urdhva-mukha-svanasanaEver been injured in a yoga class? Chances are, we’ve all felt a twinge in one class or another. So, who’s at fault? The teacher? The student? Or are occasional tweaks simply part of being active and exploring our limits?

Since William Broad began writing about yoga injuries in the New York Times, most fingers have been pointed at unqualified yoga teachers. Michaelle Edwards, founder of YogAlign, goes further, claiming that yoga injuries are prevalent because many poses are anatomically incompatible with the human body. This is a complex issue, too long for a blog post. A few thoughts for starters:

utthita-trikonasanaPain versus strong sensation

In February, a few weeks into winter session, a new student politely told me, “Last week my back hurt the day after class.”

What?! “How long did it hurt?” I asked her. “Did you feel pain during class?” I couldn’t imagine any intro poses injuring this healthy 20-year-old university student.

It turned out that her muscles were temporarily sore from holding an upright posture instead of her habitual slouch. Sometimes beginners mistake post-class “delayed onset muscle soreness” for injury. Or, during class, they stop as soon as lactic acid builds up. Over time, they must learn to distinguish between injurious pain and strong sensation, which is essential to progress.

parivrtta-parsva-konasanaAccidents happen

Experienced students are probably more likely to sustain injuries since they do trickier poses, including deep backbends and long inversions. Interestingly, among Iyengar yoga students anyway, longtime practitioners are less likely (I’d say unlikely) to “blame” the teacher.

Once, a decades-long student broke her humerus doing a strapped version of Parivrtta Parsvakonasana in a class taught by a highly respected senior teacher who knew her well. “I toppled over,” she said, shrugging and smiling. Not once did she imply that the teacher was at fault. Clearly her bone density must have been compromised, and she knew it.

Her injury was unexpectedly severe, but anyone can strain a muscle going too far or holding too long. The question is whether the teacher’s instructions were… reasonable.

Reasonable person standard

One of the few things I remember from law school is the “reasonable person standard,” a common law doctrine that determines negligence. Legendary US District Court Judge Learned Hand wrote that one’s duty to prevent injury is a function of three variables (paraphrased big-time here):

  • Is it likely that an accident will happen?
  • How serious would the resulting injury be?
  • What is the cost/burden of taking adequate precautions?

Applied to yoga, we might ask whether a teacher acted according to a “reasonable yoga teacher standard” (or a “reasonable Iyengar yoga teacher standard”).

If I teach Salamba Sarvangasana (shoulderstand), is it likely that students will hurt themselves? If they do, how serious would their injuries be? What could I do to prevent such injuries? Here, the answer is clear: Most would hyper-flex their necks doing perpendicular shoulderstands on the floor. That would cause major damage. The precaution is the classic modification: Use a stack of blankets to raise shoulders and protect cervical vertebrae.

parsvottanasanaVerbal versus manual correction

The issue of fault is slipperier when there is “touching” involved. It’s one thing verbally to direct a student to twist further or bend lower. It’s another thing altogether manually to push a student deeper.

Recently a yoga colleague (also a teacher) injured a wrist when a well-regarded yoga teacher adjusted her hands in Paschima Namaskarasana in Parsvottanasana during a workshop that I also attended. It was a “big adjustment” that sent shooting pain along her outer wrist; months later she was still in distress and seeing an orthopedic surgeon. She noted that the teacher was unaware of her shoulder restriction on that side–and thus didn’t blame the teacher.

Was that a reasonable adjustment? Was it likely that a student might be vulnerable? What was the potential for major injury? How else could a teacher guide a student into a deeper pose?

Personally I’ve always appreciated hands-on adjustments, perhaps because my original teachers were firm yet careful in their touch. I’ve heard of the life-changing, forceful adjustments that BKS Iyengar would give: a sharp prod, a hard slap. Well, all I can say is that most teachers should not try those.

parivrittijanusirsasana-backBe in charge of your body

Ultimately we are in charge of our own bodies. Years ago, one of my first teachers, Mary Lou Weprin, instructed me to do something, say, straighten my leg or turn my ribcage. I complied with such alacrity that Mary Lou said, “Whoa, slow down. Don’t move so fast.”

She warned that I might hurt myself; I should check in with my body, from the inside, not instantly jump to perform a teacher’s instructions. That stuck with me. When we step into a yoga class, we must accept responsibility for our bodies.While a huge manual adjustment might take us by surprise, we can certainly avoid causing harm ourselves.

