When I teach the anatomy sections of yoga teacher trainings, I ask the teachers-to-be to brainstorm a list of all of the things you could do with a hammer.
Break a window!
You get the picture?
Then I tell them why.
Approximately 1,000 years ago (or 2012, whichever comes first) I heard iconic teacher David Swenson say “Yoga is a Hammer” in response to a panel discussion about the article “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.”
(I’m sure you can google it).
This teaching had a profound impact on me personally, and on my teaching of yoga and teaching of yoga teachers simultaneously.
My interpretation of this teaching, “yoga is a hammer” is that yoga is just a tool. You can use it to build your body or to break it down. Teaching yoga to a room of students is similar to teaching hammer skills to a room full of construction students. You are handing a hammer to each one, and trusting them to do the right thing, to follow your instructions, and to ask for help if they don’t understand you.
Your student might be in class to repair their body. Quiet their mind. Cultivate a tight ass.
Or they might be there to beat themselves with a hammer.
(I have done this).
I have used yoga as a hammer in so many ways, including to beat myself up about why I can’t do something, why I don’t look a certain way. I have attempted to force, I have worked in anger. I have also used it to rebuild my confidence, to re-train posture, and to bond with my fellows and friends.
People will tell you that yoga can damage your body, but for some reason we give them a lot more social media attention than we give to people who post that you could get into a bicycle accident, or hurt yourself skiing, or miscalculating your step off of a moving walkway. Of course yoga can hurt a body. Repetitive movement can hurt a body. Overconfidence can hurt a body.
Life can hurt a body.
Does that mean you should not live?
May I encourage you not to concern yourself with all of the bizarre, freak ways in which yoga could damage a body, and instead to concern yourself greatly with the ways in which you can teach discernment, self-awareness, and autonomy? These things will support your students when they play basketball on the weekends, balance their checkbooks, and discipline their children in addition to supporting their bodies in the practice of yoga.
Bodies want to be healthy. They want to heal. It is in their nature to do so.
Teach your students to practice yoga like a turtle with a hammer. Slow and steady. Build up to physically challenging moves. Laugh at people who suggest you put your foot behind your head as a method of reaching enlightenment. Move slowly in the direction you’d like to go rather than forcing your body into pushups and handstands. If they are fun, if you are nimble and young and full of joy for being upside down, then sally forth. Slowly. Like a turtle.
When you see or overhear a conversation about this idea that yoga will wreck your body, offer a one-sentence, succinct and true answer, and move on.
Here is mine:
“Yoga is a hammer, I am a carpenter, and you can be, too.”
(Use your powers for good).
Today my social media feed is about people giving up on New Year's Resolutions, before the new year begins.
Congratulations for quitting without starting. This is the best way to ensure failure.
If you’re feeling a bit glum this year, as the economy is unstable, as our leadership leaves something to be desired (like leadership), as you are snuggled into your cozies and hoping for spring, read on.
I have some ideas.
Let me take a gander at your personal story right now, if you’re in the dumps or adrift and feel a bit purpose-less. You had a rough experience. You found yoga. It helped! You decided you wanted to teach. That made it better for a little while. Then you had another rough experience, and another, and maybe a few more, and wondered how it was possible that life is not indeed perfect and problem-free now that you have accomplished your goal of teaching yoga. Now you wonder if you have to be vegan, or lose 10 pounds, or stick a handstand to level-up your happiness. Am I close? The unfortunate thing about the hedonistic treadmill (where we chase goal after goal after goal, and are only happy for a brief moment) is that we are chasing happiness outside of ourselves.
Happiness does not come with the achievement itself, but with persistence and perseverance. It comes from within.
For the love of the game?
To enjoy the journey?
Happiness is a practice you build.
A garden you cultivate.
If you spend your energy trying to look happy, you will look happy.
You might be able to balance on your hands, wear tight pants, drink green smoothies, chant, assemble a banging playlist, quote from the Gita (in Sanskrit!), make a killer vegan pot roast, and still find that life includes some foul lesson plans.
So if you’re down and a bit angsty about the idea of a resolution, I implore you to please try this one: Be kinder to yourself.
