In my humble opinion I feel there is value in having both and I find in many ways their advice can and does go hand and hand. I myself thankfully have not had many reasons to visit the doctor except for mainly routine visits however, I know that is not always the case for everybody. There are also those times when we should go to the doctor but never do. That goes for yoga practice as well.
I have found in regard to any and all of my physical conditions thus far my YogAlign practice has cured all that ails me. My YogAlign practice has a domino effect when I feel good physically I feel good mentally and I have a positive outlook on life. When I feel positive and inspired I then naturally look at my food choices and daily habits in general leaning into what is best for me. Isn’t that usually what the doctor / yoga teacher would suggest and hope for you?
As many of you know or may not know my soon to be sixteen year old son has some postural challenges. His postural challenges have led us on this journey we are still currently on which has us as a family speaking with many doctors. What I have noticed is I have created this automatic habit of checking in with my Yoga Teacher Michaelle Edwards after every doctor appointment. I realize I value Michaelle’s verbal input as equally as the doctors in regard to my son’s postural challenges.
We tend to believe every word, thought or idea that comes out of our doctors mouth and of course there is good reason to and many yoga students feel that way about their yoga teachers. Most of the time I am sure all goes well however, there are those many stories of circumstances that did not go well. I am finding that talking with both my son’s doctor and also having him spend time with Michaelle Edwards the creator of The YogAlign Method is priceless on so many levels.
It is not so much an east meets west connection as both are basing their recommendations on facts and outcomes and not on faith or opinion. Surgery or body braces being the doctors line of defense as long as the procedure would benefit the postural challenges and re-wiring of the brain from negative posture habits to positive posture habits with a committed YogAlign practice is my yoga teachers first line of defense. Both equally have the best of intentions and are there for my son’s best interest however, we always feel empowered when we finish a YogAlign practice and not so much after a doctor appointment. My yoga teacher gives my son back the power to move and breath in his body in a way that allows him to heal his own body. The idea of placing a body brace on and waiting for the body to benefit does not compute. That being said my son opted for the YogAlign practice and yes we have seen some major shifts. We also continue to see his doctor and his postural challenges have not progressed.
Just as I believe in finding a doctor who is qualified, you trust and connect with I also think it is important to seek these qualifications and qualities in a yoga teacher. I myself have changed doctors as well as yoga teachers if I felt I was not benefiting from their practice or my needs had changed. On the flip side of that I know folks who have stayed with a doctor or yoga teacher that they were not happy with and were getting negative results (or even an injury from the later mentioned). I believe in the medical community as well as the yoga community and feel we are uniting in ways we have not seen in the past. Some doctors getting away from only external fixes and looking internal to the diet, meditation and our connection with nature. Some yoga teachers getting away from selfies and glamour poses and guiding their students into functional movement and proper posture habits. These are all positive signs of change and benefit us all for the greater good. Maybe next time you see your doctor or yoga teacher let them know how much you appreciate their contribution in your and others lives.
My experience with this above mentioned topic has happened within this last year and as always got me looking around at folks moving through their daily lives.
I grew up in Southern California and spent every summer (which then was June, July and August) in Baja California at my grandparents house on the beach until I was well out of high school.
In both geographical locations the weather was mostly sunny and warm which I am a huge fan of and I spent most of my days wearing cut off Levi shorts, tank tops and flip flops. In other words closed toes shoes, socks, pants and jackets were far and few in my everyday life.
I do everything in my flip flops (called slippers here on the Hawaiian islands) probably not the best option for most of my outdoor projects. While thinking back to my 16 years living in a mountain community (including snow) I still spent a great deal of time in my flip flops. I had a large yard/ garden in the mountains as well as here on the island consequently digging, raking, weeding etc. yes in my slippers. I have also done many hikes, walks and dancing in my flip flops as a side not ipanema slippers are my favorite.
This last June as my family and myself were preparing for our annual summer mainland mountain road trip my flip flop existence took a turn for the worst. As I was outside in the garden digging with a shovel pushing down on the metal piece with the the arch of my foot I felt a stretch and pull of discomfort and my heart dropped as I knew I had injured my foot.
I hobbled into the house and began icing three to four times a day with a frozen bottle of water, lightly massaged the surrounding areas (directly massaging soft tissue injury may make it worse) and slept with my foot wrapped in an Ace bandage.
Once on the mainland I continued feeling the discomfort and the lack of stability in my foot however road tripping and camping left me little time to continue my therapy routine. As the road trip progressed I wore shoes and socks much of the time as well as my slippers I was frustrated to say the least. I was not as agile, comfortable or confident in my daily ventures and had to opt out of hiking back to camp for a boat ride back to camp – Boo Hiss Growl
Upon arriving back on Kauai and to this very day September 09/2019 I continue to feel some pain in my foot. I have continued my normal daily activities at home (although I wear shoes and socks now while gardening). YogAlign, snorkeling and continuing icing and wrapping has kept me comfortably active. In my humble opinion being sedentary after and injury is the wrong way to go – the body wants to heal and circulation is key. I have purchased a new style of flip flops during healing process OOFOS Recovery Footwear.
As I began looking around me one day while I was out running errands in my OOFOs feeling comfortable, confident a mostly pain-free when I noticed how many folks were not stable on their feet. Young and old, small and large, black or white it did not matter their health or lack of was hindering their independence. Canes, wheel chairs having to be pickup or dropped off from the car and needing a partners arm for assistance was what I was seeing. Again these were not just mature folks (which by the way can also stay very independent).
That is when it hit me The quality of your health is a direct reflection of your level of independence or lack thereof. I think most of us would agree it is hard enough to ask for help much less be reliant on somebody to get you around physically. I could not imagine my life without my physical independence.
What have I learned:
Directly – flip flops / slippers have a time and place. lol
Staying physically active is a key component to independence but not only that being in proper posture and alignment while preforming that action keeps you less likely to get an injury. What I mean by that is when I am teaching a YogAlign class and we are doing the YogAlign SIP ups (properly aligned sit ups) with SIP breath (structurally Informed Posture- informs our body of how to be in good posture by aligning from the inside out) before students begin movement we prepare are body for optimal results and less negative impacts to the body.
