We found a spot at the side of the ferry that wasn’t very windy. Up at the front of the boat the wind was out of control and I imagined my phone being whipped out of my hand and splashing into the calm waters of Puget Sound. Seattle has a beautiful skyline, especially for a prairie boy from a small city. Michael and Tim were in a bit of rush to make their flight, but it seemed like we would make it in time.
A few days before taking the ferry from Bainbridge Island into downtown Seattle, I walked into Katy Bowman’s Center for Nutritious Movement about two hours away in Sequim. They had our names on little placeholders on folded yoga mats with balls compliments of Jill Miller at Yoga Tune Up. A nice touch, I thought.
There were six students and four teachers. When we introduced ourselves one of the guys said he heard about Katy through her podcast and thought it was just another ‘blogging housewife’ before taking some of her advice and realizing this blogging housewife had masters degree in biomechanics and a rare talent for communicating complex concepts in straightforward language.
Frequency and Magnitude
When she was introducing the retreat, Katy said that she was working with pelvic floor disorder not as a localized issue but rather as a global, whole-body issue. It is all about forces. Pressure is exerted on our bodies in a number of ways and this pressure pushes up against our tissues, which respond by changing their tension and shape.
For example, if we stand with our hips forward the contents of our abdomen are pushed forward toward the abdominal wall and downward by gravity. As a result the abdomen can get distended and occasionally weakened to the point of hernia by the inguinal ligaments. The contents of the abdomen can herniate through the abdominal wall. Ouch. When somebody gets a hernia we might ask what happened?
What causes the hernia? In some cases it may be an event of magnitude, as in a tremendous amount of force is applied on the abdomen through some kind of blunt force trauma. But usually that is not the case. More often than not these are disorders of frequency, not magnitude.
Extended periods of forces being applied to the body results in mechanical adaptations that may or may not be beneficial to the rest of the system. Like wearing the knees in your favorite jeans, it is usually not through some traumatic incident but happens slowly over a long period of time. Pelvic floor disorders are often an adaptation to highly pressurized environment arising from a combination of forces like sitting and standing posture, breathing patterns, and stress responses. They are products of frequency.
Is Yoga Nutritious?
Katy’s center is Sequim is called the Centre for Nutritious Movement. The idea is that our bodies have movement requirements not unlike nutritional requirements. If you don’t get enough of a particular nutrient, that deficiency will start to manifest as an issue. There is a “use it or lose it” style of economy to the body. If you never lift your arms over your head (like when your arm is in a sling because you hurt your shoulder), you will lose the ability to put your arm over your head. If you don’t use a particular movement, your body will adapt by eliminating the capacity for that movement.
By studying the ways in which humans move, we can start to get a clearer picture of our movement diet and to see our deficiencies. We sit too much and use machines to move us around, so we end up with a walking deficiency. As a result we not only do not get the exercise we need from walking, we are actually starting to lose the capacity for biomechanically sound walking. Foot, knee, hip, and back problems plague so many of us because these areas are not getting the movement nutrition they require.
Can yoga help as a balanced part of our movement diet? I believe so. But yoga has some movement issues of its own. The sun salutation requires that people put their hands on the floor, but most of our hamstrings are too tight to allow for such a move. Even with the knees bent most yogis are stretching their lower backs more so then their hamstrings in forward bends.
The tendency is toward prioritizing the form of the posture over the function, feeling, and biomechanical integrity of the posture. Since the publication of BKS Iyengar’s Light on Yoga in 1966 yoga has been a highly visual culture. The postures are imagined as photographs or video sequences. They are performative. When you think of Extended Side Angle pose you probably imagine a photograph of that posture, rather than imagining a particular sensation or set of biomechanical actions that together constitute the pose. To make matters worse, the walls of many studios are covered in mirrors that even further encourage a visual vigilance rather than relaxing into the feeling of the posture.
The result of this visual-performative bias in modern yoga is that yogis are often setting up repetitive patterns of movement that are visually appealing but biomechanically poor. It can end up being, as Katy says, junk food movement.
Junk food is better than no food. But while there is caloric value in Doritos that could save your life if you were starving, there are also all kinds of crap in there that will accumulate over time and produce issues if you eat Doritos every day. Am I calling Sun Salutations movement Doritos? Well, kinda. The rib-protruding, lower back rounding, shoulder-hunching, jaw-clenching actions of a poorly instructed or poorly aligned sun salute might do more harm than good. The same could be said of any posture or sequence.
And that is where most yoga instructors will puff their chests and wag their fingers at somebody else that “just doesn’t get it” or “is too superficial to understand” or “isn’t doing real yoga.” Rather than taking responsibility for the proliferation of junk food yoga, carefully re-thinking our own practice and teaching, we circle the wagons and dig in our heels to defend our own teaching and traditions.
A Humble Suggestion for Yoga Teachers and Students
Katy is just working with research. She is a brilliant researcher and an excellent communicator. But really her whole thing is just evidence-based biomechanics. My suggestion would to simply be open to evidence.
Notice when a defensive posture gets triggered and you find yourself mentally shaking your head in disagreement and digging up a counter-argument before you have even considered the evidence. Respect your teachers and traditions. They are the reason you are here. Love your teachers. But don’t treat the postures as sacred objects.
The postures are not sacred. The postures are your body expressing a variety of shapes. If you look at early photos of Pattabhi Jois and Iyengar practicing asana in the early 20th century you will notice that the postures have changed over the past 80 years. The postures have been adapted and modified to become more nutritious. This adaptation and modification is not something that happens and then stops. It is ongoing. The postures are literally evolving along with us. They are not relics from ancient history to be preserved as is. They are food. We digest the postures. They transform our bodies and we in turn, transform them.
Yoga is not broken. We have not ruined it. Despite what you read from religious fanatics clinging to an idealized past or cynical yoga teachers burned out and frustrated from a tradition they believed to be whole…
Yoga can be delicious, healthy, and offer a wide variety of movement nutrients. It is not complete, though. Yoga does not offer a fix or solution. You cannot simply practice a sequence of postures and believe that all your movement needs will be met. You still need to walk. You need to play. You need to jump, hang, roll, flop, crawl, push, pull, tussle, run, climb, swing, shake and do everything else that a traditional yoga practice might leave out.