Musicians' Health Collective

Musicians' Health Collective: Supporting the health of musicians (and normal people)

Filtering by Tag: embodied movement

Falling Out of Love with Yoga

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Over the last few years, I've fallen out of love with yoga, or at least the western approach to yoga...but wait, let me explain.  It may seem problematic that a practicing yoga teacher would admit to this, but read on first.

  I first started practicing yoga in 2007 during my senior year of college, and it was a powerful physical and mental practice.  It helped with my awareness immediately, and gave me something to tether my mind and flittering thoughts to as a classical musician.  I was fortunate enough to have creative and thoughtful teachers who wove in non traditional movements with traditional yoga asana, which was how I assumed everyone taught.  They also respected my limitations, my body size, and made classes fun, challenging, and interesting. I then moved to Rochester NY for my graduate studies, and tried new styles of yoga, had my first yoga induced injury,  and I missed my Boston community.  I then went to Miami, was puzzled by the love of hot yoga in a hot climate, tried some more yoga, and then moved back to Boston, and did my training with the teacher with whom I took my very first class, David Vendetti and his business partner Todd Skoglund of South Boston Yoga.  Our teacher training was wonderful, and both of them brought other, non-yoga movement interests- martial arts, hand balancing, manual therapy, Anatomy Trains, pilates, and more.  I not only learned traditional sequences and philosophy, but also creative preparatory movements that could be woven into classes to challenge and diversify movement.  Fast forward a few years, and I take my first Yoga Tune Up® training where I see teachers bringing that same spirit of creativity, non-traditional movement, and innovation to the yoga space with great success.  I knew this was the way I wanted to teach and move, and so I happily continued on that train of thought of embodied movement, creative sequencing, problem solving, self-inquiry, and more.  I then moved to Texas to play with the San Antonio Symphony, and I discovered that many yoga teachers and students were not particularly interested in that way of thinking.  A little creativity was nice, but I was told that my classes incorporated too many "physical therapy" style movements, that it wasn't "real yoga," and that my classes weren't dynamic enough (despite the fact that students couldn't move fast with integrity).  I also got the distinct sense that I didn't belong to the club- I wasn't trained in Texas, I don't particularly have alliances with any one style of yoga, I don't care about big fancy poses, and I don't have the body of a supermodel or the flexibility of a gymnast.  I'm a normal person with normal body issues- I'm not immune to the human condition because I teach and practice yoga.  The bottom line?  Things weren't working.  

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Maybe it's the location, the community, me, or the personality of yoga people, but I didn't (and still don't) fit in.  So after a few years of trying (and failing) to be in the yoga clique, I started trying other movement disciplines.  I tried pilates and loved it, took some dance classes, tried Crossfit, did a MovNat training, and discovered that the framework of other movement formats allowed for more creativity of movement and important strengthening work not available in yoga. Although there are camps of traditionalists in every discipline, I found body nerds plentiful in pilates and other modalities, as well as less emphasis on stretching and acrobatic poses.  And so at some point in the last few years, I fell out of love with yoga, or at least the landscape of yoga in America.  You could say we broke up.  I wasn't teaching much, partially because I was driving all over the city to get paid $20 for a class with a few people in it (or no shows), and I just focused on my own movement practice and exploring different movements that felt good, regardless of modality or method.  I realized that I was not necessarily ever just in love with yoga, but I was in love with movement and cultivating a relationship with my body through mindful movement and breath awareness.  Yoga was my entry point for this, but it opened up a door to other things.  Once I let go of the idea that I was a "bad yoga teacher/student" if I tried other practices, it was liberating.  I no longer felt like I was walking into the set of "Mean Girls" when I showed up at certain yoga studios (because I no longer went, or if I did go to a class, I didn't care what people thought).  I moved in a way that worked for me and interested me, and I started following teachers online that shared a similar philosophy (Jenni Rawlings, Jules Mitchell, Kathryn Bruni Young, Jill Miller, my YTU teachers, and many more).  Sometimes my practice and teaching incorporates traditional yoga poses, sometimes, it doesn't.  At some point, I let go of the idea that I needed to practice traditional yoga postures every day, and instead I practice some form of mindful movement every day, and some meditation.  Oh, and I've become stronger, more resilient, and have less pain in my body.