Students begin by lying on their backs, knees bent toward the ceiling/ with a yoga block placed between the meaty part of the inner thighs, shoulder blades under them to create and support the natural curves in the spine (no belly button toward the back body flattening out our natural spinal curves aka springs) hand over hand palm facing up supporting the Occipital Bone on the back of the head, drawing elbows up enough to see from their Peripheral vision thus turning on the arms and with a lion’s exhale let out all their breath. Next we look up at the ceiling take in a full diaphragm SIP breath, squeeze the block between out knees, engaging the core an lifting from the core (maintaining an open front line – no chin to chest) and coming down with the S-hale like a snake. If during that practice I see a student pulling from the neck with their hands or rounding the spine by pulling the chin to the chest I request they come out of the posture immediately as they are doing more harm then good to their body. We do not want to rob Peter to pay Paul. Again it is more important to practice a yoga posture correctly to receive the optimum benefits than doing more harm then good.
I wish us all to be proactive in maintaining our personal independence – you don’t know what you have until it is gone.
sustainable meaning: 1. able to continue over a period of time: 2. causing little or no damage to the environment and therefore able to continue for a long time.
We could exchange the word environment for human body. By the above definition the question could be re-worded to – Is your yoga practice causing little to no damage to your human body? Will you be able to continue this yoga practice for along time?
The answer for me is yes at this current time as my yoga practice is The Yoga Align Method – pain-free yoga from your inner core focuses on proper body alignment and real life movement.
I have found whether young or mature of age we all want to feel good and be happy in our mind, body and spirit.
In my teaching and personal experience most of use can connect to the physical body easily we can touch it, see it and feel it. Where as the mind takes time to connect with with in regard to meditation and stillness. The spirit for some is altogether unattainable in the tangible sense and they cannot find the connection. So doing some physical movement seems like a rational place to find some joy and happiness.
For some yoga practice means only physical movement (asana) for others it is only meditation they seek and actually in this day and age yoga can come in many forms. For this blog lets stick with yoga practice in the physical sense.
When you are in your next yoga practice/ class ask your self some important questions:
Am I able to take a full deep breath in this posture?
Does my spine and sacrum maintain their curves and integrity?
Does this posture simulate functional movement, am I comfortable and stable?
We have been exploring in my public YogAlign practice that some folks do not and have not ever felt comfortable and stable in a forward lunge. A lunge is a lower-body exercise that works several muscle groups at once. The targeted muscles include the glutes in your hips and butt along with the hamstrings and quadriceps in your thighs. The calf muscles in your lower legs, your abdominal muscles and your back muscles act as stabilizers during this exercise.
Not feeling stable in the forward lunge restricts deep breath, alignment and there for is not comfortable or stable. The solution is simple we have placed a yoga block under the back foot which has a double duty purpose. One it allows the student to get alignment from the foot to the hip, raises the heel to a comfortable level and creates the stability the student was lacking and once they are in a stable lunge everything else falls into place.
I have also had students lunge with the assist of the wall. Placing their right foot forward big toe close to the wall be not touching, left foot back on a block or heel lifted once they feel stable (foot in alignment with hip) I have them check to see if the back of the head the Occipital bone and the sacrum are in alignment creating even more stability and bonus proper alignment. Next when alignment and stability are solid we sink into the front knee and place the pads of our fingers (fingers open to turn on the arm muscles) against the wall upper chest height and start our SIP breath (structurally Informed Posture- informs our body of how to be in good posture by aligning from the inside out). Allowing this core breath to stabilize the body along with drawing the shoulder blades together creating even more stability.
When properly aligned in a posture with effective breathing and feeling stable and comfortable then and only then will we reap all the benefits the posture has to offer. I would say the above described YogAlign Power Lunge is sustainable for the human body as it ticks all our boxes.
If we are moving through a yoga practice that is harming or damaging our human body what would be the point? Although sometimes this may happen and we do not even realize it is happening. Be careful when an instructor cues a posture is supposed to be painful and to breath through the pain. That may be somewhat true for a person who has had a debilitating accident and is in recovery (physical therapy) and even then I would question the motive and benefits.
We can create a happy healthy mind, body and spirit well into a mature age by putting our body in breathable, aligned, functional, comfortable and stable yoga postures.
Now go out and use your sustainable body for good!
A woman has revealed she suffered a stroke by tearing a major blood vessel in her neck while practicing a yoga headstand.
Rebecca Leigh, 40, from Gambrills, Maryland, had been filming a tutorial for her 26,000 social media fans just hours before the injury.
Her vision became blurry, her limbs weak and she had headaches, but she at first thought she had slipped a disc in her neck, having had similar symptoms when she done so in her twenties.
Two days later, after seeing a doctor, she was shocked to discover that despite being young and healthy, she had suffered a stroke and was at risk of another any minute thanks.
It is believed she tore her right carotid artery in her neck while performing a ‘hollowback’ handstand.
Today, Mrs Leigh cannot speak for more than a few minutes due to nerve damage, has daily headaches and has severe memory loss.
But Mrs Leigh revealed just one month after the terrifying experience, she was back on her mat and she still practices yoga for an hour every day.
Mrs Leigh, who was barely able to get out of bed as her artery healed, said: ‘After decades of focusing on working out and my diet and making as many healthy decisions as I could for my body, having a stroke by doing yoga just didn’t seem fair.
‘But I had to get back out there and do the things that made me happy and one of those things was obviously my yoga practice.’
Acarotid artery dissection (CAD) occurs when blood leaks into a tear in the wall of the blood vessel.
As the blood pools, it causes the layers of the artery wall to separate. This prevents oxygen reaching the brain and is a major cause of stroke, mostly in people under the age of 50.
Mrs Leigh said: ‘I was on my front porch practicing a pretty intense type of yoga handstand called a hollowback handstand.
‘This pose requires you to extend your neck, drop your hips back and arch your lower spine all while in a headstand.
‘I felt that I had really nailed it but as I walked inside my house, my peripheral vision went out and the rest of my vision became blurry.
‘It was like a curtain coming down all around me.
‘I sat down and tried to put my hair into a ponytail but my left arm flopped around without any control.’
At first Mrs Leigh attributed the symptoms to the severely herniated discs in her neck which she had been diagnosed with in her early twenties.
She said: ‘I knew that arm numbness could be a symptom of that. It only lasted for five minutes but then my head began to hurt.
‘I have suffered from headaches and migraines since I was a teenager but I knew this was different.’
Two days later, Mrs Leigh was horrified to notice that her pupils were different sizes.
