When I was an 18-year-old yogini, I was also an active bulimic. I was in college studying dance, training to be a shiatsu therapist (Japanese pressure point massage), making sandwiches and slicing salami at Jimmy John’s Deli, racing around Chicago learning yoga, and using food to self-medicate.
During that time, I remember never feeling connected to my core, my abdominal muscles. My Pilates teacher was always giving me corrections that I could not embody. In dance class, I was never able to find balance in my turns or jumps, and I would often duck out of class in frustration. Then I would become even angrier with myself because I was a quitter! This would inevitably lead to a binge and purge.
SCENE: A yoga class. Students are standing in Mountain Pose like a Buddhist “army.”
Teacher: Breathe in…
Class: (A subtle, yet audible “sucking” sound is heard.)
Teacher: And breathe out…
Class: (A subtle, yet audible “whooshing” sound is heard.)
Teacher: Good. Now three more deep breaths just like that.
Class: (They are audibly compliant until…)
Teacher: Now step your right foot back.
Class: (The sound of 25 left feet strike the pose, and no more breathing is heard.)
Teacher: What, no more breathing? Let every movement be a prompt to remind you to breathe for the next 90 minutes.
Class: (Sound of breathing is amplified again, and class proceeds smoothly until … well, the class forgets to breathe again. And again. And again sporadically throughout the class.)
What’s going on here? Why do so many of us forget to breathe? Did you actually finish breathing?
It seems laughable, the notion of “finishing breathing.” Our nervous systems are actually built in such away that breath happens automatically, without us prompting our breathing muscles every few seconds. Think about it, a lot of mental energy is actually required to control every single breath (instead of letting it happen on its own), and our brains have a zillion other tasks to balance. But the breezy thing about breathing is that we can control it, and in so doing we can deliberately impact every system of the body.
Have you ever wondered what to prioritize when you are doing a yoga pose? What is the most important thing to focus on when doing Triangle? Or Downward Dog? Or Savasana? Ask 15 different yoga teachers from different yoga lineages and you will likely get 15 different answers. Is alignment the most important? Is it the breath? Awareness? Eye gaze? What is it?
I have wrestled with this question myself and have attempted to deconstruct hundreds of poses to figure out what is most important … but after 29 years of practice (yep, I’ve been practicing since I was a kid!) there is one element that I come back to again and again — and it might surprise you!
Student: Jill, what do you actually do for your personal yoga practice?
Me: I practice what I teach.
Student: You mean you don’t do anything else? Spinning? Or running? Or Zumba? I mean, how do you get your arms to look like that?
Me: I don’t mean to sound cryptic … but I practice what I teach.
It’s true. I have been practicing yoga and multiple movement arts since I was 11 years old, and the yoga practice I teach in the classroom (I began teaching part-time at age 19 at The Omega Institute) has evolved and changed with me through the past two decades. The work I share in my classes, workshops, conferences and videos all resonates with my own discoveries in my personal “jungle gym” of a practice.
Last month I spent a week in Stockholm, Sweden, teaching my Yoga Tune Up® Integrated Embodied Anatomy module to a group of future yoga teachers at Yogayama studio. I arrived in icy-cold Stockholm late at night after a 22-hour journey. When I awoke jet-lagged the next morning, I was hoarse — very hoarse. With 20+ hours of teaching ahead of me over the next four days, I was concerned. There was no way to call in a “sub.”
On January 5th, the New York Times website ran an article entitled “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” that included excerpts from William J. Broad’s forthcoming book, The Science of Yoga: The Myths & Rewards. Within minutes of it going live, extreme controversy ensued…
Few things outrage me more than bad posture. I get really bent out of shape when I see people who are literally bent out of shape. It is so simple to improve your posture, and it is totally free and requires no gym membership.
Here are some Don’ts:
1. Don’t lean into one hip and cock it off to one side.
2. Don’t slump your spine like a willow tree.
3. Don’t emulate the posture of Paris Hilton.
Here are some Do’s:
1. Stand up straight.
2. Point your toes forward.
3. Have some respect for your own structure.
Okay, good, glad I got that off my chest.
How I became the chubby kid
As a child, I was given free reign to eat whatever I wanted. This meant daily bowls of crushed oreos in milk, after-school snacks of burgers and fries as a “treat” for answering phones at the family business and, in the evening, half a pint of Haagen-Dazs for dessert. Every day I satisfied my “junk-food tooth” on top of my favorite past-times: reading, watching TV or playing with Barbies. Consequently I was that kid. The chubby one.
At the time, I didn’t have a lot of critical self-consciousness about it … I can’t remember inner voices telling me “you’re fat” or “if you eat that you’ll get fatter” (although I did always wear a T-shirt over my bathing suit). I say “inner voices” because there actually were some external voices saying these exact things to me, directly and out loud: my parents and grandparents. They saw my bulging belly, thick thighs and chipmunk cheeks and thought it went beyond cutesy “baby fat.”
Going VERY deep into Uttanasana, a.k.a. Standing Forward Bend
Have you ever wondered what your yoga teacher means when she instructs you to “go deeper into the pose?” What exactly does this cue mean? Let’s say you’ve been holding the pose for a while, and are already shaking and trembling. Then instead of calling out a new pose, your teacher calls out “drop deeper into the pose!” You summon the courage to try it … but you aren’t exactly sure how, or what component of the pose needs further deepening.
As a teacher and a teacher trainer with more than 25 years of experience, I have seen my fair share of confused yoga students interpreting this cue in myriad ways:
I have been teaching yoga for 17 years, and one of the most frequent complaints I hear from students and yogaphobes alike is that they don’t have enough time for practice, so they avoid it altogether.
Avoiding a regular practice of stretching will never get you the healing benefits that come with the work. Even if you only do one pose a day, you will make a huge difference in your body, brain and well-being.