Images: Yoga Anatomy, Leslie Kaminoff

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Old age. Why do we dread it? A common fear is ill health, which is probably why 95-year-old Olga Kotelko, the first in my Aging Well series, is so impressive. Another concern is loneliness. There will come a point when we lose friends and our closest companions.

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That’s why I’m now featuring Misao Ihara, whom I discovered in The Daily Life of a Grandma and Her Odd-Eyed Cat in Demilked, a design blog. Misao Ihara found this stray cat with mismatched eyes and called it Fukumaru, so that “the god of fuku (good fortune) would come and everything will be smoothed over like maru (circle).” Her granddaughter, a photographer, began taking pictures of her grandma’s friendship with her cat and their daily lives together.

Even if you’re not a cat person, as I am (that’s cat person, not cat lady), you’ve got to be moved by their bond. Obviously this woman had a husband and family, but now her companion is a cat–and what’s wrong with that? Maybe we must be openminded about our definitions of companionship and a good life.

grandmother-and-cat-miyoko-ihara-fukumaru-8Seeing this old woman’s rustic, outdoorsy lifestyle was somehow comforting. If we must grow old, isn’t this a beautiful way to do so? Farming the land, enjoying the outdoors, celebrating the seasons, eating fruit and drinking tea, sharing space with this companionable creature. Even through photographs, you can feel the dirt and sun and cotton fabric and cat fur. It feels natural and real.

I might be romanticizing things, but those who spend lots of time outdoors, with plants and animals, observing the seasons and cycles, seem to have a clearer understanding of life and death. Misao Ihara is simply living and going with the flow. And that’s not as easy as it sounds.

These photographs have been published in Misao the Big Mama and Fukumaru the Cat.

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Last summer, I resumed freestyle lap swimming after a hiatus. I’m purely a rec swimmer and will never be super fast, but I still want to cut my 1000-meter time, 25 minutes. “What’s a ‘decent’ 1000-meter swim time?” I asked my yoga student who does triathlons.

Here’s her paraphrased answer:

It depends. A fast swimmer will take 15 minutes or less. A slow swimmer will take 30 minutes or more.

Most of us have a comfortable speed. Swimming is not like running (at least to me). The time difference between my fastest and slowest swims is about two minutes, but I am ‘out of breath’ and ‘suffering’ by then.

Don’t worry about your time. You probably will improve quickly in the beginning, and then you will reach a plateau that demands more drastic changes in your stroke techniques before you can notice a significant change in speed.

I underlined her last sentence, simple, true, and universally applicable. Yes, I could do the obvious: kick and stroke harder. But it would take fundamental changes to transform my freestyle.

The same holds true for any big change. If you want to be significantly better at anything–including being a better parent or sibling or friend–it will take more than an extra half hour here and there.

What about my yoga practice? To the casual observer, I’m working hard, sticking to my home practice, attending weekly classes, taking workshops with senior teachers, and training toward more complex poses (“the next syllabus,” as they say in Iyengar yoga).

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But will this take me to the next level? What is the next level?

I know, more or less, what it will take to perform the next syllabi. In other words, I know my physical strengths and weaknesses and “homework” in terms of hatha yoga (asana and pranayama). For example, I must allocate more time to pranayama and specific asanas (see Supta Virasana) that cultivate the quieter, subtler aspects of hatha yoga.

While I have my work cut out for me, the work is straightforward. I suspect that my real challenge lurks in the yamas and niyamas, not in looser hamstrings or longer headstands. Making “drastic changes” to freestyle or to Supta Virasana is demanding, but approachable and doable. Changing mental habits is more elusive.

What if I reach a point where I’m the best I can be (as a human being) and it’s not all that great? How long can one be a “work in progress”? Maybe, as with physical feats, we reach our personal peaks and then we are who we are.

Time will tell.

In swimming, in yoga, and in life, there is a vast difference between marginal improvement and real transformation.

Video: Shinji Takeuchi, Total Immersion instructor (read about him here)

Image: Supta Virasana, Yoga Journal

The other day, teaching at a community centre, I did an elevated Chatushpadasana (Bridge pose), feet on chair. Props are minimal, but include thick mats, foam blocks, and straps. I resorted to supporting my shoulders with a folded-up mat. During my demo, I immediately realized that one mat was inadequate, but nevertheless worked the pose. After exiting, I directed students to use more height.

