now, allow one toe to be free. Can you lift and lower that toe? Now try lifting and lowering each toe independently 5-10x (this is why you use the hand to help you hold the other ones down).
Each toe should be able to move up and down somewhat – certainly some toes have more range of motion than others.
April 20, 2014
If asked which of the three aspects (body, mind and spirit) I find most challenging to work with my answer would be the mind, hands down.
The mind is a complicated thing comprised of our sense memories, experiential memories and our egoic self-identities.
Sense memories are simply memories coming from our senses – tastes, touch, sight, smell and hearing. Experiential memories are memories from experience – good and bad.
Self-identity of course is necessary in some sense. We are all separate human beings with varying skills, attributes and experiences. We become identified as a banker, teacher, nurse, professor, merchant.
Classical Yoga identifies this self-identity concept as a problem only when we seek to derive some sense of superiority because of it. In other words, if I marry into a rich family and become “Mrs. So-and- So,” I am no longer that teacher or nurse or banker – I am special just because I am rich or I wear that designer or I drive that expensive car.
Our society places much value on looks, what we wear and what we have and, in so doing, feeds this primitive human desire. The acquisition of more and more stuff satisfies this hunger for a while but it will eventually not be enough. Perhaps marrying that rich man yielded Mrs. So-and-so lots of jewelry but if Mr. So-and-so can’t be faithful in his marriage vows, then Mrs. So-and-so will eventually feel a deepening emptiness in her relationship that the best Tiffany’s bauble won’t fill.
Sometimes, self-identities are created to protect a vulnerable heart or to overcome a perceived weakness. For example, I create a persona of a woman who can “make it” in a man’s world and I become hard, tough, and disregard any attributes that I may perceive as too soft, too weak or too feminine. I begin to walk, talk, swear, drink and act like a man because I have defined for myself that those are the attributes of a successful businessperson.
But what is often created to protect us has instead created a prison. We are imprisoned in this self-created shell because to be anything BUT would make us vulnerable to something we hadn’t considered before. We become afraid to try new things, to fail, to stumble – which all are rich parts of the human growth experience.
We may even keep ourselves at a distance from others in our attempt to hold to our self-image. The problem in this instance is that if we want love, we are doing exactly the opposite of attracting it.
When we combine our experiences with our self-identities, it can be a real toxic tornado of crap. Experiences of shame, guilt and failure leave a big enough mark but if we’ve combined that with a protective shell of a false self-identity, that is one hard nut to crack.
I think most people who carry this burden want to be relieved of it. I think they get a whiff of what is possible when they listen to spiritual speakers. But I don’t think they want to do the work which would require them to confront their own demons. They’ll buy someone’s book, T-shirt or podcast but not face themselves in the mirror. However, this results only in getting a taste now and then of what freedom is like, rather than being free yourself.
It is like listening to a friend tell you about her vacation in Hawaii. You’d like to go someday, but you are afraid and so you tell yourself you’ll just listen to your friend’s stories. Not quite the same thing as experiencing it yourself.
A disturbed mind can be easily distracted in our culture. In fact, disturbed minds love distractions. I have acquaintances who tell me that they do not meditate or do pranayama because they can’t sit still so they just spend their day in a frenetic whorlwind of activity, thinking that if they do enough sudoku puzzles, their brain/mind will get all it needs.
I wonder if they realize how many decisions they make every day based on that frenetic, disturbed pace in their minds. Yes, that distracted, unsettled mind is making choices for you every moment of every day – from what you think of yourself, the food you eat, the business decisions you make and how you relate to others.
The answer then, is first to clarify the mind; to get rid of any experiences (baggage) that you’re hanging onto that affect your life presently, to rid yourself of a false identity and to forgive yourself and others every day for real and perceived slights where you can.
Then, the mind must be balanced. Yoga suggests that pranayama is the language of the mind and thus prescribes it as its medicine, too.
A calm, clean mind will yield you peace within yourself, your life’s work and within your relationships.
In Ayurveda, it is said that the seat of the mind is in the heart, not the brain. For me, then, an open mind is an open heart and vice versa. You cannot have one without the other.
April 14, 2014
I began dance training at the age of three and have never stopped although it is mostly my own work in my home studio space these days.
I attended a local dance studio that was opened by an ex-Broadway dancer who was hungry for her own business in which her ideas about dance could be best expressed. She was not like other dance school teachers – fat, pink and boring; no, Rosalene was a dark, fiery woman with long chorus girl legs.