‘My right eye drooped and my pupils were different sizes,’ she said.
‘It was terrifying. It was then that I knew something was very, very wrong.’
Mrs Leigh and husband Kevin, 45, who works in federal law enforcement, immediately went to the emergency room where an MRI scan revealed Mrs Leigh had suffered a stroke.
She said: ‘The doctor on staff came into the little room we were waiting in and said in a monotone voice: “Well, you my dear, had a stroke”.
‘Kevin and I both let out a little laugh, because we thought he had to be kidding.
‘There was no way that someone my age, in my health, could have had a stroke. But he responded to our laughter in solemn silence and his face said it all.’
She spent the next five days in the neurological intensive care unit as doctors battled to understand why an active, healthy eating, non smoker aged 39 could have suffered a stroke.
Mrs Leigh said: ‘After all the blood work, ultrasounds, MRIs and CT scans, it was finally a CTA scan that explained it.’
While doing handstands Mrs Leigh had torn her right carotid artery, one of the four arteries that supplies blood to the brain.
The tear sent a blood clot to her brain which caused the stroke and the trauma of the tear in the wall of the artery also caused a small aneurysm, a bulge in the vessel, to develop.
At first Mrs Leigh felt fury and disbelief that something as healthy as yoga could have triggered a stroke.
She said: ‘I couldn’t believe it. “How could this happen to me?” I was angry at my body, I felt that it had betrayed me somehow.’
For six weeks, Mrs Leigh endured terrible pain with constant headaches which made any kind of light unbearable. She lost 20lbs (9kg) and couldn’t get out of bed without help.
She said: ‘The stroke caused massive head pain, unlike any headache I had ever experienced before.
‘I couldn’t shower without help, wash my hair, feed myself, or take my pile of scary and unfamiliar, life-saving medications.
‘The nerve damage made any sort of light unbearable.
‘The pain it caused my eyes was excruciating. My usually bright, sunlight-filled house was kept completely dark for the first few months.
‘For the first three months I heard a constant “wooshing” sound in my right ear. That was the sound of the blood trying to get through my artery up into my brain.
But slowly she began to notice improvement and was able to take short walks outside by herself.
Mrs Leigh said: ‘I slowly started to take two to three-minute walks outside. I started to make simple meals for myself and I was able to sit up in bed to watch TV.
‘These small accomplishments felt huge to me.’
Incredibly just one month after the stroke, Mrs Leigh was back on her yoga mat.
She said: ‘I simply sat on my mat in lotus pose and listened to my breath. I slowly led back up to simple stretches and the poses that felt most safe to me.
‘I knew that if I didn’t get back to my practice relatively soon after my stroke, I never would. I would have freaked myself out too much about it.’
At Mrs Leigh’s six-month scan, doctors told her that her carotid artery had completely healed. The aneurysm however was still there and Mrs Leigh feels the effects daily.
She said: ‘The immediate arm numbness that I experienced during the stroke went away that day, but in its place is a nearly constant tingly sensation.
‘It’s like a wave of electricity is going back and forth from my elbow to my hand and back over and over again.
‘I am still dealing with some sort of headache, face or neck pain on a daily basis.
‘The carotid artery apparently houses a bundle of nerves and when it was torn, those nerves were damaged.
‘My face physically hurts and gets worse just by talking for a few minutes or having a busy day.
‘My eye is still a bit droopy and my memory is awful. I forget things quickly. I have to ask people to remind me of things they’ve already told me, something I never had to do prior to my injury.
‘I fatigue much quicker than I did before. It doesn’t take more than a trip to the grocery store to count me out for the rest of the day.’
But the most damaging after effect is the fear that the stroke could strike again at any moment.
Mrs Leigh said: ‘It’s very hard to recover from something so scary that came out of nowhere. You think you’re doing everything right and then when something like this happens, it’s hard not to think that it can happen again.’
But the yogi is happy to be back on her mat, practicing sun salutations.
She said: ‘About a year after my stroke I was about 75 per cent back to where I was before my stroke.
‘I know I will never be where I was before 100 per cent. The fact that I can touch my toes is enough to make me smile.
‘I wanted to share my story so that something like this doesn’t happen to any other yogis. I had never heard of it happening before it had happened to me.
‘If I had read of just one incidence of something similar, I would have known that a stroke was a very real possibility when I was experiencing my symptoms.
‘That it wasn’t my neck, my herniated discs or my nerves. It was my brain gasping for its life.’
WHAT IS A CAROTID TEAR?
A carotid dissection is a tear in one of your carotid arteries. These are a set of two arteries at the sides of your neck that supply blood to your brain.
A dissection is a tear of the inner layer of the wall of an artery. The tear lets blood get in between the layers of the wall and separate them. This causes the artery wall to bulge.
The bulge can slow or stop blood flow through the artery. It can also cause problems by pressing on nearby tissue or nerves.
The tear can also trigger your body’s clotting system. A clot can then block blood flow at the site of the tear. Blocked or decreased blood flow can lead to a transient ischemic attack (TIA) or a stroke.
A carotid dissection can happen at any age. It tends to occur more often in younger adults than in older adults. It is a common cause of stroke in people younger than age 50. It is slightly more common in men than in women.
This condition is often caused by a neck injury from things such as:
Swimming or scuba diving
Playing sports such as tennis, basketball, or volleyball
Riding roller coasters or other rides
Jumping on a trampoline
Sneezing or coughing
Having a chiropractic adjustment to your neck (rare)
Thirty-some years ago, when I was beginning to teach yoga, injuries related to yoga practice were relatively rare. They did happen, of course, but they were an anomaly. In recent years, yoga injuries have become a hot topic of conversation in Western yoga culture. A recent study, published in 2017, found that injuries are on the rise.
From a Yoga Journal article about the study:
“The study, titled Yoga-Related Injuries in the United States From 2001 to 2014, found that there were 29,590 yoga-related injuries seen in hospital emergency departments from 2001 to 2014. Overall, yoga injuries became almost twice as common in 2014 as in 2001. But among seniors especially, yoga injuries truly skyrocketed. During the same time period, the rate of yoga injuries among adults 65 and older increased more than eightfold.”