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One of my yoga teaching acquaintances has been really frustrated with her community as her teaching moves away from traditional postures and incorporating other movements, pain science research, and creativity.  She's been harshly criticized by some of her students, and I get that.  As frustrating as it is, we have to trust that we all have something to offer as teachers (of any modality), and that we will find our community, tribe, and audience.  I've been fortunate to train with wonderful teachers who encouraged that creativity and knowledge, even if it sometimes feels like I'm on an island.  At the end of the day, yoga is about creating connection- to one's body and mind, through movement.  It's not about specific poses or lineages, or having super woman/man flexibility, it's about cultivating a relationship with our bodies through self-inquiry (svahdhyaya) and non harm (ahimsa), and it's about being open to change.  After a hiatus of teaching yoga classes, I started teaching weekly classes again last fall, and I have enjoyed being creative and challenging my students, even if it's not for everyone.  I have found students that do like the way I teach, combining traditional asanas with pilates, primal movement patterns, and more.  There are millions of ways to move, and you have permission to explore all of those ways, even if you practice yoga.  

What's a yoga/pilates/crossfit (etc.) body?

A few years ago,  Pop Pilates/Blogilates  creator Cassey Ho made a video with all of the criticisms she has received as a pilates and fitness instructor.  

A few years ago, Pop Pilates/Blogilates creator Cassey Ho made a video with all of the criticisms she has received as a pilates and fitness instructor.  

I'd like to take a small detour from music writing and general health things today to point out an interesting challenge I've noticed in the movement and wellness community.  In addition to various "fitspiration" type messages on social media and advertising, there's an inaccurate notion that a certain physical activity will inevitably lead to a certain physical and aesthetic appearance, i.e., yoga and pilates practitioners are long and lean in appearance (please let me know what that is if you figure it out), crossfit and weight lifters are strong and muscular, and so forth.  Couple that with some of the fitness slogans like "sweat is fat crying," and "don't stop until you're proud," and it can be difficult to know what to do.  This standard makes it even more challenging when you're a teacher of those disciplines and you don't fit the "image" of what a teacher looks like.

I love this campaign from the  Yoga and Body Image Coalition.

I love this campaign from the Yoga and Body Image Coalition.

Here's the deal: every body responds differently to movement and diet.  Period.  Some people can eat junk food for years and be at a "healthy" weight, others might gain weight immediately with those eating habits.  Some people do crossfit diligently and don't necessarily become lean or jacked (which is why I love the blog Fat Crossfitter) and some people will immediately change physique.  Some pilates and yoga teachers are naturally tall and thin (or former dancers and gymnasts!), others are not.  In the world of fitness, there is this notion that there is a bottom line standard of lean and strong that we all can achieve if we only work hard enough, and if we don't have that body shape, then surely we must be doing something wrong, especially if we're a teacher.  A pilates body must surely be a thin one, right? And a yoga body is a flexible thin one? And someone who lifts weights must be strong and chiseled? 

I loved this fall issue of  Pilates Style  but was crushed to hear that Anula Maiberg was body shamed on the internet for her appearance in her article.  Take a class with her, and you'll see that she's smart and well informed, and more importantly, the classes are hard!

I loved this fall issue of Pilates Style but was crushed to hear that Anula Maiberg was body shamed on the internet for her appearance in her article.  Take a class with her, and you'll see that she's smart and well informed, and more importantly, the classes are hard!

We all have anthropomorphic differences that affect the way our bodies process exercise and diet, as well as hormonal, metabolic, and genetic differences, just as we have infinite variations of skin tone and hair color/texture.  Give a group of people the same workout plan and diet, and everyone's body will change (or not change!) differently and at different rates.  With a group of female fitness professionals between 30-50, you may have women with hypothyroidism or PCOS, women who have delivered multiple babies, women who may have chronic fatigue, women who have never been petite, and women who are happy and healthy at a different size than you.  And as a student or fellow teacher, you may judge a person for their body, but you don't know what's going on for them. (These folks are also business owners trying to make it work, independent contractors running around to teach, mothers, fathers, caregivers, partners, and more.)  For some reason, this seems to be ignored  in regards to fitness teaching-and it's preposterous.  In her awesome podcast, Pilates Unfiltered, Chicago based instructor Jenna Zaffino mentioned this very issue last fall. 

