I Teach Functional Yoga . . . Huh?

There have been countless instances where various students will come up to me after class and ask, “What style of yoga would you call your class?” My answer is a long, rambling jumble that spews out something like: I’m vinyasa trained but vinyasa can be anything these days and I like to move slowly but that doesn’t mean it’s easy since I’m really into strength and conditioning and like to focus on different ways to make the poses accessible for everyone and there’s also a lot of mobility work in there this days and that just means that you have better control over your range of motion. Phew. Not an elevator pitch. But what on earth do I teach???

Finally, I’ve changed the name of my classes, and it’s fantastically liberating. All of a sudden I don’t feel like I’m cheating any of the students who come to my class by not checking all the boxes that come with a traditional yoga flow class. I’m still teaching the same way, but now it’s almost as if I gave myself the permission to do so. The name change may scare some students away from wanting to try my class. That’s okay. It’s almost preferable . . . a simply and effective “filter” to attract the students who are curious. I also believe it’s important that any student can walk into any class with some idea of what to expect by the description of said class, so I believe the name change helps everyone out.

Functional Yoga. That’s the new name. Maybe at first glance, to other movement professionals or mobility-influenced yoga teachers (or me just judging myself), using the word functional seems like a cop-out use of a (misinterpreted) buzzword. But it actually took me quite a while and a lot of brainstorming to settle on this one. I also kept the word “yoga”—largely because I teach at a yoga studio. But here’s some food for thought on that subject.
1. If to you, yoga is contortionist poses and flow, no my class is not yoga.
2. If to you, yoga is preparing for meditation, I would argue that any movement that is done mindfully can prepare the body and mind for meditation, so yes, this can be yoga.
3. If to you, yoga is the Patanjali Sutras, I would argue that no, this would not be a “yoga” class. While many of the sutras are beautiful and offer sound guidance on how to be a good human in this world, the essence of the sutras is based in a dualistic perspective—that one must transcend one’s own body to truly be enlightened. If I’m teaching a class precisely about getting to know your body and use that knowledge and understanding about your body as a vehicle for better living in this world, that sounds like quite the contrary philosophy.
4. If to you, yoga is a personal journey of the self where by exploring your relationship to your body and how you move, you can confront discomfort, seek growth and cultivate compassion, then yes, my class is yoga.

Now to the functional part. So what is functional in relation to movement? In my own understanding and wording:

Functional movement is the ability for one to move her/his body in a coordinated way such that it is effortless and pain-free.  Whether you’re a mother picking up your toddler off the ground, a professional baseball pitcher repetitively throwing baseballs at high speeds, or a CrossFitter doing handstand pushups, your movements can be assessed as functional or not based on the above description. It seems the common idea out there right now is that functional movement means that the movement must be “useful,” but that doesn’t actually have any meaning without context. Whether the movement is useful or not doesn’t determine whether or not someone is performing that movement functionally. And conversely the way someone performs a movement doesn’t determine whether or not it’s useful. What allows someone to move functionally? That’s a whole realm of study!! It involves kinesiology, biomechanics, strength and conditioning, neuroscience, pain science, psychology, nutrition, and probably so many other areas I’m not considering.

Functional movement-S are any movements that are executed or practiced in such a way that enhances an individual’s functional movement patterns. So, I can deadlift all day everyday, but if I’m shrugging my shoulders towards my ears every time I come to stand with the weight, it’s not serving me as a functional movement—it’s not enhancing a healthy movement pattern. On the other hand, if I practice a yoga split everyday, but I practice it in such a way that strengthens my hamstrings while I do it so that I have control over the movement, then it’s a functional movement in my opinion.

The physical yoga practice is full of arbitrary shapes. As someone who needs to understand WHY I do something, I feel the shapes need a real, evidence-based purpose. “Releasing emotions” by opening my hips in pigeon is NOT real. “Detoxing my organs” by doing a deep twist is also NOT real. So how can I practice some of these poses in such a way that actually translates to better living? By practicing them functionally as per the above definition.

So, in my Functional Yoga classes, you can expect yoga poses. But you can expect a whole lot of variations on most of them. You can also expect shapes and movements that are not traditionally found in yoga. You can expect strength work and mobility work, awareness prompts and time for play.

All of my teaching is based on how we can learn to move well . . . or let’s say move functionally.

keep exploring.

