The Challenge of Being Comfortable

I had a very interesting experience at the Northwest Yoga Conference last weekend that I’d like to share with you.

I led two events. The first, Pain-Free Yoga, was a joy; people showed up excited, receptive, and ready to learn. I knew that some of my concepts would fly in the face of conventional wisdom, and maybe even contradict things that the attendees had learned before. Still, my students connected with me, gave me their trust, and we all walked away better for it.

The second event, Effortless Power Through Functional Breathing, was quite different. It sold out two weeks before the event. Interestingly, there was no overlap between attendance of  the two workshops. Not one person who thought themselves powerless and short of breath also self-identified as someone in pain.

I think this is critically important.

The Reembody Method™ is novel. I don’t buy into the benefits of stretching, or hypertrophy (muscle growth); I don’t think we have any idea what we mean when we tell people to “stand up straight”; I don’t think that most people—not even your doctor—have a clear understanding of how, exactly, your knees work. In the presentation of all this disruptive information, I fully expect to encounter resistance.

One particularly disruptive concept, employed in both workshops, pertains to how we breathe.

The chest-forward, shoulder-back, chin-tucked posture that we think of as “standing up straight” actually constricts the airway. Think of the last time you took a CPR course; the first thing you do is tilt the person’s chest down and head back.

In a normal, healthy breath, the sternum needs to drop slightly during the exhale. If this does not happen, breathing becomes inefficient and labored, and spinal mobility is restricted. What can be tricky is that this momentary, repeating drop in the sternum can feel a little like slouching because it generates a rounding in the middle spine and narrows the rib cage. Many people remark how slouchy they feel when attempting this technique—but that feeling is shortly replaced by the lovely sensation of full lungs and easier breathing.

This concept takes some getting used to, and I always expect a little confusion at first. But my two sets of workshop participants resisted in distinct and revealing ways.

The Pain-Free folks were quick to adjust to this new breathing position. But what can we say about a person who signs up for a class with “pain-free” in the title? They identify themselves as being in pain, and they’re ready to try to get out of it. They might have felt a little awkward at first, but the cessation of discomfort was a powerful incentive.

The Breathing folks resisted. Mightily. What might be said about people who attend a workshop promising effortless power through the breath? That they feel powerless, and that they can’t breathe. They’re stressed, anxious, and coping, and who knows for how long. Perhaps their sleep is disrupted by a closed airway; maybe they feel they have to push through movements that should be easy, but feel hard.

Make no mistake: many of the attendees of Breathing were in pain, probably as the result of prolonged physical stress. Either they didn’t realize they can relieve the pain, they don’t realize they are in pain, or—and this is the one that keeps me up at night—they don’t believe they should relieve the pain.

The word “slouch” actually entered the English language as an epithet: an insult directed at a lazy or slovenly person. To slouch is to diminish social status: to admit powerlessness through your body language. So what might we expect a person who feels powerless to think about being put into that position? If you already fear that you are powerless, how willing would you be to call attention to it?

Now imagine that you’ve been learning for years that the only way to restore your power and potential is to thrust the chest high and squeeze your shoulder blades together, and never stop. And now here I come, telling you that this is why you can’t breathe: that the reason you still feel powerless is because the chest-high, shoulders-back position offers nothing but the illusion of power—and at the direct expense of oxygen, the literal fuel from which your strengths derives.

So, I expected resistance from the Breathing crowd, and they did not let me down. But it was specifically what they resisted that fascinated me, and how they resisted even more so.

I cued everyone into this dropped-sternum position, and had them breathe. After a few moments I asked them how it felt.

One woman responded: “Slumpy”. After a few more moments, another said: “Ugly”. Responses picked up after those first two answers, as though people were racing to distance themselves from this abominable position I was asking them adopt. “I feel lazy,”  “. . . ridiculous,” ” . . . wrong.” Many chuckled mirthlessly, mocking their own posture before someone else might have a chance to.

But I didn’t ask them how it looked; I asked them how it felt.

Their responses were value judgements: expressions of how they imagined other people would feel about them. 

The remainder of the workshop became the creation of safe space: where a powerless person could lay down their fear of social retribution and discover that, just beyond the illusion of strength, a real, sustainable power is waiting. The act of working to maintain an appearance was so rote, so ingrained, that it took the better part of an hour to undo. We dropped the sternum while we did downward dog, and mountain pose. We exhaled every ounce of air from the longs and dropped the sternum while we practiced warriors I and II.

The real magic came when we practiced ustrasana: camel pose. It was selected by a few of the attendees, because, they said, they couldn’t breathe when they did it, a concern shared by most everyone there. We dropped the sternum in camel pose, and stayed there together. Everyone could breathe. Some could even sing.

You are never powerless. Strength is abundant, just beyond the cruel illusion that you don’t deserve it.

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