Sometimes my dad had to get me to and from class but I seem to remember that he did not mind doing this when he got to say hello to Rosalene. But I digress.
Rosalene was a great teacher for me. She was loving but stern. Compassionate but you knew you had limits. Creative and not afraid to stretch boundaries for the art of dance.
That’s what Rosalene instilled in me the most – a love of the art of dance. There has never been a feeling quite like the feeling I had when I attended a good dance class. It is thorough, head-to-toe training; it is in the moment; I feel my body worked and moved through every bit of bone, muscle and sinew. My brain and my spirit are tested, challenged, and inspired.
Rosalene’s influence was why at the age of fourteen I would take a bus from my suburban home into Pittsburgh thirteen miles away, and walk from the Greyhound Bus Terminal to Point Park College (now University) for classes all day on Saturday. In addition, I’d go to classes in the evening twice during the week and my dad would pick me up on the way home from the office.
I would do this because the alternative was to go to a local dance studio where classes seemed to be taught by rote, the teachers were bored (and boring), and the priority was getting everyone ready for recitals. Recitals are the big money maker for most dance studios as well as gratifying for all the parents who get to live out their own dreams of stardom through their kids. The level of training was questionable and the technique was often below par but if it was accompanied by enough sparkle, no one seemed to care.
I never understood this type of dance studio. It was not about the art, or the depth of the work. It wasn’t about the athletic level of training that is required to be a good dancer. It was about something else that even now I can’t put my finger on. All I know is that it was boring, dull, and dead.
Even today, the spirit of Rosalene even affects my practice of Classical Yoga and Pilates. While these two physical arts proliferate our fitness culture in a variety of forms (even P90X has a “yoga” sequence although I am baffled as to what is “yoga” about it), it is often taught in a series that is written down so that the instructors can remember the sequences and dumbed down enough so that the masses can easily digest it. Sure, there will be some breathing exercises (class, can you say pra-na-ya-ma?) and a trick or two like handstands at the wall (with the accompanying sound of students slamming their legs on the wall as they whip themselves up. Learning to acquire control takes too much time – the masses don’t have the patience for it and the instructors don’t know how to teach it anyway).
To me, Classical Yoga and Pilates are arts. They are alive with flow and vibrancy. They are the tools to help someone become more alive in their body, mind and spirit. That is why in my studio there is nothing done by rote. Sure, they may have to learn some basics – much the way a dance has to learn first through fifth position – but they also are challenged to push their edges with every session. No one session should be like another.
Because no one day is like another. People are not the same every day. Bodies are different, minds and emotions are different. A person’s body will respond differently when she is on holiday than when she is having a busy day at the office. An athlete in a grueling training schedule cannot – and perhaps should not – also be in a grueling yoga session. Post-surgery clients will require a different class set than someone who is going out to play tennis in the afternoon.
Minds are different, too. In fact, I find that minds are harder to work with than bodies. Minds are often too clogged with egos, false identities and old mindsets. I’ve had people with tight, “bad” backs tell me how they swing 25-lb. kettlebells (to work their core) in their exercise classes but when I put them in a pose that requires that same level of core strength, they falter. They can’t do it. Sadly, instead of being inspired, they become angry. With me.
Because, you see, I’ve messed with their ego. It took me a long time to figure that out; I couldn’t imagine anyone letting their ego get in the way of progress but there it is.
It is much more exhausting for me to deal with people’s fragile, small egos that broken, stiff bodies. It is frustrating that I have to give up on them but if their mind and spirit won’t show up in a positive way, there is nothing I can do but suggest that they go somewhere else. Perhaps “hot vinyasa kettlebell” yoga or whatever nonsense the masses are doing these days.
It’s like coming to an art class with one crayon of the same color and drawing the same picture every day. A person gets good at that but never challenges themselves to try other colors or other pictures. Some will be offended at the idea of a new color or drawing a new picture because they may not be as good at that as when they are drawing the old, familiar one.
It’s hard to know who will balk at the idea or embrace it.
But it is the way I teach because I cannot be a lazy teacher who does things by rote. I am showing up for you and you should show up for you, too. And I want to show you that there are more crayons in the box for you to color with and more pictures to be drawn. Your world is bigger than you know.
I won’t give up on that philosophy, either. I am living this one life and I want it to be anything but dull, boring and dead.
I blame Rosalene.