Movement Contemplations While Raking

I spend a week at home with my family for Thanksgiving every year. Home is Macon, Georgia: a small to medium sized city, south of Atlanta, in the heart of the Bible Belt. I’ll save additional commentary on that for another time . . .

For now, what you should know about Macon is it’s the suburbs, and my parents live in the part of Macon that’s quiet, rural, and beautiful. Horse farms, pecan trees, winding country roads, greenery and wooded grounds. I get to hear the sounds of nature when I fall asleep, absent of glaring street lights and other light pollution. The air is clean, I hear the wind rustle the leaves, I get to walk barefoot in the grass, and I can see stars at night.

When I went out on a morning run, I noticed our yard was the only one on our street still covered in fallen leaves. I find out Mom likes to save the leaves to make soil out of them and she just hadn’t gotten around to it yet. After my run, I felt a longing to stay outside and move my body, so I took to raking the yard. Two things happened while raking the yard that are the impetus for this post.

The first thing that happened is that I thought I had a heart attack. Well, you know. That’s the first thing that you think of when you get sharp pain in the left side of your chest, right?? So, here I am, raking the yard furiously, as if I have a deadline by which to finish the job. I also feel the need to impress myself with how much I can rake in the shortest amount of time (why???). After less than 10 minutes into my subconscious, ego-driven competition, I feel a sharp pain in the left side of my chest. Beyond the initial freak out comes the rational realization that I likely pulled a muscle. Only one way to find out. I pause, stretch open my chest, take several deep breaths, and the pain dissipates. My first reaction is disappointment. “But I’m fit!” I say to myself. “And I move. And I move in different ways all the time, and raking is not a load bearing or challenging activity!” But of course, my own knowledge catches up to me. “When was the last time I raked a lawn? And did so vigorously at that?” A few years ago at least. Ok fine, I tell myself. New movement, new sensations, new muscular patterns.

I keep raking.

Less than 5 minutes later, I get an even sharper pain in the right side of my chest. There’s a moment of silly relief that now I can conclude what I previously felt was definitely not a heart attack, but I then immediately start laughing and I understand. (Usually, we need more than one message for life to get its point across.) I need to slow down! There is nothing else for me to be doing, no time limit, no one to be competing against. Why am I in a rush? I’m literally raking the yard like it’s part of a HIIT routine. Or . . . the way a New Yorker does anything: aggressively, competitively, and as rushed as possible to be able to perform the next task within the limited hours in a day by which we’re confined. It was a truly amazing moment if not just for the fact that I already know all these things about myself and about the way we should truly be living life, about the places happiness truly comes from, about the importance of slowing down and activating a calmer and more relaxed state within the nervous system. You know, the whole stop and smell the roses stuff. It’s so cliché but it’s real, and it’s my line of work, and I know it. But knowing something and living it, as we know, are not the same thing. I’m not immune to the pressures of life, to the energy of the city, to the anxieties of trying to run a successful business, to my own anxious personality type. Not only am I reminded to live what I already know, but it’s at home in the respite of the suburbs that I can actually laugh about it and do it. The real work is to live the lesson back in the city—or at least to learn to see the world’s messages/invitations to slow down and heed to them. It’s lifelong work for me.

The second thing that happened while I was raking was a friendly neighbor across the street offering up some help. Whether it was to genuinely help or to get our yard cleaned up faster, I don’t know. But he offered up his leaf blower and said, “It would take just a couple of minutes.” I said thank you, I’d check with Mom and get back to him. It made me think about how convenient we’ve made everything and how hard we have to try to actually use our bodies to get things done. Sitting culture and all its conveniences, of course. But a leaf blower! How easy! And the five minutes it would take to blow the leaves would replace the almost hour it took me to rake the front half of the yard. The next morning, the sides of my low back and my forearms were so sore (which I love when that happens because I get to know what’s really being used in a novel way while accomplishing a new movement or task.) Had I used the leaf blower, no energy would have been spent, no various new movement patterns would have been experienced, and no sense of accomplishment would have been felt. (and no chest muscle pulls to remind m to slow down!) It was a quick moment, a quick opportunity most people might have taken and I might have taken under the time constraints of daily city life. But with some extra time on my hands, I took the opportunity to perform a task I seldom perform, hear the shuffle of the leaves instead of the machinery of the blower, and contemplate the idea of writing a blog post about the whole experience.

