Sunday, August 11, 2002

everything i knew was wrong. . .

flexion, extension, rotation, stability. these were the four foci of senior iyengar teacher francois raoult's hip workshop this morning at yoga people in brooklyn.

francois approached a number of poses to show how they are affected by and in turn affect the hip area. these included poses not normally associated with the hip, such as headstand and side plank, which he briefly discussed as hip stabilizing postures.

the core message of the workshop: sinking the head of femurs back into the hip. when done correctly, francois demonstrated, this takes all the strain out of the upper and lower back. for example, he had us all begin in a simple half-dog at the wall. that is, with our ankles below our hips, our hips level and square, he had us bend forward and place our arms on the wall as in downward facing dog.

then placing a block between our very upper thighs, he instructed us to move the block backwards through our legs by sinking our femurs back and engaging our inner thigh muscles. francois showed how most people -- even fairly accomplished practitioners -- often do this very basic movement incorrectly, so that they lose the "downward arch" or transect in the lower back, from the sacrum to the 5th vertebrae. this section of the back should hang like a hammock, with the lowest point being at the 3rd vertebrae.

looking at various students as each tried the pose, it was easy to see that instead of moving the femurs back, most attempted to sink down in their mid or upper back, even though they believed they were doing the action correctly. this meant not only were they straining that "hammock" but also, more subtly, the ligaments around the shoulders and shoulder blades. over time -- say 3 or 5 years -- this strain would lead to a serious ligament injury. all bad! it was an excellent illustration of the power of unconscious habit.

alas, i was one of the all bad supermodels in this. francois is a tall frenchman with a forward gaze, a greying ponytail, and a lilting, lulling accent. he addresses each student directly, almost brusquely, but with such a sense of humor you find yourself not minding one bit. you end up laughing with him at your own mistakes.

a good example of this was in supta virasana. because of my recent injury, francois told me to sit this pose out and to avoid it until i had healed. he suggested i take princess pose, with my legs up the wall, close my eyes and practice my breathing. "when i tell people to do this, they never do," he said with a comic sigh. "they always peek, these competitive people. they should relax at this moment and get a life, you know?"

so as i'm lying there, naturally i peek as he gives instructions for supta virasana. "you," he said in mock horror, "you're peeking! you can relax in the now, in the yoga too you know. this is the point of my story!"

francois had in fact never met me just 45 minutes before, but in that short time, he saw right to the heart of my practice -- too competitive, goal-oriented, fixed on other than the present moment.

another example -- i was doing the half-dog all wrong. francois pounced. "move the block back," he said. "do it." "francois, i don't know how to move my femur." he smiled at me, crinkling up his eyes and with a little conspiratorial laugh, he said, "you have a brain, don't you? when you tell your arm to move, it moves immediately. use your brain to move the block. concentrate."

then francois promptly put the edge of his hand in my hip crease and gave a push up as well as back. for the first time in my 2-1/2 years of doing yoga i felt my the top of thigh slide. suddenly i felt free. always in yoga i had felt my hips knotted up and jammed in forward bends. for the very first time i understood what yoga teachers meant by "space in the joint." and instantly my lower back sank into the correct "hammock."

many people are turned off by iyengar yoga because they find this approach -- "move your femur" or "rotate this freckle past this hair" confusing and inflexible. sometimes yogis will diss iyengar teachers with the term "yoga nazis." and while francois did insist on these niceties of alignment, he did so always with humor and a clear explanation of the anatomical reasons for the nitpicking. this made for a much different experience then i had the one time i took a class at the iygenar institute.

as he went through all the common mistakes in various asanas, how the poor alignment of a foot put too much stress on the front of the ankle and how that moved up the muscles to pull the inside ligaments of the knee, i suddenly understood how i had come to twist my meniscus last summer.

as he explained the proper way to lift your leg in put it across the other thigh for poses like ardha matseyasana and lotus, i also instantly saw how i had pulled my piriformis last fall.

(for the record, francois has you take the leg you're going to move by the inside of the ankle, and then lift if high up, with your knee square, towards the top of your shoulder, almost as if you were going to move to compass pose. bring the ankle to your temple, or to the center of your forehead. very slowly bring the heel down to where it wants to rest on the other leg.

let your knee bend slowly, softly. if your foot has landed on or toward the top of the opposite thigh, press that thigh outward with your hand, and nestle your foot into the hip crease if you can. look at your knee. is it off the ground? put a block under it and stop. do you feel anything at all in your knee? then stop, and reverse the movements to leave the pose. only when you are at this stage with ease should you rotate your hip in, to bring the bent knee toward the midline of the body.)

long time readers may recall i pulled by piriformis in ardha matseyasana. and i did it by letting my knee hang unsupported and then twisting forward to touch my toes. in short, as he explained all the poses, for the first time i saw exacty how and why each of my injuries had happened!

i highly recommend francois raoult's workshops, even for people who think they dislike iyengar yoga. his explanations are far from dogmatic and while his humor can seem sharp, it's infectious. we laughed a lot.

this fall he's going to chicago and san francisco. check out his schedule at open sky yoga. if you can't make a public workshop when he's in your area, try to set up a private lesson with him. his list price for a private hour is only $80; in my brief but powerful experience his expert eye will diagnose and deconstruct the errors in your practice in just a few minutes. . .

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