Yoga, My Body, and Me

I’ve had a few exciting awakenings this past week. Seems I’ve bumbled my way into doing things I thought I’d never do again. Case and point: my left knee.

My narrative’s always been that I have a bum left knee. My right knee is as healthy as can be; it’s never given me pain (beyond that which I inflict myself), and it’s been resiliently sturdy under much physical abuse. Testament to its fitness is my ability to do an unassisted pistol squat – a controlled descent and ascent, on one leg. My right leg: it’s always just been there.

The left knee’s a different story. Maybe my posture’s been wrong for years and that’s been fueling the issue. Maybe the arthritis that runs through my family’s genes is manifesting itself early. Maybe it’s the duck step the Army instilled over years. Maybe it’s my love of running and aversion to gyms. By any rate, I’ve only ever been able to pistol squat with my left leg once in my life, and that was when I was in peak marathon form a few years ago. Otherwise, my best effort is a 30-degree bend in the knee before it lacks the stability to continue further – I need a wall to carry on, and it’s painfully unstable. But lately, I’ve focused holistically, and that knee’s part of the package.

Last fall, I undertook an education in yoga. Yoga has exploded in popularity in the past twenty years, making it ever more accessible to the average person – and ever more desirable to a Lululemon-wearing subset of American society. I’m not part of that subset – I wear rainbow Ranger panties. I also practice at home. I like the Jeffersonian notion that the body is more than just vessel for the head; I find myself in a smaller subset of the yoga community – less flashy, more hard work-y. Dorky hard work-y: I exercise my toes.

Anyway, I took a teacher course that stressed self inquiry and self exploration – try setting a timer for five minutes and moving as your body compels you. If I were to do that now… well, I did, and I ended up reclined from a kneeling position, sensation singing in my quads – supta virasana, in Sanskrit. My program introduced me to a few teachers that I’ve continued to study, and I find myself immersed in the pursuit of stability and mobility under their tutelage. If you’d like to investigate yourself, they’re Bernie Clark, Katie Bowman, Josh Kramer, and Justin Wolfer.

My mornings are yang; dynamic high-intensity repetitions followed by static long holds to muscle exhaustion – a technique I learned from Josh Kramer. This fuels muscle strength and tone, which in turn augments stability. Try standing on one leg and balancing. Raise your arms over your head. Now close your eyes. That’s a measure of stability.

Now, in order to do that successfully, you’ll probably have to do it a few times, probably near a wall, and and probably over time. But you can do it! Keep at it! Do it while watching TV! While standing around your kitchen! A slow minute at work! In line at the grocery store!

I’ve also been learning about neural pathways – the body is built for maximum efficiency, such that what we do becomes easier with practice, and what we don’t do, seems impossible. I’ve used this logic to work my way into a full Asian squat, heels down, and I’ve also used it to float up into an arm balance. One is more readily useful than the other, but I’ve mapped them in my brain such that I can do them reliably on command – it’s pretty handy.

You could also use this tool to, say, learn to brush your teeth with your opposite hand. Your dominant hand has a neural map of your mouth; your non-dominant hand does not – unless you’ve deliberately developed it. This neural mapping is how amputees have learn to write with their toes. The human body is amazing, and for most of us, underutilized. I prefer to emphasize the ‘amazing’ bit.

Mobility training just reinforces this. Per Justin Wolfer, mobility is the strength and neurological control within your full range of motion. My right knee is entirely mobile – if I want to squat at, say, a 100 degree angle, I can. My left knee, historically, is hardly independently mobile – I can do 30 degrees and 180 degrees, but naught in between those extremes, and not without discomfort. Yoga taught me how to pay attention to my body, but Katie Bowman really drove it home: her book Move Your DNAis hugely transformational – I’m passing it around my office now. Because of it, I sit on the floor, cross-legged, straight-legged, or kneeling on my heels, and I’ve addressed my duck-stepped alignment issues – try standing with the outsides of your feet parallel. Return to it every time you find yourself standing around. Try walking that way – keep at it. 

Bernie Clark’s guiding question is ‘what stops me?’ He’s a trailblazer in his own rite – he’s taught me Yin, in which one ‘marinates’ in a pose to gain neurological access, and he’s got two beautiful books on anatomy – Your Body, Your Yogaand Your Spine, Your Yoga. I don’t actively teach yoga now, but when I do, my teaching will be heavily influenced by him. I love how he applies science to a practice rife with mysticism and rather unfounded health assertions. 

Anyway, my knees. I’ve been doing workouts led by Josh Kramer on the Alo Moves app – paid subscription; I really like it –  and he deliberately addresses legs. Turns out one can do leg day, even in the context of a yoga class. The first time I tried to do skandasana –  a squat in which one leg extends to the side, toes to the sky, while the other leg squats, bearing the weight of the body – I found it inaccessible when my left leg bore the weight. But over weeks, I kept at it, two half-hour leg workouts a week, and before too long, I had it. Neural mapping and a bit of hard work – amazing.

And because I can do skandasana, I can now do a left-legged pistol squat. Because I have the strength and stability to do that pistol squat, I no longer feel weakness and instability (read: pain) in my left knee. Whoah! Having been accustomed to a low-level pain there for so long, it’s amazing to me that it’s gone, and without treatment or medication. For me, it’s not about the pose; it’s about whole-body health. And because I addressed what ails me, I’m that much healthier. I’m not letting that ailment return, not again.

What stops you? Is it muscle on muscle, muscle on bone, bone on bone, or just your mind against what you know to be necessary? Knowledge applied with discipline and persistence yields results. Some things are beyond our grasp – I’ll never be able to, say, lick my elbow. But healthy joints? That’s something almost all of us can achieve.

Healthcare starts at home. Knowledge matters, and knowledge is at your fingertips. I’m no expert, but I can likely point you the right way – and I’m here to help.

Happy Mother’s Day! I’m grateful to my mom for supporting rather than seeking to shape my interests. Confidence comes from such a foundation.

Namaste, y’all!

James

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