It will make you happier, because your loudest critic will be off your back. Do a little bit every day, perhaps as though you are offering an investment in the experience of who you will be tomorrow. Plant the seeds that could grow into experiences you will enjoy, like opening a tidy sock drawer, waking up fresh rather than hungover from alcohol or Netflix, or with a plan you’re looking forward to. It is not a guarantee that the seeds will germinate, that you will feel happy, that life will improve, but you will have done your part.
This will help you sleep better, (which may indeed be the secret ingredient). Integrate the experiences and lessons of the day. If you learn the lesson the first time, the Universe will not have to raise her voice and make you even more uncomfortable.
Resolve to create wins. Count them. Share them. Celebrate them.
Do not give up before you start.
It took me decades to realize this simple truth about humans, despite training in archeological and forensic anthropology. Humans are so weird! We are bipedal! We walk on two legs, and our limbs have evolved to accomplish different functions.
I can look at a human femur and tell you some basic information about the person who grew it - their relative age when they died, some clues about their gender and ethnicity. Their approximate height. Maybe if they experienced a unique bone-related trauma or disease.
But the most obvious thing was something I didn’t realize until I started teaching yoga full time:
Shoulders are not hips.
(you probably already know this, but humor me).
First, a reminder about the basic functions of these joints.
The hip is the strongest, most stable joint in the human body. It’s a ball and socket joint, and it’s there to bear the weight of our giant heads and torsos as we walk/crawl/climb. It’s strong enough that we can carry babies, firewood, and unreasonable quantities of chapstick.
In addition, it’s kind of flexible. You can rotate the hip (go pigeon-toed or duck footed), or abduct or adduct it (clap with your legs), or flex and extend (march and skate).
So why. Dear god. Do you want. To put. Your foot. Behind. Your. Head?
This is how yoga gets attention, how yogis get famous on Instagram, by turning their shoulders into hips.
(It’s also how they end up with pain, damage, or schmancy new bionic joints!)
Shoulders are for carrying things, crawling around, and climbing trees and rocks. They are incredibly mobile, and sort-of stable. They are kind of like ball and socket joints, but unlike the hip, the shoulder socket is made of some bones and some soft tissue. That gives it loads of flexibility, but less stability.
So why. Dear god. Do you want. To stand. On. Your. Hands?
I know why, and trust me, I have tried to make my shoulders into hips (handstands) and my hips into shoulders (foot behind the head).
These things are not inherently bad - you can (probably) train your body with thoughtful yoga practice or other exercise to request that your hips become more flexible and your shoulders become more stable. The slow and steady way is the jam in both cases, as our bodies are resilient and adaptable (we can walk in high heels!).
It might be because you need a goal. You’d like to climb a mountain, but what with work and the toddlers it’s not a “this year” goal.
It might be because you want your ex to stumble across your photos on IG and see how strong and/or flexible you are now, so they will miss you and regret the day they let you go.
It might be because you had a yoga teacher who told you that your body could do anything you wanted it to do, you just had to work diligently at it and someday, your body would submit to your training, conditioning, punishment, wishing, etc.
This is where I draw the line.
The first two reasons are your ego (this is almost always the answer to why we do the things we do), and the third reason is someone else’s ego. Someone in a position of trust and authority, who is abusing their powers, training, and seat of the teacher to tell you something that is categorically untrue. They might be doing this because it is what you want to hear, in which case, they are seeking your approval. It is not your responsibility to provide approval to your yoga teacher! They might be doing this because they are repeating something they have heard without fully understanding the implications of what they are teaching.
Shoulders are not hips, you see, and nothing short of extreme elective surgery will make it so.
And even that will not make you happy. Achieving the goal will be good for a few minutes, just as the sweet (vindictive) victory of making someone else jealous.
As you move onward in your teaching, be mindful of making promises to students based on this misinformation. Some hips cannot do lotus pose. Some shoulders cannot orient themselves in a way that is safe to bear the entire weight of a body.
Yoga asana is not magic. It is just as able to build up your body as it is to break it down. It’s a tool. It comes in a boxed set with some other tools that might help you address the root cause of your suffer, like, say your ego?
Shoulders are not hips, baby, and they don’t have to be.
(you are perfect anyway).