Yoga Teacher Training Diary: Learn the rules, break the rules

Another weekend, another guest lecturer on our teacher training course – this weekend we spent two days in the company of Brian Campbell, a world renowned Forrest yoga teacher and bodyworker. Brian’s background in Forrest yoga means that his classes are intense, all about the abdominals and structured differently to most other schools of yoga.

Hours of Bikram yoga seem to be taking their toll on my hips (I’ve developed a gait very similar to my elderly grandmother’s and I’m incapable of standing up without making teeth-sucking noises like somebody twice my age.) so it seemed about right that Brian’s super-intense, hot, Saturday morning practice (which we came to after having already done an hour and a half of Bikram) was all about releasing tension held in the hips. Cue, two hours of blind torture and deep breathing for yours truly.

Anyway, after class (not even a shower, just a quick change into dry clothes. Seriously, you do not want to come anywhere near me on Saturday evenings after class.) we headed into Brian’s workshop on myofascial meridians in the body and bodywork. Brian has plenty of experience with all different kinds of bodywork, and an interesting perspective thanks to his career as both bodyworker and yoga teacher at the same time. His outlook is similar to Gary Carter‘s school of thought regarding fascia and the interconnectedness of our internal structure – like Gary, Brian believes that the scalpel and our need for order is the reason for definition between muscles, organs and connected tissue. He thinks that before it has been sliced it into sections, our anatomical make-up is all one thing, linked by the crystalline, fluid neurological network of fascia. This emphasis on connectedness means that Brian is a big advocate of taking into account the principles of tensegrity when teaching or doing bodywork.

For those that haven’t heard it every Saturday and Sunday for the last 10 weeks, here’s a definition of ‘tensegrity’ from Anatomy Trains:

Tensegrity is a portmaneau of ‘tension + integrity’. Buckminster Fuller, building on the highly original sculptures of Kenneth Snelson, coined the term, to indicate that the integrity of the structure derived from the balance of tension members, not the compression struts…

Here’s a model – see how everything moves when one part moves? The top is moving when the bottom hits the floor, and all the tension members stretch and relax accordingly?


And here’s a quick explanation of the way tensegrity works in the body (I know that if I’m writing these blogs as a form of revision I should probably have taken a stab at writing both of those definitions myself, but life is short.):

Fascial continuity suggests that the myofascia acts like an adjustable tensegrity around the skeleton – a continuous inward pulling tensional network like the elastics, with the bones acting like the struts in the tensegrity model.

For Brian, this principle of tensegrity means that one action happening in the body will affect multiple other aspects of the body. For example, a fallen arch on one foot will mean imbalance in the hips, pressure in the low back, twisting through the spine, tension in the shoulder and neck and ultimately, tension in the sub-occipital muscles at the base of your skull which might give you the symptom of a headache. Who would guess that the cause of your headache might actually be your feet?

(I bet you’re all fixated on your feet now. Be realistic, the cause of your headache is probably the fact that you’re aimlessly roaming the internet at whatever time it is where you are when you should be outside in the fresh air or getting a proper night’s sleep. Try that first, then examine your feet.)

So, if you take into account this principle of tensegrity and the way it can affect multiple locations throughout the body, it’s kind of fascinating to think about adjustments and ‘correct’ posture. Brian’s school of yoga – Forrest – works with hands-on adjustments and bodywork as part of the class. Lots of other yoga schools do this too, but they all do it in different ways. Brian’s approach – and the approach of Forrest yoga – seems to be to adjust practitioners in postures in order to get them out of pin and discomfort. He gave the example of a triangle pose, explaining that the depth and the straightness isn’t necessary the object of the pose. By forcing a practitioner to do the ‘pose’ in it’s textbook form, you might just be adding tension which they almost certainly don’t need.

Interestingly, we had just that morning had our posture clinic for the classical Bikram triangle pose, which works on the principle of straight lines – heel-to-heel alignment, straight arms, straight back leg, and a straight line from the back foot to the top fingertips. I’ve always struggled with triangle pose – I’m not a straight line kinda gal. They don’t call it a ‘master’ posture for nothing.

We took a break for a coffee and I couldn’t help but corner Brian. (I hate to be that person who asks the selfish question and derails the lecture, so there was nothing for it but to disrupt his coffee break. I’m not sorry.)

‘Brian, you know what you were saying about triangle pose…?’ I laid out the whole dilemma for him. I basically asked him what the hell we were all doing there, torturing ourselves with Bikram’s ‘correct’ alignment. I probably put him in a slightly uncomfortable position, reflecting on it.

He seemed not to mind, though. In fact, he decided that he’d think about it while he had a coffee and tackle the question with the whole group when we got back into the workshop. (Oh god. I’d not only disrupted his coffee break but I’d still managed to derail the whole lecture. Nightmare.)

When we got back in the room, he explained my dilemma (without mentioning me. Thank god.) and told us a story by way of an answer. Apparently, he used to work at a Shiatsu massage school, teaching the myofascial meridians theory and some other bodywork stuff. At the Shiatsu school, everybody starts the training the same – they learn the method, starting with one Traditional Chinese Medicine meridian, then moving onto the next and the next. Every massage is the same, they treat every client the same. Then, once they’ve progressed as a practitioner, they stop doing the method. They don’t need to, because they can treat the client based on their experience.

Brian’s point was this – you need to learn the rules, in order to break the rules. You need to know the form in order to disrupt it. You need to know how to practice in order to find out how you want to practice.

So our Bikram practice is hard. It’s sometimes counter intuitive, and it’s definitely going to add tension in certain situations. It might not be right for us, for our bodies, for every body or for anybody. But we’re learning the rules, and then – once we know the rules – we can break them.

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