Since the last time I wrote a post here I completed my final semester in graduate school and started a yoga teacher training program. Since starting that, I’ve wanted to think back a little more on why I’m studying asana, and specifically studying to teach asana.
I was raised as a practicing Muslim in El Paso, Texas. My parents ended up there because of the army base; my father had been a drill sergeant. My mother was and still is a health enthusiast and armchair dietitian. Among the hundreds of books in our home I recall several with white women in white aerobic leotards and headbands on. One I remember most distinctly was a book called Calisthenics, which is nothing like what I understand calisthenics to be now. One of the workouts they included was, if memory serves a sun salutation sequence. I remember my mom talking to me about yoga and how similar the sun salutation seemed to Salah, the Muslim prayer.
Bonus for those who like some evidence with their health claims – two articles from the US National Institute of Health medical library.
You will sometimes see summer/winter solstice classes offering 108 sun salutations — try 9 rounds and you’ll start feeling why this deceptively simple sequence is a full body experience.
I can’t say I have any recollections of doing much with the sun salutation sequence, though I remember being convinced I already knew it and it was ‘too easy to be a workout’ when I was re-introduced to asana practice in my mid 20s. Let’s jump to there because there’s not much in the middle aside from…
Tiger, the athlete
It feels a little absurd to be writing about my life as an athlete — being an athlete was not a part of my identity, but being competitive in my events was. I played sports a little bit throughout middle school, but in high school I was on the track team all four years. Half-way through my lower year (sophomore) spring season, I believe I shifted from javelin, 100, and 200 sprints to pure throws.
As a thrower but previously coached in sprints, I had a lot of rotational speed and thrust but didn’t necessarily have the upper body. I remember being obsessed with the geometry of throws and the idea of making myself into a catapult, but each one having a different point of (dis)engagement.
I’ll be semi-brief here, but I generally skip this and I suspect it has a lot to do with how I think about physical competence. I got bronze and silver medals in interscholastic competitions in my upper (junior) and senior years and was invited to throw on the Dartmouth track team (who had one Olympic thrower under their belt), so I consider myself to have been at least promising in the sport.
First lets look at some epic javelin moments. It’s illegal in most states, if I recall, because why would you let high school students throw spears?
Enough of that. The point is javelin destroys many folks’ rotator cuffs. I stopped before that but not before I started learning that rotator cuffs are prone to injury by repeated, high strain, rapid rotation movements.
Discus I liked slightly less but was nearly as good in. Where javelin has this amazingly stressful arm rotation that comes straight from your shoulder, discus differs in that it’s a lateral rotation, so you get to strain a different part of your shoulder :face palm:
Here are some old grainy ones in slow motion set to relaxing cool jazz piano.
Not worth talking about — I only did it to have three events and I don’t think it did my shoulder in as much as my jav and discus habit did.
I became a bit of a testosterone, beer bloated teddy bear after I started hormone replacement therapy. When I ran track in high school I weighed 120 lbs. Lifting for throws bumped me up to around 140 lbs. At some point in my last year in college I hit 210 lbs. Here’s a sample of somewhere around there.
You can actually already see this forward shoulder roll developing as my posture became more hunched.
I lost most of the bloat, body fat redistributed, I spent some time being unemployed, did two years of AmeriCorps and then started working at City Year first in admissions and then in evaluation. I spent a lot of time at a computer reading, clicking, entering repetitive keystrokes, and hunching over in ergonomically unsound ways. I wiped out on black ice a few times while living in Chicago and got a pinched nerve on top of that. I still have a lot of body dysphoria, so I generally avoid things like physical therapy, and didn’t feel like I had the cash to do that anyway, so one fine day I found myself lying on my back in the room I was renting in a co-op freaking out and crying because my back and shoulders hurt so much and I thought I was spiraling into the beginning of a life of pain like my mother has from fibromyalgia.
Here’s a photo from 2014, the year I started practicing asana extremely reluctantly. My primary practice was savasana which my shoulders resisted for years. Yes, if you think savasana is the one where you’re ‘just lying down’ you’d be able to spot it in a room.
What’s weird in this picture? My left hand is moving forward but my shoulder blades are still somehow pressing back and my rhomboids are hunched.
30s – Studying asanas
Like many, I started building my at home practice with YouTube, largely Yoga with Adrienne. I moved from having my big practice be a forward fold, a seated forward fold, and savasana, to wanting to do something that would be more strength building than just correcting. The internet is big, though, so it wasn’t long until I started stumbling into kundalini videos and yin before sleep and ashtanga and eventually I started to get curious.
My first yoga class wasn’t in a studio so much as a yoga studio embedded in Brooklyn Boulders in Somerville, MA when I lived out in Boston. I’d felt like I was getting back in shape because I’d just started going to the gym fairly often, and I was doing some home practice, so I thought an open level asana class would just warm me up and make my climb better. It kicked my ass — then I was really intrigued, and that’s when I really started studying asanas rather than just getting into a shape to move around a bit and regain some mobility lost due to bad habits.
I have a lot of video and photo evidence of my attempts at trying to learn new things, because I’m a systemic learner. I learn by watching technique videos and reading about positions, and then I try to do those things. And to be honest, most of the time I can’t, and then I wonder why I’m not practicing yoga (breathing, meditating, tuning in, unifying) instead of flinging my body around. There are a lot of poses I “should be able to hit by now” except that I don’t really find working on them has done much for my practice beyond being playful. That’s fine and fun; play is important too — it’s just not really what yoga is to me. Maybe one day I’ll find the kind of stillness and focus I find in working on bakasana (crow/crane) or eka pada koundinyasana II (flying splits) — but until then I’m going to save it as an energizer between meetings.
So why teach asana?
Regardless of how the physical practice can get distorted, like with any flow state experience, the feeling is something that is both embodied and brings mental and spiritual ease. The bonus with asana is that it has a tradition, literature, philosophy, and sister sciences wrapped around it that can provide a pathway to experience all of life through this flow. My favorite yogic practice so far is jyotish, the practice of using literature and systems expressed through planetary movements to represent macroscopic and microscopic events. Unfortunately, because it’s so abstract and intellectual, it sometimes leaves me feeling divorced of my body, which is the most unique indicator of what differentiates my life from yours. Human existence is negated outside of the embodied experience – once you no longer live in your body you’re a different kind of being. For me, teaching asana is critical for any human development work.