What’s a pilates body? It’s the body that allows you to function through your life with some joy, without pain, and lends itself to the fact that we’re working with individuals with a myriad of different experiences.
— Jenna Zaffino
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Why don't we look at movement as something more than a means of creating an aesthetic appearance?  What about how someone feels in their body? Or improving their quality of movement? So many of us have illnesses that affect our body, whether larger ones that affect our energy, immunity, digestion, or hormones, or smaller injuries.  Everyone has a different story, and not everyone should or can look the same, or achieve that "perfect lean" body aesthetic (especially if they've experienced body challenges).  Side note, everyone’s definition of bodily perfection is different, which doesn’t help! In addition, the training, meal management and dedication needed for figure competitions and athletic modeling is often intense and not sustainable long term for most people.  On the podcast "Behind the Podium," last fall, my friend and business owner Isabelle Barter said it best; "I am a movement educator. Some people are movement educators, some people are fitness models, some are both. But I am a movement educator."  As a teacher and professional musician, I've absolutely been judged for my appearance and body composition- 25 years of playing viola  means that I've spent a lot of time sitting in orchestras and ensembles (when I could've been exercising), coupled with some peculiar spine and shoulder challenges from adaptation.  (Oh, and I'm not a size 2, can’t do all the crazy yoga poses or advanced Pilates work, and that’s ok!). That's part of my body story, and everyone has their own story.  Judge me for my teaching and my knowledge, not my bodily appearance, especially not in regards to my movement ability.  In the fitness community, it can be tempting to assume that a teacher without a perfect body doesn't know what they're doing, but odds are, they're highly trained, extremely busy, and don't have the time or desire to work out for hours a day to achieve a perfect physique.  That doesn't mean that someone with a perfect body isn't worth studying with either, it just means that there is diversity of bodies within the greater movement community.  "The body that moves you throughout your life without pain and with joy" is the one you want to inhabit, not necessarily the one the magazines and media want you to.

Music Making as an Embodied Movement Practice

In the last three weeks, I've spent a lot of time in the car, driving from New York to Texas, and then all around Texas, thus my lengthy pause in writing.  I've also spent the whole summer completing an anatomy and physiology course, and had the opportunity to see how disembodying anatomical science can be when divorced from the experience of feeling, seeing, and being in one's own body.  Let me backtrack though- what does it even mean to be embodied?

Most people, musicians and civilians alike, are disembodied, or at least, our modern society lends itself extremely well to being disconnected from one's body, one's thoughts, and one's physical and emotional experience of moving through the world.  In the last few years, I've begun to see music-making and personal practice as a perfect vehicle for exploring these principles, especially under pressure.

A friend played a mock audition for me over video, and I noticed how much attention and time she took between excerpts. She remarked, "I just need that time to get back into my body before I start-I can get so disconnected towards the end of a passage." I thought it was particularly poignant because performing under pressure requires this ebb and flow on attention, of coming back to the body and returning to the moment by moment experience of playing.  All musicians will have heightened awareness around certain aspects of music-making: a wind player will be more attuned to breath and embouchure, a string player more aware of their hands and finger sensitivity, and so forth.  What I mean is going beyond that to have a whole body experience- being aware of standing, breathing, and everything else while playing, regardless of your instrument. It's also using awareness to solve technical or musical problems- when my energy is frantic and unsettled, my bow changes and string crossings are less effective.  When my left shoulder is relaxed, my shifting is more effective, and I can play well without overusing muscles in the jaw and neck.  That's not to say that I can do all of those things all of the time, but it's maybe using one of those things as an anchor under stress- it's keeping contact with the body during Don Juan or Mendelssohn Scherzo, or Daphnis et Chloe.  

There are many inroads to bodily awareness- for me, walking is a helpful starting point, but many people love running, swimming, yoga, martial arts, and more.  One can also be profoundly disembodied in all of those activities, but one might also use them as a lens for turning on awareness for the rest of the day.  How can you explore your own movements both with and without the instrument to guide your problem solving and preparation skills?  How can music making become a chance to explore your relationship to body, breath, and self-expression?  I find myself constantly inspired by different movement practices- from Yoga Tune Up® to pilates to natural movement to body mapping  to meditation practices, and I'm constantly learning and evolving in my body and awareness.  There is no one somatic practice for everyone (although many teachers will tell you otherwise!), and there are many paths to exploring your relationship with your body and music-making.  Rather than seeing the body as a hindrance to musical perfection, why not change your relationship with it and begin seeing it as a vehicle to co-creating that which you wish to accomplish?

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