220px-Trapezius_animation_small2That afternoon, my upper trapezius was aching. Did I hyperflex my cervical spine?! I regretting holding my demo at the expense of my body. My fault, I know. Ironically, I escaped whiplash when rear-ended at a stoplight last summer, but perpetrated my own neck injury.

The following [un-yogic] thought flitted through my mind: “Well, this is just terrific. I’d better make enough from that class to pay for the massage I need now.”

Within two weeks, my neck healed, but I continued thinking about the risks and rewards of teaching yoga–especially the delicate money aspect. How much do yoga teachers, including myself, associate teaching with profession, career, and earning a living? Would we be teaching if it were pro bono? I am perfectly happy as a yoga student, so what is motivating me to teach?

I’m still gathering my thoughts on yoga and money, but here are a few…

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I divide my work among writing, editing, and teaching yoga. I enjoy the variety (a far cry from practicing law!) and prefer not relying only on yoga to earn a living. Most of my Iyengar yoga colleagues are part-time, not full-time, teachers. Some have other occupations; some share household expenses with (or are supported by) a spouse/partner. To fend for oneself in Vancouver and other destination cities is unrealistic on the average yoga teacher’s income.

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Law school was more expensive than Iyengar yoga teacher training. But I spent just three years in law school, plus one summer studying for the California bar exam, while I’ve studied Iyengar yoga for over 15 years, including three years training for certification, and could spend a lifetime preparing for assessments. Why should lawyers necessarily get paid way more than Iyengar yoga teachers?

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Modern-day yoga is a pursuit of the privileged. People with dispensable time and money go to pleasant studios wearing name-brand yoga pants. Even yoga teaching is somewhat of a luxury, a lifestyle choice. If I needed to support a household, could I afford to be teaching yoga?

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I once read a piece by Prasant Iyengar advising yogis not to taint their practice by teaching for a living. Well, I know outstanding teachers who are supporting themselves by teaching. Simply by who they are, they’ve ended up with a thriving student base. If one’s intentions are good, I see no reason why yoga should not be a primary income source.

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Marketing oneself… it either comes naturally or it’s a pain! To me, hard-core marketing feels too commercial and crass, but spreading the word, one to one, is marginally doable. I recently chatted with a friendly barista at a cafe that I frequent; she ended up joining one of my classes at The Yoga Space!

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Teaching is intense work. I put much thought into preparing original sequences (despite the likelihood that they’ll be revised on the spot!), and in class I’m 100% present, never mind injury or exhaustion. Teaching requires me to be “on”! If I teach a morning class, I have no time for my own practice; I end up plunging into poses, cold.

Sometimes, knowing that I’ll be decently compensated is a relief. Perhaps making money from teaching “justifies” the time and energy I spend on all things yoga. Otherwise my “hobby” would seem like mere indulgence.

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When I first began teaching, I didn’t care about money. I wanted students: a decent number, a keen and consistent group. If I’d had the choice of either $100+ per class or a dozen regular students per class, I’d have chosen the latter. Of course, the two go hand in hand. Once you establish a group of regulars, you earn a decent rate and the group has enough critical mass for stability (and growth).

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Even breaking even requires some profit because teaching is far from expense-free. Obvious costs include transportation and time, but there’s also paying for substitute teachers, ~$60-100 per class. Imagine owning a studio and incurring the costs of rent/mortgage, renovations, maintenance, gas/electricity, props, cleaning, supplies, etc. And don’t forget a teacher’s continuing education and “maintenance,” including those massages.

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In a money-based society, people typically take things more seriously if money is involved. Students who pay for classes are more likely to show up. Economic studies have shown that paying more for a good/service influences a buyer to value it more.

I sometimes offer discounted or free classes to those who are new or cannot afford full price. But I tell them that they’re expected to show up. In lieu of money, they can give me their attendance.

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What are your thoughts on making money from yoga teaching?

Nowadays it’s no surprise to see super fit and active 70- and 80-somethings. But beyond 90?

I recently (and belatedly) read “The Incredible Flying Nonagenarian” by Bruce Grierson (New York Times, November 25, 2010) about Olga Kotelko, almost 95, world champion in track and field. Born in 1919, she grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan, the seventh of eleven children. After moving to British Columbia with her two daughters in 1957, she had no time for sports until she retired from teaching in 1984. She first played softball and then, at age 77, tried track and field.