I feel that this is especially relevant as I seek to work one on one with clients. A foundation on which I plan to work—a perspective I’ve gained from some of the top movement professionals today—is to help people help themselves. An indispensable part of this approach, in my opinion, is motivating people to want to move. The idea of sets of exercises and repetitions can make people want to kill themselves, myself included. If there’s a specific goal or an injury—maybe that’s the most effective method. But that method won’t shift anyone’s lifestyle. How can I get someone to prefer to rake the yard by hand instead of use the leaf blower, to prefer to take the stairs instead of the escalator? Where does that mental shift start? How can I encourage someone to want to move more and differently? To crave more physical activity everyday? It’s shift in perspective that is undeniably life changing. I think this is part of the reason I like the name Movement Coach instead of a teacher. There’s a motivational quality attached to the word Coach with which I’d like to associate my work.

Move well—that’s specific training. But move more and move with variety? That’s a lifestyle choice.

New Paths and Guinea Pigs

Possibly the biggest challenge of venturing into a path called Movement Coaching is that it’s an undefined path. There are a million ways to go about it, and a simple degree is not one of those ways. (I could choose to go to Physical Therapy school, but for a lot of reasons I won’t detail here, it’s not the best approach for me and would still leave me in search of a more well rounded approach to working with someone and his/her movement lifestyle.)

That leaves me piecing together my own education from various teachers, training programs, and clinicians. It’s SO overwhelming! I mean, Instagram alone has exposed me to more possible educational tools than I could possibly know what to do with, let alone word of mouth, and umm . . . a thing called Google.

It would be incredibly easy to get lost in the abyss of learning without applying; taking training after training, certification after certification, but with little actual experience to apply and test out the theories, methodologies, and approaches. I need practice.

I recently attended a seminar introducing an approach and some assessment tools put together by a chiropractor out of California. By far, the most useful learning tool of the whole day was splitting up into groups and applying the freshly learned principles to one another and to various case studies we were given. This is how we learn. This is how doctors of all kinds are trained, this is how mentorships work. Real time application and the trial and error that comes with it build confidence and a comprehensive toolbox.

So, I’m calling on YOU for help. I’m offering FREE (yes free) one on one sessions to anyone who:
1. has a chronic injury and/or pain and wants to heal said injury and/or pain
2. is willing to commit to at least a couple of weeks of consistent daily work to see results.
3. is willing to travel to Carroll Gardens or Red Hook for the sessions
4. has tried physical therapy and it didn’t work or can’t afford physical therapy at this time
5. doesn’t have an injury but wants to get stronger in a particular area of the body or activity.

To start, I’m opening up my time for 5 people. Each person will receive three 30 minute sessions (that MUST be scheduled over a 5 week period). Please email me through my contact page with any questions or to schedule your first session!

Still wondering exactly what we’ll be doing? Think of a mash up of: simple awareness practices that might resemble yoga, specific coordination and strength exercises that might resemble physical therapy, kettlebell weight training, TRX, and resistance bands that might resemble a personal training protocol, and any other methodology or exercise that may be applicable to your situation. My goal throughout the process is to not only address whatever you’re coming in with, but to help you understand something about your body that empowers you to continue moving in the ways you want to move. There will be lots of give and take, a lot of opportunity for you to give me feedback, and best of all, my mentor will be working with me to make sure you don’t regret being my guinea pig!

I look forward to working with you!

A Yoga Teacher's Identity Crisis Part III: So What's the Problem?

In Part I, I gave you background on why I need to define what yoga is for me in the first place. I strongly believe every teacher should define what he/she is teaching. If you don’t answer that question, who then are you as a teacher? And if you don’t have an answer, maybe ask more questions! That’s how this all started with me and it’s been a priceless and essential inquiry. In Part II, I defined what a yoga class is TO ME. And here, in Part III, we get to the actual “crisis.” Ready?

I have been struggling to teach yoga in the way that I have chosen to define it for myself. Basically, what I value the most in a yoga class as a student as outlined in Part II—specifically the meditative quality of the practice— is not what I’m focused on offering as a yoga teacher.

