I walked into the Minneapolis Yoga Workshop and liked it right away. The crew was motley– all ages, shapes and sizes. No expensive gear to be seen. No one throwing their egos around before class– just a small gathering of people who had clearly formed a comfortable community of healing. I handed my new person form to the instructor and waited while he looked it over. Yoga instructors tend to struggle to assess me quickly from my new person sheet. I’ve been practicing for about eight years now, but I’ve moved a lot so have never had a steady teacher or studio. I’ve enjoyed different forms of yoga in different seasons of my life. My past in gymnastics makes me appear to be good, but I have a lot to unlearn, too. And in yoga, being good is exactly not the point.
“You can’t straighten your left arm?”
“No, it locks, but it locks bent. From an elbow injury when I was thirteen.”
“Okay,” he said simply, put my sheet down and moved on.
The practice of yoga is in part the practice of alignment. Having one straight arm and one bent arm are is a major obstacle. It’s so major, in fact, that some teachers don’t even address my elbow. I compensate pretty well. They choose, instead of dealing with the problem, to focus on the strength and flexibility that allows me to excel at poses that don’t incorporate the arms as much. It becomes easy for me to ignore, too.
One of the women in the class had developed bursitis in her hip, so we focused on hip alignment for ninety minutes. We put our hand on our pelvic rim to check in before moving into poses. Strategically placed props and focused verbal and physical adjustments raised our awareness incrementally. The learning that came out of the repetition and precision were invigorating.
When it was time for our first downward facing dog, William, the instructor, came straight over to me and sat at the head of my mat. His directness was alarming. No instructor had ever done this with me before.
“Okay,” he said. “Let’s see what we’ve got. I’m sure you’ve been taught things.”
“Not really,” I thought. I said, “I always have more to learn.”
“Don’t we all.”
I got into the pose and he started making adjustments to my body right away.
“Turn your hand here. Good. Now stretch through the tricep. More. Good. Extend here into the humerus bone. Yes. Now engage the lat more.” Each item came with a gentle, extending touch. “Good. That is your work.” Then, after a pause he added, “You can straighten your arm farther than you think you can.”
Throughout our hip focused class, William continued to push me. “Ellie, extend through your tricep. And lat. Try your hand like this so you can extend through the humerus. Good.”
We used a myriad of props– bolsters, blocks, blankets, straps– so every body in the room could do every pose and find alignment. Me five years ago would have tried to do it all on my own. Me today finally understands that is far from the point.
Toward the end of class he told the woman in hip pain, “Your hip is now your guru. You job is to listen to it. In striving for health, your hip will teach you about yourself, about compassion and perseverance. It may heal, but it may not.” He did this all class– said things so specific to the body that they became universal nuggets of truth. I felt aware and alive. Then he said, “I want to try something with Ellie’s elbow. Come watch.” He’d do this all class. Stop and have us all learn from each other’s bodies. We all had our obstacles, we were all trying to work toward alignment. It was refreshing that he undauntedly approached our misfit bodies with attention and knowledge, ready to teach and challenge. It diffused the silent power of our limitations and made combatting them playful and productive. He had me lie on my back and put my arms over my head, palms down. This accentuated the bend in the left arm.
“Now Ellie, like all class, extend through your tricep. Use your humerus. Good.” He put his hands on my arm, one above the elbow and one below, and worked toward extension. The members of class had an audible reaction to the improvement. I hadn’t had my arm touched like this– with an intense, concerted effort at improving the ailment– in fifteen years. After my gymnastics career, no one, including myself, thought working toward having two straight arms was important enough to spend time on. William’s attention was illuminating.
“Are you okay? Discomfort is okay, but we don’t need pain.”
“It feels amazing.”
“Now you try on your own. Good. Good. Okay, you can sit up.”
“Will you come back?” he asked me.
“Good. We will do a whole class focused on arms and shoulders for you, and everyone will benefit from it.”
With us all sitting around my mat he reminded us simply and profoundly, “We have to tend to the problem spots or they will get worse. We have to address them actively and work toward improvement.”
And that is what my body had to teach me yesterday.