Olga enthusiastically pushed herself, hiring a trainer and doing hard-core exercises such as planks, roman chairs, bench presses, and squats. Today, except for Aquafit classes, she takes the Vancouver winter off, but returns to the track in spring: running, jumping, throwing the shot put, javelin, and hammer. At five feet tall, she holds 26 world records.

What Makes Olga Run?Age-related sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass and function) is inevitable, beginning in the 30s and rapidly accelerating after 75, even with the same level of activity. Olga, however, got stronger in her 80s and 90s. Her unusual resilience has made her a curious case study for scientists studying cellular processes that cause aging and disease. Grierson discusses aging research, and Olga’s case, in his book What Makes Olga Run? published January 2014.

In the yoga world, a phenomenal 95-year-old is BKS Iyengar. Hearing about  his current activities–practicing asana daily, teaching through his granddaughter, giving a 30-minute speech (without notes) on Guru Purnima last summer–similarly makes me wonder why one person’s 90s can be so different from another’s.

Illness, of course, is the wild card and can instantly decimate life as we know it. If we lose our health, then what? That’s probably when our real strength is tested, where our real yoga, if we’ve actually learned anything, is invoked.

After reading the Times article, I watched videos of Olga and was even more impressed by her engaging, matter-of-fact personality. Check her out in “At 94, track star Olga Kotelko has no plans to slow down” (Toronto Star, January 20, 2014). Maybe attitude is as important as  good genes. Indeed, her gameness to try new things inspired Grierson to battle his midlife slump and enter a race himself. Other observations:

  • A late start is not necessarily a disadvantage. Among masters athletes, younger competitors are typically former college jocks, but older ones, past 70, typically start later in life. Maybe late bloomers avoid overuse injury or possess a newcomer’s passion. It’s never too late, as illustrated by Olga and the centenarian marathoner, Fauja Singh.
  • Olga trains daily. Daily. In addition to sports, she follows her own system of deep breathing (inhale for a count of seven, exhale for a count of three, whenever tension arises), diet (very little processed food), and stretching/self-massage (a routine she made up and does in the wee hours). She takes charge of her life.
  • Growing up on a farm instilled in Olga a habit of constant activity, moving all day rather than only during workouts. She is the opposite of sedentary.
  • Strenuous exercise can be more beneficial than moderate exercise, but only if injury is avoided. It’s a fine balance. According to Olga, “If you under train, you might not finish. If you overtrain, you might not start.”
  • Motivation–to keep active–is key. In the Times article, an expert cites motivating factors such as competition, workout/sports buddies, and especially one’s spouse. In Olga’s case, however, she has no husband and, while she lives with her daughter and son-in-law, they aren’t involved in her training. Motivation must come from within.

Video: Olga Kotelko website

Image: MacMillan Publishers

Is Christmas day a big deal to you? In what way? Reading “UPS draws fire after Christmas delivery breakdown,” I couldn’t relate to those who slammed UPS for ruining Christmas for them.

Does it really matter if gifts arrive on December 25 or a week into the New Year? I might cut slack for kids’ disappointment, but I can’t fathom adults going ballistic about delayed gifts to other adults.

442px-CBX_Blu-Ray_coverWhen I was a kid, it was thrilling to open a pile of presents on Christmas morning. I’m no stranger to the commercial pleasure of this holiday. But I still recall feeling a bit deflated by midmorning, after my sister and I had unwrapped every present, compared notes, posed for photos, and eaten Mom’s banana pancakes for breakfast. Now what do we do? I had binged, maybe overdosed, on presents! Even as a kid, I had mixed feelings about big holidays and their big expectations.

I recently reread The Catcher in the Rye, and I’m reminded of Holden Caulfield’s conversation with his 10-year-old kid sister, Phoebe, about what he likes.

In a scene toward the end, Holden goes home to talk with Phoebe before his planned departure from New York. She figures out that he’d gotten kicked out of Pencey Prep, and she’s distraught. “Daddy’ll kill you!” she agonizes. “Oh, why did you do it?”

After describing a bunch of phonies and bullies at Pencey, he says, “I just didn’t like anything that was happening at Pencey. I can’t explain.”

“You don’t like anything that’s happening,” she says. When he objects, she asks him to “[n]ame one thing” that he likes a lot.