There are many possible reasons for the rise in yoga injuries. First, with the sheer numbers of people practicing asana these days compared to 30 years ago, it would be odd if there weren’t more injuries. Second, the popularization of yoga in the West has required that yoga look more like what we interpret as exercise—raising your heart rate, sweating, etc. Third, we’ve imported just one aspect of a comprehensive practice into our culture, independent of its larger context. Finally, Eastern ideas about practice are fundamentally different from Western ideas. In the West, we approach asana practice from a completely different intention.
It makes sense that in transferring a foreign practice into a completely different culture, adjustments must be made to fit Western practitioners. For example, most of us who practice yoga are not holed up in caves practicing all day. We are householders with families, jobs and other competing interests.
The yoga tradition actually makes plenty of room for the householder. You might be surprised to find that the philosophy of one of yoga’s ancient and defining texts, The Bhagavad Gita says that a yogi need not leave the world in order to find freedom. According to Mircea Eliade, scholar and author of Yoga, Immortality and Freedom, Krishna encourages Arjuna to continue to be a “man of action,” finding his freedom in the midst of his life in the world.
Conditioned to Compete
The problem with plopping one small component of a practice as vast and deep as yoga into a completely different culture is one of context. In the West, from an early age we are conditioned to interpret physical endeavors through the lens of competition. Think about it: We watch competitive team sports for entertainment. Even sports where the judging is clearly subjective—think ice skating and gymnastics—are subject to competition.
For many of us physical endeavors like running, hiking and bicycling that could be seen as purely pleasurable are subject to the “no pain, no gain” conditioning we’ve all grown up with. We almost expect to injure ourselves in physical practice, so on the surface, yoga injuries might even seem completely normal.
When asana practice is severed from its roots and brought to a culture that celebrates competition, it will be interpreted through the competitive lens because that is the lens we know. This is why much of the yoga that is popular today is active and fast paced, with a focus on a high-intensity physical workout.
I’m not saying, “Western culture=bad, Eastern culture=good.” Nor am I knocking healthy competition. I’m just pointing out that most of us have been conditioned, simply by growing up here, to equate physical activity with pushing oneself, striving for excellence, etc. This is neither good nor bad. It is simply the context from which most of us, at least initially, will perceive and interpret asana practice because that is our most familiar filter. When competition, striving and forcing are our context, yoga injuries are more likely to occur.
Early in my practice it was easy for me to see my own competitive tendencies. I was born with a body that is capable of doing fancy poses, and I practiced them regularly for years. Practicing fancy poses is fun. But when I was in the stage of practice where these poses were important to me, I did not find that performing them made me a kinder, wiser or more compassionate person. They did not make meditation any easier either. Since that is the putative purpose of practicing asana, I began to question and shift my practice.
Competitive Mind vs. Wisdom Mind
Even now, I sometimes catch my competitive mind feeling the need to justify a slow, quiet practice. I’ve found myself wondering if I’m really doing a legitimate practice when I simply lie on tennis balls for an hour to help alleviate back discomfort from spending too much time in chairs.
My wisdom mind helps me remember that whatever practice brings my body/mind to balance in a given moment is the best practice. I continue to learn that asana practice must be flexible. I must stay flexible also—mentally and emotionally—to remember that asana practice is designed to serve the individual needs of each person in each moment. We are not here to serve asana practice; it is the other way around.
Even if you don’t count yourself among the Type A crowd, the process of rewiring the competitive mind can take time. While I rarely act from competitive mind in my asana practice anymore, it still makes its voice heard. The difference is that I now have the power to choose which mind to listen to.
How to Avoid—Or At Least Lessen the Possibility of—Yoga Injuries
Assess your needs. We’re not all the same. Each person who comes to yoga practice has different strengths and weaknesses. If you are just starting out, and you want to ease into practice, steer toward classes titled “Hatha Yoga,” “Iyengar Yoga,” or “Viniyoga” rather than those titled “Power Yoga,” “Ashtanga” or “Vinyasa.” The latter are fast-paced classes where it’s much more difficult for students to practice healthy alignment and for the teacher to give individual assistance. If you want to practice a faster-paced yoga at some point, attend those classes after you’ve built a strong foundation.
Find a qualified teacher. Not all yoga teachers are the same. Experience and education of teachers can vary widely. You may need to do some research here. The number of education hours required for a Yoga Alliance-registered teacher is relatively small—200 hours. Make some phone calls. Interview teachers to find out about their experience and their philosophy for practice.
Respect your body. We all come into the world with vastly different structures, which means our levels of natural mobility and stability are all very different. Some people’s structures will never do fancy poses, while others will perform amazing feats of flexibility from day one. Turn your mind inward to what’s actually happening in your body in the moment, rather than comparing yourself to others.
No pain, no pain. One of my main asana teachers, Judith Hanson Lasater, has modified the old “No pain, no gain” philosophy. Instead, she says, “No pain, no pain.” This means that no pain in your present practice will more likely yield no pain in your future. Of course, you need to distinguish between pain and the sensations of stretching. (That’s a whole different post!) But in general, if you feel painful sensations, especially in any of your joints, it’s a good idea to back off. Pain is a signal to stop doing what you’re doing, not to try to “push through it.”
Meet your body where it is today. It’s helpful to remember that each time we come to our yoga mat, our bodies are different. Today’s Trikonasana (Triangle Pose) is absolutely unique, no matter how many times you’ve practiced the pose in the past. Let go of the expectation that today’s practice should be like your last practice. Also, let go of the idea that because you’ve been practicing for x number of years, you ought to be able to perform certain poses like the hot Instagram yogis do. What does your body need today?
Michaelle Edwards is one of the most free-thinking, iconoclastic, revolutionary yoga teachers in the world. She is one of the first modern postural yoga teachers, who over 20 years ago, began introducing curvy, dynamic myofascial alignment in her public classes in rebellion to the yoga world’s standard model of static, linear stretching. Her leading edge book, “YogAlign: Pain-free Yoga from Your Inner Core” (published in 2011) emphasizes health through natural alignment of an anterior tilt of the pelvis and an activation of the posterior chain of fascia. She has infused her postural method, YogAlign with techniques that allow the body to heal by rewiring the innate postural software using core breathing, primal body positions, self-massage, proprioception enhancement, visualization, experiential anatomy, and activation of the psoas/diaphragm connection. Michaelle has been a student of yoga for more than 40 years and a teacher for more than 25. She is the founder and director of Kauai Yoga School, offering teacher trainings, retreats, and workshops in Kauai and worldwide.
