I have been telling students for years now, “The most important thing about practicing yoga at Breathe Into Motion is to leave the studio feeling better than when you arrived. It doesn’t matter that you performed some yoga contortion, but the important issue is to practice yoga in a way that will emphasize health.”
In the photo above Danny Paradise is pictured at Breathe Into Motion last year teaching some of the basics of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga with many modifications and variations on postures to ensure the safety of all students participating. I first met Danny years earlier at the week-long 2008 Ashtanga Mela, held at the Kripalu Centre in Lennox, Massachusetts. The theme for the retreat was injury prevention and the yoga practice was centered around the teachings of David Williams, David Swenson and of course Danny, who are some of the first North American students of the late Pattabi Jois.
It was a dream come true to be in the presence of these yoga teachers I so much admired, and now I consider them to be my inspiration and long distance mentors (they are all world travelers and icons in the yoga world). Injury prevention in yoga has been an area of emphasis in my practice for many decades, so these mentors were speaking my language at the 2008 Ashtanga Mela and I spent most lunches sitting with the three of them speaking about safe yoga practice. Since then Danny has graced our studio with many visits and expressed his appreciation for the yoga program I developed, which emphasizes health first and foremost.
The emphasis on health may be a more elusive a concept than it appears. Yoga has long enjoyed a reputation as a means of healing the body, however, this reputation has sometimes been exaggerated by yoga teachers. Yoga practice is not without risk of injury, and claims that it cures medical conditions magically are unfounded. I believe yoga can be used as a supplement for injury rehabilitation and support for easing symptoms stemming from medical conditions, but it must be taught in a structured way with proper progression, chronological lessons, and a thorough understanding of the challenges students face.
I’ve spent many years now amassing a library of books that address the science involved in recovery from injury and exercise for special populations. Through research on each physical problem students have presented, I’ve accumulated knowledge concerning medical issues, and I continue to do so since I believe yoga teachers require continued education in the field of injury recovery and medical conditions. This has afforded my students the information needed to keep safe in yoga class. There is also the potential for students to heal their injuries with the lessons in anatomy, physiology, and biomechanics I teach in class.
The fundamental and overriding message in my yoga classes is to be gentle with yourself. Sensitivity and empathy can be taught to the student by the student. If we can sensitize ourselves to ourselves, and express empathy in regards to our pain symptoms, then we have tools to begin to listen and respond in ways that can heal.
Transcendence of the ego is an important yoga lesson in order to limit the tendency to ‘over-try.’ In today’s culture the need to compete and succeed have led us to push ahead and achieve something. If you practice yoga with the need to succeed you will likely sustain an injury. Recognizing there is nothing to achieve when practicing yoga, but instead identifying yoga as something you ‘comfortably feel’ will remedy the tendency to ‘over-try.’
Finding the truth about the purpose of yoga is often a process. The process leads to compassion. The Buddha has said, “Our sorrows and wounds are healed only when we touch them with compassion.” Once compassion has been restored to us for us, then the idea of leaving the studio better than upon arrival becomes the purpose of the practice.