He mentions liking their deceased brother Allie, and adds,  “And I like doing what I’m doing right now. Sitting here with you, and talking, and thinking about stuff, and–”

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Regarding the latter, Phoebe says, “That isn’t anything really!”

“It is so something really! Certainly it is! Why the hell isn’t it? People never think anything is anything really. I’m getting goddam sick of it.”

Holden is sick of phoniness, meanness, and social expectations. He values genuineness, in the way kids are candid and in direct human connection. It’s a great scene, the interplay between brother and sister, and the truth of Holden’s observation.

Isn’t it fantastic if your highlight is simply to hang out with a loved one? An ordinary conversation on an ordinary day? What could be better than that?

Images: A Charlie Brown Christmas, Wikipedia; scene from A Charlie Brown Christmas, United Features Syndicate, Los Angeles Times

“Do you still take classes?” a student asked, upon hearing that I’d be attending a weekend workshop.

For a moment I was speechless. I can’t imagine ever not taking classes. I explained that most Iyengar yoga teachers continue taking classes and workshops (and, if possible, trips to RIMYI in India)–for life.

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That weekend workshop was taught by Mahyar Raz, a Junior Advanced II level teacher based in Toronto and Tehran. Attendees ranged from decades-long practitioners to keen novices. Many, including myself, were unfamiliar with Mahyar, who delved deeply, with drama and with humor, into the fundamentals. Click here for a few memorable quotes.

Among the attendees was Ingelise Nherlan, also a senior-level teacher who has studied directly with BKS Iyengar. In my occasional contact with Ingelise, she’s typically the teacher or teacher trainer. Here, it struck me how she becomes purely a student when the context calls for it. Once, when Mahyar was teaching us fully to release the neck (cervical vertebrae 5, 6, and 7) in Uttanasana, she adjusted Ingelise’s spine. Later, as we repeated Uttanasana (over and over), Ingelise asked Mahyar to check her pose: “I want to make sure that I’ve got it.” It was a request that a beginner might make, and her enthusiasm, curiosity, and openness to being corrected were obvious.

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On the last day, when Mahyar opened the floor to questions, Ingelise raised her hand. First, she asked, “Is it acceptable to sit in Virasana [rather than Sukhasana] for the invocation?” Second, regarding the prior day’s set-up for supine pranayama, she found her lumbar spine overarching if the bolster was nestled against her sacrum. “Must the prop support the entire spine?” she asked.

As a teacher, Ingelise could opine on her own questions. But here she asked based on her experience as a student. She asked rudimentary questions, not esoteric, teacher-to-teacher, insider-to-insider ones.

It can be hard for people to think like students, once they become teachers. A teacher might take a class and seem engaged, yet continue thinking like a teacher. It takes a different mindset to throw that role out the window and to experience as a student–better yet, as a beginner student. I’m reminded of Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind.

Coincidentally, the first time I saw Ingelise and Mahyar was in November 2007. New to Vancouver, I participated as a “student” for a Junior Intermediate II assessment, and both were assessors. (The other two were Marlene Mawhinney and Marlene Miller, with Claudia MacDonald as assessor-in-training. That was the first time I witnessed an assessment. And that was one formidable panel, let me tell you.)

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Further contemplating my student’s question, I noticed that teachers (at any level) generally take classes or workshops only with those senior to themselves, not with peers. That might be due to time and money. Classes and workshops aren’t cheap, so why not choose those taught by the most-experienced, most-profound teachers, preferably those who are direct disciples of Mr Iyengar? But we can learn a lot from peers.

My own teacher, Louie Ettling, attends countless classes taught by all levels: Mr Iyengar, Geeta, and Prashant, senior international teachers, Canadian peers, and the recently certified. And she is just as attentive and gracious toward novice teachers as toward established ones.

Watching Ingelise and Louie in learning, not only teaching, mode is a real, if subtler, lesson. I am reminded of a Geeta quote* about why we chant the invocation to Patanjali:

We chant so that at the very beginning that feeling of sanctification comes from inside, with the feeling of surrendering oneself, because nothing can be learned in this world unless you have the humility to learn…. You know that you are “coming down” to learn something. And you can’t learn anything unless you come down; if you think you are on the top and you know everything, then you are not a learner at all…

*Interview conducted by Margot Kitchen at the 1992 Canadian Intensive in Pune, India.

Images: Uttanasana, Yoga Journal; Meghan Goodman and pranayama bolster, Halfmoon; old copy of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shambala Sun