Bowspring method is much in agreement with Michaelle’s curvy, natural alignment ideas, so it was reinforcing and supportive for me to have a full conversation and interview with her back in the Spring of this year to discuss the new paradigm of dynamic, curvy alignment.Michaelle speaks boldly and provocatively, yet with care and concern for yoga students worldwide who inadvertently hurt themselves with their regular asana practice of the standard model of linear alignment. In this eye-opening interview, Michaelle contrasts passive, heavy, hyper-extended linear alignment, which is common today in modern postural yoga, with a radically new, curvy, springy posture in which the back of the body is actively engaged. This new paradigm of alignment, expressed by both Bowspring and YogAlign, embraces animal-like, primal movements that brings lightness and agile power to the practitioner. Despite all of its health, therapeutic, and fitness benefits, the new curvy alignment paradigm continues to get push-back from the status quo of the yoga world. Michaelle openly shares about the opposition she has faced from the mainstream yoga world, which is economically invested in the old paradigm and afraid to shift paradigms. Yet, the standard model is breaking down as more and more new students are embracing wavy, dynamic postural alignment.
John – Michaelle, who has been your greatest influence in the creation of YogAlign?
Michaelle – My answer is the human body. In reality, it took many years and specifically hundreds of hours to create YogAlign and it came about mostly from my own explorations in my practice as well as conducting private classes with clients. Teaching one-on-one is key because I could actually observe if anything was changing using the techniques I was developing. I realized that in order to feel balanced in our structure, we have to change the automatic programming of posture and movement by engaging the conscious and unconscious aspects of our vestibular system thereby increasing proprioception in the client. I practiced yoga for 20 years before I trained as a bodyworker (massage therapist). I realized after a few years of doing bodywork that most chronic pain is a result of posture and movement imbalances and massage; although it was beneficial to the client, was not enough to really change postural alignment at the neuromuscular (brain) level.
At the same time, I had yoga injuries and was beginning to see clearly that – Modern Postural Yoga (MPY) alignment – was not working the way I was taught to believe it was. That’s when I started changing and creating a whole new system of yoga based more on maintaining the spinal curves and also developing poses based of posture alignment rather than alignment of the ‘pose’. We use a great deal of movement in YogAlign because this is how the brain learns new patterns.
One of the ancient tenets of yoga is that ‘change is possible’. I have felt a keen desire to give people tools to make changes that could lead to a feeling of ease and stability in the body and the mind. Over my many decades of teaching, many people would say they could not do yoga because it felt so uncomfortable or it was unattainable to them. I wanted to create a way to do yoga that made anatomical sense and would support how we move in the body naturally rather than just ‘performing poses’. Why not do yoga in a way that felt comfortable and allowed everyone to do it? That made sense to me. Many of our habits in the body and mind happen in the unconscious mind or in the autonomic nervous system. I became fascinated with ways to tap into our natural ‘bio-intelligence’ and learn how to change the body by changing the way the brain automatically dictates our posture and how we move. So, in YogAlign and FitAlign, re-programming the brain is one of the key elements to facilitate change on a deep level.
The body is designed to move so it made sense to create something using movement rather than some yoga poses, which are static body positions; and some of them go against the way our body is designed to move.
Also so many people told me that yoga felt so uncomfortable or unattainable to them. I wanted to create a way to do yoga that felt comfortable and allowed everyone to do it. That made sense to me. Reprogramming the brain is the key element to the work I do with YogAlign and FitAlign Posture Training.
YogAlign is a form of somatic re-education, and we do not try to force the body – the re-alignment is more like blooming it from the inside. I train people to use breathing in a way that recruits the trunk muscles as stabilizers to align the spine in its natural curves and position the sacrum in its natural 30 degree nutation.
I think it’s definitely more natural to have a slight anterior tilt. You can see in pictures of people in Africa of these guys that stay totally strong into their 90’s – they have a lot of anterior tilt to the pelvis.
Most yoga instructors (and people in general) tell others to pull their navel in if they think they have lordosis. When there is lordosis, or excessive lumbar curve I use the breathing to create a lengthening of the lumbar as well as aligning the rib cage over the hips. For people with a flat or posterior tilted sacrum, and SI joint pain – it is best to do movements and breathing that restore the lumbar curve and sacral nutation.
Traditional yoga forward bends are not practiced in YogAlign as we keep the anterior flexors and posterior extensor chains engaged in all movements.
Bending forward to do a pose like Uttanasana can create laxity in the ligaments of the posterior chain including the spine, sacrum, hip, hamstring and knee area. There is a belief system in yoga that stretching the posterior chain to make the hamstrings and back looser or longer is beneficial. However, we need a strong back and so why not practice being upright instead of forward? Also, the ligaments of the spine, sacrum and hip are stretched and pulled apart in doing straight leg forward bending, which is so common in mainstream yoga.
So, that’s what I’ve been teaching for years is to stop trying to pull things apart. Instead, pull things together. I look at a lot of what people are doing and to me it looks like they are just trying to pull their limbs away from their body. Though my views are counter to most of the industry, what I do teach is still Yoga. Although I have friends say to me, “you know this is really great, but this isn’t Yoga,” I’ll say, In YogAlign, we practice asana and breathing that helps us move and breath from the center of our body and that is the middle path so often described in the yoga sutras. In yoga philosophy, we are encouraged to practice ahimsa or non-violence and YogAlign is comfortable and safe so we feel that we are practicing ahimsa in asana. Many people told me how uncomfortable yoga was for them so I decided to practice ahimsa and make YogAlign steady and comfortable. People are coming to my classes, and saying they feel more comfortable and stable in their body, and when they feel more comfortable in their body, their mind is naturally more peaceful, so they get what they are looking for in yoga.
J – To get some more clarity on the historical beginning of YogAlign, when did you start to open up to other ideas of alignment instead of the classical forms in Iyengar Yoga and Ashtanga Yoga. Do you remember the year?
M – My son was born in ‘87, so probably around ‘95.
J – Yeah, that’s important to note because a lot of people after they hit 40-years old attribute their pain in yoga mainly to their age. They don’t consider the source of the pain in their yoga practice to be the widely accepted standard model alignment. For you, as you are now moving into your mid-60’s, it sounds like the curvy alignment method of YogAlign has helped you age in a very healthy way.