Wait, what? The whole reason I did my yoga training was because I was so in love with my practice! It inspired me and calmed me and made me so aware of myself, so much so that I wanted to offer that same experience to others through the same types of yoga classes I was having those experiences in. And it worked for a bit. But then as I’ve really gotten in touch with who I am as a teacher, I’ve discovered that what’s coming out of me is not what I expected. Me as a yoga student? I want flow, I want candles and incense, I want a dharma talk and an Ommm, flowery language, soft music and a fully meditative experience to help my lose myself and get away from my overactive monkey mind. Me as a teacher? Not so much flow, direct/clear/and lots of instruction, maybe some candles and a palo santo stick if I remember, no dharma talk, no music, and lots of room for trial/error and play. Ommm and Namaste are feeling really really forced lately. Coming to this realization was weird.

I decided that I can either:

1. Re-define Yoga as it stands for me personally.
As I’ve been witnessing these changes, I’ve tried to force myself to “re-define” yoga with this whole process. Can yoga ALSO be what I’m teaching? The choppy, prop heavy, biomechanical, curiosity-driven movement classes? There is an argument here either way. I can argue that YES it’s ALL yoga because yoga is about exploration and awareness. But I’m just not sold on that argument for ME personally because I really like yoga as it is! And the “lose yourself in a flow” quality is inherent to what I feel my practice is about. I don’t want to tinker with that value so I can feel like what I’m doing is justified. I wholly respect other teachers in similar positions as myself who are continuing to call their classes yoga while expanding the yoga definition. That’s awesome. But for me, I think I need to separate the two.

So here we are. I’ve acknowledged that teaching yoga in the way that I love to experience yoga myself isn’t for me. And I’ve acknowledged that that’s OK. (And actually, it’s kind of great. Because now I might enjoy my personal yoga practice again in a way that I stopped enjoying it when I became a teacher.) And I’ve acknowledged that I don’t want to re-define yoga because I find so much value in it the way that it is.
So, what then? I have to:

2. Re-define myself as a teacher.
I’m an aspiring Movement Coach. (I say aspiring, because I’m having a really hard time owning it! I have a long way of learning to go). But that’s where I’m headed folks.

What’s a Movement Coach? Think of a mashup between a personal trainer, a physical therapist, a yoga teacher, and a life coach. Someone who will help you get out of pain, teach you to move better, and motivate you to move more so you feel confident in your body and empowered by your understanding of it; all by incorporating an understanding of anatomy, biomechanics, motor control, pain science, strength training, psychology, and mindfulness techniques. Yeah, see? I have a lot to learn! And the reality is, to really see positive change in someone with this work, one-on-one work rather than group classes is the most powerful and effective format.

So where does this leave me now? Still teaching yoga while continuing to grow my private client Movement Coaching business at the same time. Things don’t happen overnight. My classes will continue to be educational, strength based, methodical, and focused so while they may not be a flow class for you to tune out in, you’ll always be able to learn something about your body and apply it to your favorite flow yoga class. Eventually, in the right space with the right support system, I may evolve my classes from “yoga” to “movement” that entail all of the aspects about movement coaching I mentioned above, but in a group setting.

Crisis aborted. (till the next one!)

Note: Just a disclaimer that this process is neatly tied up in a blog post here, but it’s taken me about a year to come full circle. While it feels really good, I think the hardest part is yet to come: actually transitioning into this new phase and setting my self criticism and fear aside.


A Yoga Teacher's Identity Crisis, Part II: Defining a Yoga Class

Yoga classes today are wildly variable to the degree that a current question in the yoga community among students and teachers alike is, “Is that yoga?”  I believe this is largely due to the fact that yoga’s origin and history are so complex, because there are minimal regulations on the industry, and likely a dozen other reasons.  My whole current identity crisis revolves around the fact that I found myself asking this very question about my own classes. I am committed to the idea that there is at least one defining element that makes a yoga class a yoga class, however, I haven’t completely worked it out (I do plan to tackle that idea in a future post).  For now, I have to just speak about yoga as it relates to me personally—and this was so much harder than I could have imagined. What I’ve come up with is a product of hours of thinking about this, having some conversations, and writing about it. I’m still not fully convinced that this is the final product, because at any moment I might come up with a new objection to my own thoughts! But alas, today, this is what I have.

In my last post I wrote that for me, yoga boils down to “awareness during movement in a safe space.”  I should expand.  For me personally, a yoga class is:

“ A movement class in which I feel like I’m home because of the space and the ritual and that incorporates specific components that invite me to experience a deep awareness of my body and breath to the extent that I might access a state of flow, and after which I feel re-set.”