M – Basically, what I try to do in YogAlign is in response to the fact that we’re all so out of alignment from sitting in chairs. We’ve all got these breathing problems because of our posture because we’ve been forced into the chair which is a linear right angle and not a natural shape for the curving design structure of the human body. So, basically my whole focus is to restore the natural spinal curves, but also including the knee curve and the foot curve.
I have experience with a number of people who have torn the hamstring tendon off the sit bones doing vinyasa flow types of yoga. They felt no pain until the attachment pulled away from the bone. These people were never told that trying to bend forward in a straight line and even using the hands to create tensions and pulling on the back side of the body will undermine the necessary tension in the ligaments and also lead to laxity and collapse of the natural curves of the posterior chain. I’ve been telling people this for a long time, the human body is made of curves, we’re not made of linear lines. These curves act as shock absorbers and help our body to undulate during movement so keep the curves! So, I don’t do poses like staff pose. I don’t see any point in that – trying to flatten the body into a right angle doesn’t make sense to me.
So far, I am not being invited to teaching in the popular yoga conferences and perhaps its because I’m too different. There has been a lot of pushback and alienation over the years because of my views on yoga pose alignment and the importance of working with the body globally rather than in parts. I also have had hundreds of people contact me who have serious injuries from yoga and they are afraid and feel that their body failed them. I give them a safe and effective way to continue to practice and/or teach.
J – So, in the mid-1990’s, you’re following your own heart and just feeling what alignment is right in your body. You’re feeling that we need to return to these curves and allowing the pose to come from inside – is that more like it?
M – My whole idea is that the Universe is in a state of contraction and expansion, and you want to walk that line between. The way I teach the breath is that if you’re in a position that is compressing the spine, the breath won’t move. So, you can use the breath as a barometer to know how close you are to the middle balance place. I stay away from extreme extension and extreme flexion of the spine. I focus more on a neutral spine.
I used to think that going to the end range of flexion or extension and having my joints as flexible as possible was going to be good for me. Now I know that that is absolutely not true. There is science showing that you don’t create the middle neutral posture by going to the end ranges. I believed it for years, and I believed that making my body as flexible as possible was going to be good for me, and it was a mistaken idea. A flexible spine is an unstable spine and statistics show that those with a loose, flexible spine have the most back pain.
I do explore beyond the neutral spine of course. It’s not that I don’t to go into flexion or extension. I just don’t go to the end range. I relate it to how you use your body in real life. Do you need to extend or flex your spine that far to function in the world?
Although, I get my students on the fitness balls and they go into really deep backbends, I don’t let them do it passively. I train them to engage their muscles.
I’m not a proponent of Yin Yoga as I think passive stretching is really problematic. It is important to engage the muscles to make the joints move. Holding the body in static positions can create laxity in forces needed for upright stable alignment. I think that the benefit of just staying with your breath and mindfulness is important, but you can do that taking a walk.
J – Let’s talk about the benefits and the downside of the most static yin positions. Do you find any benefit? How does that alignment serve?
M – I think again, if you’re in passive spinal flexion – say you’re gone to do Child’s pose or something like that – it’s like hanging meat off a hook or something. It’s going to start to pull the structures apart. To me, collectively we have such a big issue with people going forward. I don’t see the point in making a body flexible by bending it more forward. My version of a yin pose, would be more, to lie on a support in Shavasana. Most people are so forward (contracted on their front line) that just laying on a floor is to them, an opening.
In a loaded spinal flexion – when people hang on their ankles in a forward bend and pull with their spine in a C-shape – they can do a lot of damage because there can be so much more torque from pulling into it using their arms.
Recently, I had a discussion with a guy online that was telling me that my before and after YogAlign pictures are just anecdotal and did not prove anything. I said well, let’s talk about Janu Sirsasana – where you are sitting, you bend one knee in and you’re gonna flex your spine over the other leg. I asked him if he ever saw injuries in that pose? This guy teaches some kind of Ashtanga vinyasa flow derivative.
He’s says, “Yeah, I’ve seen people herniate their discs, de-stabilise their SI joints, hurt their knees, and he said especially when they power in there using their hands on the ankles to pull forwards.” I asked him if he has seen these injuries? “Yeah.”
Do you see a benefit? “No, there’s no benefits to Janu Sirsasana,” he replied.
So, I asked, “But do you still teach the pose?” “Yes,” he said, “you don’t need a reason to teach a yoga pose. It’s just a challenge.” That’s what this guy said.
We’re having this discussion online and then I said, “I’ve been working on YogAlign for more than a couple of decades. I’d be happy to send you my book and see if you might be interested in reading what I’ve been doing with yoga.” “No”, he replied, “I just started PT school, so I don’t have time.” He didn’t think that was scientific. He is one of these people that has probably taken a logic course and likes to go line-by-line through one of my articles to and try and debunk it by saying it is simply ‘anecdotal evidence’ or ‘non-secular’.
J – That is very interesting, because it’s been just 5 years for Desi and I with the Bowspring method, and there is so much is just exactly the same. We naturally discovered what you’ve been doing for a couple of decades — of not going to the extremes in the poses, finding the natural curvy spinal alignment — and then getting push back for teaching it. We have gotten used to being trolled and attacked for also disturbing the standard paradigm.
M – People (yoga teachers) are trying to protect their livelihoods. I taught at a couple of conferences and people came and took one of my classes along with many other classes offered on the conference menu. After the first day, I’ve got gangs of students following me around asking questions and obviously excited for a different perspective. But I also have other teachers over in the corner avoiding eye contact or discussion with me. What would happen is that students would come in and take my class and then go into the next class and say, “wait a minute, we just learned that spine alignment is not beneficial, and we don’t want to do that now.” The conflict in the alignment paradigms seems to cause problems, so for now, YogAlign is not yet offered at the big yoga conferences.
J – What is the first step in helping people to shift their mind?
You’ve been doing it for so long, you know the tendencies for the students’ minds.
What are some of your strategies in helping the students to open their mind and maybe even switch systems of alignment?
M – I explain, “this may challenge some of your practices and belief systems. I’m not saying that this is the only way, I’m just presenting to you my experience and what’s been working.
I encourage students to focus on the value and functional benefits rather than the belief systems about a yoga pose or exercise. I’m very careful to consider people’s feelings and their experiences because I have seen some of them almost have nervous breakdowns once they get the global body concept and realize what they may have been doing to their body for decades.
I’ve had people start shaking, crying. Because they realize, in order for them to understand it, they have to view the body differently, they have to see it globally.
I take pictures, so they see it looks so much different and it feels that much different, they go, ‘whoa! I feel really light, energized, strong.’
Very few people, once they have taken my class, will go back to straight line body positions or linear right angle poses. They tell me, ‘you’ve ruined yoga classes for me. I can’t go anymore.’
I say, “You can adjust what you’re doing and still go to yoga classes. Many people in the yoga world are adjusting the way they teach and questioning what they teach. Back when you and I started yoga, John, it was considered disrespectful to question the teacher or the practice.
By the time the students come to me, they’ve already been around the yoga block and they’re hurting or they have pain they do not understand. A lot of people will come to me and say, “I always thought that poses just didn’t feel right. So I quit doing yoga.”
Most people will think that it is the fault of their individual body – that there is something wrong with them. What I do is give them the understanding that they are not designed to bend over with their knees straight, not designed to touch their toes and try to pull on their hamstrings to get deeper.
They go, “OH!” when they see that it’s a big relief to them – that they don’t have this tyranny that they have to always stretch things out. Most people have a feeling of guilt when they say, “I can’t stretch, so I am really bad at yoga.”
You don’t see a lot of men in yoga classes because their back body including their hamstrings and butt muscles are so developed that their body won’t let them bend forward without a deep bend to the knees. I joke around that we women make all the men do the hard work. We don’t have strength in our backs, so we can just flop forward. Men may feel that they can’t do yoga because they’re not good at it and they don’t want to look foolish. But usually, I have half and half (men and women) in my classes because the men feel comfortable, they can do it. That’s another great thing.
I think a lot of yoga has become elitist, where only certain body types and certain people can keep up, and it leaves a big part of our population out. Anyone can do my class. You don’t have to be 25 and hyper-mobile. I think that yoga is leaving a lot of people behind because of that.
One of the things I recently read about is that they are seeing a big link between people with hyper-mobility, perhaps born with a connective tissue disorder, and anxiety and stomach disorders.
J – That’s very interesting. Can say more about that?
M – Hyper-mobility is now being related to anxiety, stomach disorders and fibromyalgia. I think it could be the proprioceptors/mechano receptors in the ligaments and other connective tissue that are relaying to the brain that something is not stable in the joint area. The brain may respond by creating a sympathetic state in the nervous system that leads to many kinds of autoimmune diseases. Stress creates higher levels of cortisol, less blood to the organs etc., and it is possible that over-stretching may do the same thing. What I understood is that the researchers know there is this health problem with laxity in the connective tissue, but they don’t know why.
J – We also see with students that low tone of the connective tissue leads to adverse effects in the nervous system. Our hypothesis is that the connective tissue, particularly the fascia, when it is low tone or very lax, doesn’t give the nervous system the necessary balanced level of uniform engagement that a natural posture provides. The nervous system can freak out into classic fibromyalgia symptoms. The fascia moves away from the bone and its stable centerline, and it becomes spongy. Anxiety is a normal fibromyalgia symptom.
M – I think that the movement to foam roll the fascia and use balls to loosen their tissue is happening without consideration of how the nervous system responds to all that we do. I remind people that it is most likely a bad idea to make connective tissue too loose. Fascia has a natural recoil which helps us move forward as much as the contraction of our muscles.
Years ago, they studied that kangaroos capacity to jump so far from a static position, which was originally attributed to some sort of special muscle tissue, but then they realized the power to jump came from fascial recoil. We have the same type of fascia recoil in our body as the kangaroo. We have the necessary good ‘tensional forces’ in our body needed to keep the tissues resilient and strong, which we don’t want to reduce by passively stretching connective tissue.
J – How do you deal with the difficult students – the ones with the biggest push back to this new paradigm alignment? Do you find it’s the yoga teachers who have the most difficulty or trouble with this curvy alignment?
M – By the time someone comes to a YogAlign workshop, they’ve already read my book or seen some of my videos, they already want to hear what I have to say. But I tell them, “Don’t believe me. This is just the beginning. I’m giving you tools, and you have to work with your body. And if you want to teach this, you gotta get out there and experiment by teaching.
But in terms of the pushback, the negative comments on an article I wrote or my alignment ideas, I think that some of it comes from people feeling threatened. Others want to blindly believe things like “ no yoga pose is inherently bad for the body’. I have heard that as an argument to dispute the natural spine alignment in YogAlign.
Yoga hasn’t been questioned for so long because it has sort of a ‘religious’ protection around it, and you don’t question the church’s beliefs, you know.
I just worked with an older yoga teacher from NZ and she said “thank you for giving me my asana practice back, because I practically gave up on it because of my injures and my discomfort.”
So if anything, I feel that I’m trying to help put yoga teachers back in a working condition – because once they start hurting, and when they realize it’s their yoga, they can really suffer a lot of anxiety and/or denial. Those who have a conscience about what they are teaching, question, “what am I showing to other people?”
They realize, ‘I better quit this damaging alignment, and I want to learn how to do this so I’m able to teach in a safer and more effective manner.’
Most of the people counter against my warning about the dangers of the standard yoga alignment with, “well, I only teach gentle yoga”, but I say just because the alignment is slow and easy, doesn’t mean it’s gentle on your body.
J – In the short-term, you can do a sitting forward bend and it can feel good. But that postural form as a long-term practice and lifestyle is degenerative. These common misalignments are now catching up on the health and joint mobility of many experienced yoga teachers. Yet, they don’t know yet about an alternative, new alignment paradigm. That is one reason why it is important for us to spread this information to support the growing awareness about curvy, dynamic alignment.
There is a lot of questioning starting to happen in the dogmatic yoga culture. However, the standard model is pretty deeply ingrained in modern postural yoga.
M – What you and I are teaching is more about alignment — about how your posture is like a program to support the function and longevity of your joints.
But I think that the bread and butter of teacher trainings has been the performance of yoga poses.
To me, the word ‘pose’, which if you look it up in the dictionary, it says, ‘to strike a position’, to make one look sexy and powerful. There might be some benefit to holding poses for a short amount of time, but certainly not the five-minute static Virabhadrasana (Warrior pose) and that stuff. Most of my work is movement-oriented.