Let’s break it down.

A movement class:
Yoga’s origin is ancient and philosophical, and in its ancient context there is no mention of a physical component.  This alone invites a giant conversation that is too big for my scope to write about.  I am interested in yoga’s current popular form, and today, in 2018, yoga is practiced primarily as a movement discipline. I use the word “class” rather than “discipline” in my definition because yoga as a discipline, like any, can have a cumulative effect on a person. My intent for now is to define what a single yoga class has to offer me.

in which I feel like I’m home because of the space and the ritual:
In general (plenty of exceptions), yoga studios tend to be environments that invite a calming effect the moment you walk in. Such calming environments help activate the parasympathetic nervous system, psychologically cultivating a sense of safety where students can let their guards down more easily. I find this naturally invites and holds space for introspection. The very nature of introspection is deeply personal and assumes a sense of honest inquiry which may be the closest we can ever get to ourselves: an “inner home.”  In addition, there’s a bookend-like beginning and end to the class (which I’ll detail further below) that gives it an element of ritual. I find this to evoke a feeling of intimacy, creating a personal relationship to the experience and giving it the intangible value of met expectation, comfort, assurance, dependability—all qualities we might associate with being home.

that incorporates specific components which invite me to experience a deep awareness of my body and breath:
One can definitely find each of the below components in other movement disciplines, but I find that yoga tends to incorporate many of them all in one class making it easier for me to access such a deeply personal experience so quickly.

  • Space. For the same reasons mentioned above, the environment itself that most yoga classes inhabit lends to opportunities to be more aware of oneself.  

  • There are no mirrors.  In general (again I’m aware of the exceptions) yoga studios don’t have mirrors, suggesting the idea that a feeling of one’s own body rather than an external reference is the focus of the experience.  

  • Focus on the Present. it is widely accepted that the physical practice of yoga originated with the intention of preparing the body for seated meditation.  While we don’t often sit in meditation at the end of classes, there’s an underlying focus on staying in the present moment. 

  • Breath Awareness.  I think it’s safe to say that across all yoga disciplines, breath is an underlying element.  Regardless of techniques and varying opinions about how and when breath practices should be performed, a foundational principle exists: the breath is a tool to maintain awareness in the present moment. The breath is present, so if we are aware of the breath, we are in the present.  

  • Coming to Center and Savasana. I think it’s also safe to say that every yoga class has a few moments, if not a few minutes, to “come to center,” at the beginning of class—this amazing opportunity to transition our attention from external sources to internal ones, a conscious transition into presence.  Every class also includes Savasana—the practice of laying on your back and actually resting at the end of class, or between poses in some practices.  Both of these elements are specific invitations for taking one’s awareness to a deeper level, beyond the outside world and into the abyss of the self.   

  • Language. Yoga is sold as a healing practice (both physical and spiritual). Whether that should or shouldn’t be the case is a can of worms for another blog post. But healing is a deeply personal and intimate journey no matter who or what or how, bringing us naturally into a state of self awareness.  The language used in a yoga class is a direct reflection of this idea. Yoga teachers use specific words, ideas, tones of voice, even pace of speaking to curate an experience suggestive of and conducive to healing inside and out.  

to the extent that I might access a state of flow: The “flow state” is a concept coined by Hungarian-American psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in 1975.  It’s described as “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.  In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one’s sense of space and time.”  Csikszentmihalyi’s research has shown that accessing the flow state boosts overall happiness possibly explaining some of the physiological effects of a yoga class.  This flow state mimics a meditative state and may explain the “yoga high” that I and many others associate with a yoga class. This concept and more details will heavily influence the next post, so stay tuned!

and after which I feel re-set: between the distraction of technology, the intensity of politics, the load of work schedules, the overwhelm of environment (living in urban cities especially), and the emotional drama of everyday life as a human being, there is no fuel left in the tank for me to keep going at full speed without something like yoga.  Spending a whole hour + of time focusing on myself, my body, and my breath means I’m not focusing on all of the above. There are countless studies that show how focusing one’s awareness on breath and body (such as one does in meditation) has innumerable benefits to our brains, stress levels, and overall happiness. So I am re-fueled, leaving a class with even just a little (if not a lot) more grounding, perspective, and calm than what I walked in with.  

So what’s the crisis??? Stay tuned for Part III . . .