The idea of posture and alignment is changing and people are waking up to the fact that the body is a continuum and all parts affect the whole.
John, you have had a big influence on changing yoga. The basis of Anusara alignment – the Loops and Spirals and other principles. You got people to turn and think in another direction and see that there’s more to the body than the cut and dry, linear alignment.
It’s so much more fun for me to teach this way, so much more dynamic. Without being attached to standard model, you’re learning all the time as a teacher, not confined in a box.
There are some other posture educators like Kathleen Porter talking about how babies shouldn’t be put in those C-shaped carriers, since we start collapsing the sacrum in the infant stage. My theory is that babies should walk a lot sooner than they do. My son crawled at 3.5 months and walked at 7 months. By the time he was one years old, he was running and dancing. I simply let him move, swim and be on his stomach so that he could push up with his arms and engage his back muscles. We don’t let the babies engage their back muscles enough.
J – So in functional movement, how much focus do you give to the action of the glutes?
M – I do a lot of exercises that recruit the glutes, which are part of the extensors of the back chain of myo-fascial tissue that includes the entire back, hamstrings and the back of the neck. Most people have their head forward, their hamstrings disengaged, sacrum flat with their non-existent butts. So, I do a lot of things to recruit the extensor chain in positions where the cranium and the sacrum are in line.
I also focus on the breathing apparatus and recruiting the midline. If your breathing apparatus is collapsed — if your ribs, for instance, are collapsed, it doesn’t matter what you do, you’re not going to be able to align your posture. So, this imbalanced alignment, in which it is difficult to expand your ribs when you breath, is really disturbing to me.
I think the whole Yoga thing might be falling apart from the inside out.
I think that when the mainstream media really does an in-depth report on what we know now about alignment – all these people getting hip replacements, etc. – the yoga industry may get a lot of backlash from orthopedic surgeons and physical therapists.
I obtained the ‘YogaInjuries.com’ domain in 2008 when there was no other websites on yoga injuries and now there are hundreds of similar sites.
People are going to start thinking… ‘whoa, maybe this pose alignment isn’t that good for us?!’ This growing awareness among the public is why I think the yoga world is scrambling now to try to respond to the increasing number of injuries.
You know, everybody is learning all this anatomy in yoga teacher training. But I tell people that it is not enough for a yoga teacher to learn a bunch of anatomical terms and the names of various bones and parts. You have to understand how it all works together. Just naming a bunch of separate body parts or seeing some image where the hamstring is highlighted in blue does not help people understand the global nature of the body.
The hamstrings do not exist in isolation and are part of the extensor chain which is the entire posterior chain. That’s the trend I’m seeing — you might know all the names of the bones and muscles, but you don’t know that they don’t exist in isolation. And do you know what you need to do to teach someone to recruit them in their natural chains? If you don’t, all that information on separate anatomical parts is not going to be enough information to change the global picture at the nervous system level.
J – You mentioned to me in a recent email about a “saggy sacrum.” Can you please elaborate on that?
M – Forward bends recruit the flexor chain to shorten tremendously. As it does, and especially as the psoas shortens or as the navel is pulled in, the sacrum is going to flatten. It causes the natural nutation of the sacrum that should be there – the 30 degree tilt – to flatten and to tug backwards on the sacroiliac joint. Then of course the skull will likely be pulled forward, because it’s all connected. You’re generally not going to observe someone with a saggy butt and see a skull aligned with the rest of the spine.
I received a letter from an Australian man. He said, ‘Oh my god, my girlfriend started Yoga 6 months ago. Her butt is disappearing, her sacrum is flat. I don’t like it, it doesn’t look good. I told her that too. This can’t be good anatomically, it just can’t be good. You’ve got to write my girlfriend now!’
Another yoga teacher injured from hip openers who started a Facebook group about yoga and movement explains that she was told to relax her butt in the backbends. I said to her, ‘but to think beyond just back-bending and see all of yoga. She did thousands of forward bends without using her back or butt extensor forces. If you’re glutes are recruited, you wouldn’t be able to bend over into a forward bend. In other words, you don’t use your butt in forward bends. I .am not sure she understood what I was saying.
J – Even I taught that you could do any forward bend while squeezing your butt. In Anusara yoga, I always had the glutes going down, yet that’s not a functional direction.
I think that there is a big confusion about what is good postural alignment. There are two separate optimal alignments – a natural functional, dynamic alignment versus a passive, quiet alignment that is best for rest and sleep. Neither alignment is to be used 24 hours a day. For a healthy, balanced life, we need both dynamic, curvy alignment and a static, more linear, C-curved alignment.
M – Right, that’s a good way of putting it. What is commonly taught is forcing the natural design of the body in another direction. I tell people, you look at any 2-year old, and they have perfect posture. They have a really strong butt, their head is sitting on top, they have a slight anterior tilt, they don’t push their knees back when standing or bending forward.
Then what do we do? We put the children in a chair. That’s the insanity – the chairs are the deep cause to the global misalignment in the western world. So why do we then practice yoga poses such as staff pose that are the same shape as a chair?
I’m going to start doing something for the schools here, for the 6th graders. Because I’m concerned about this movement to have kids do yoga, since that’s not a good thing either. They shouldn’t be stretching their joints, their end plates of their bones aren’t even properly formed till about age 16- 18.
Even though a 14-year old girl who did Ashtanga Yoga in the school said she got a labrum tear from doing this alignment and she couldn’t do sports anymore, they didn’t even listen to her because everybody thinks that yoga is so harmless.
J – Oh, that’s unfortunate. Sorry to hear that.
M – I think the main thing is if we never say… ‘we’d feel uncomfortable in our mind, you created a yoga, yoga came from a feeling of separation and I think we’re so separate from our body, from being in that linear angle, so that’s why we need to move more towards paying attention to the global nature of the human body.
It’s like I tell people, you wouldn’t drive a car 100 miles an hour down a bumpy road to think about how you are using your car, and if this way is beneficial in the long run? I’m getting younger, and younger people that are listening.
One young gal, she’s only 23, she started passing out and it was from her hypermobility. She now says it’s hard because her friends don’t want to listen to her about the problems with the stretchy, flexy alignment. But she’s trying.
J – Thank you, Michaelle for this insightful interview. This paradigm-shifting idea of wavy, springy alignment is now starting to spread out more and more, so hopefully we won’t have to wait decades before there is a big awakening!