Yoga is Not Dance

As a yoga teacher I often hear from students, “I like yoga, but I’m not good at it.” What I understand from this is that they feel they’re expected to do the poses ‘correctly’ in order to be ‘good at yoga.’ But yoga is not dance. As yoga practitioners, we’re not performing for an audience, but we do yoga in order to feel more ease in our bodies, more calm in the mind. We practice yoga for ourselves and nobody else. True, our practice can extend to others by helping us see how we can help our communities. But the practice of yoga is not a show.

“Yoga is not a competition”

The media tells us something different. Yoga competitions are springing up all over the world. The covers of Yoga Journal and Sein show us mostly white, mostly slim, mostly cis-female flexible yogis demonstrating their fanciest poses. Yoga teachers tell us; “there is no right or wrong way to do yoga,” and “yoga is not a competition,” and “everyone has a different body.” But I’ve also heard yoga teachers say that their students are not doing the poses ‘correctly.’ In a yoga class, the teacher will offer corrections with the primary goal of preventing the practitioner from injuring themselves in the pose. But sometimes, subconscious biases causes a teacher to ‘correct’ a student’s pose so that it looks like the textbook or covermodel version, pressing a student to go beyond their own limits, and throwing them out of awareness of their own body. This can not only lead to physical injury, but can also inadvertently cause a student to feel as if they’re ‘not good at yoga.’ As a teacher, I’m always looking to find that balance to gently encourage students to find their limits and go further if they feel like it that day, or retreat from it if they need to. Sometimes this means I do not do corrections at all, especially for those new to yoga. I like to let new practitioners find their own way of doing the poses. Though I myself really like the feeling of an experienced teacher’s gentle guiding hand encouraging my shoulder blades to release down my back, so I don’t want to do away with it altogether. Maybe we even need to move away from a terminology that refers to something as a ‘correction’ and instead call these gentle encouragements something else? What would work for you? Assistance? Encouragements? Guidance?

At English Yoga Berlin, we have consent cards at the fronts of each mat with YES on one side and NO on the other, that lets the teacher know if a participant would like to be touched or not. Participants are invited to turn it over at any point in the class.

Yoga is not Dance

A regular practice of yoga can be good for dancers to balance the stresses they put on their bodies. But it can also be good for those of us who put our bodies through stress in other ways – doing manual labour such as caring for small children, cleaning or construction work, or doing immobile work without a break such as sitting at a computer desk for 8 hours every day or driving a truck for 36 hours. Human bodies need to move, we need to strengthen and limber up our bodies to create more ease in our everyday lives, to recuperate from our daily stresses. This is how a regular practice of yoga benefits us. I can understand how yoga is popular amongst dancers. But when people who have never had dance training come to yoga, and they see a dancer at the front of the room, or amongst them in the practice space, it may cause feelings of inadequacy. How can we, as yoga teachers, and how can we, as experienced yoga practitioners, make room for those new to yoga to feel comfortable?

At English Yoga Berlin, we also have a sign with guidelines as to how we would appreciate everyone act in the space. As the yoga space is for everyone, we hope to provide a space where everyone can feel comfortable. For us, this means that we respect others’ practice by not showing off, flaunting our privilege, wearing strong perfume or chatting in the practice room. Is there anything else that would help you feel more comfortable?

Safer Space

English Yoga Berlin – Safer Space Guidelines


 

Juli offers Community Yoga classes at English Yoga Berlin, with an emphasis on creating a space for those who feel marginalized by mainstream yoga classes: sliding scale prices for no- / low-income earners. Juli teaches Vinyasa Flow Yoga and Restorative Yoga and is currently enrolled in the Svastha Yoga Therapy advanced teacher training program and has completed the first two modules, yoga for injuries and illnesses of the body.

The Neutral Spine

We often hear these words “the neutral spine” as a cue in yoga classes.

But they don’t often come with a clear explanation of what that means or why it’s important. Sometimes a yoga teacher tells us to “tuck our tails under,” which for some people helps to lengthen the lower back, but for others just emphasizes an already rounded lumbar spine. All of our bodies are differently shaped, so a “neutral spine” is different for every person.

neutral spine

Spine Foto by Katie Cowden

So what is it exactly?

A neutral spine is like a spring that can absorb impact as we walk, stretch, strengthen, and generally move about. Like shock absorbers on a car. Anyone with classical dance training has been told to keep their backs straight as a rod, but this removes this spring in our step and our body’s ability to accommodate impact. I often see former dancers come to my yoga classes with chronic lower-back pain or slipped discs. A neutral spine has curves, and generally forms two S-shapes; one at the bottom at the lumbar spine and one at the top at the cervical spine. Long hours of sitting at a desk with a rounded lower back and chin jutting forward can affect longterm impact upon our body’s built-in shock absorber.

Why is it important?

When we take the double-S form of a neutral spine, it helps to keep not only our spines healthy, but other parts of our bodies too. It reduces impact and helps nutrients and oxygen flow where they need to. It also reduces the likelihood of pinching nerves that extend from in-between the vertebrae into the arms and legs. Pain or numbness in the arms or legs can occur when a disc bulges or slips backwards into the spinal canal and presses against nerves that extend outwards. These most often occur at the lower spine, but over the last 15 years with the popularity of the laptop, tablet and smartphone hunching posture, we are seeing many more people with pinched nerves in the neck and upper back. These can often be quite dangerous, because surgery is required to push the disc back or remove the inflammation. Physiotherapy and a regular yoga practice can help, but most people do not take enough time for that. Orthopedists recommend practicing yoga, pilates or physiotherapy 2 or 3 times a week over a minimum of a year in order to heal from a slipped or bulging disc.

How do I know if my spine is neutral?

There are many cues that yoga teachers give to help participants find their own neutral spine position. “Extend the tailbone down.” “Zip up the belly button.” “Lift the heart.” “Pull the shoulder blades together.” “Lengthen the neck.” etc. But only you know when you’ve reached it. You will breathe more freely because your chest is at its most open. Lower back pain may dissipate because the pressure gets lifted as the lumbar spine lengthens. Your balance could improve is one-legged poses, you might feel stronger in warrior poses. One way to test and get to know where your neutral spine is, is to do the rod test. You can get a friend to help you.

  • First, you can try it in tabletop pose.
  • Ask your friend to place the rod against and in line with your spine.
  • Touch the tip of your tailbone and the flat part of the back of your head to the rod.
  • Engage your abdominal muscles so that your belly is not drooping.
  • You should feel long on both the front and back sides of your torso.
  • There should be a gap between your lumbar spine (lower back) and the rod.
  • Now that you’ve got the hang of it in tabletop pose, try it standing!

Juli offers Community Yoga classes at English Yoga Berlin, with an emphasis on creating a space for those who feel marginalized by mainstream yoga classes: sliding scale prices for no- / low-income earners. Juli is currently enrolled in the Svastha Yoga Therapy advanced teacher training program and has completed the first two modules, yoga for injuries and illnesses of the body.

Myths about Weight-loss and Yoga

It was quite unexpected one day when I tried to open an article about body positive yoga and was then slapped with a popup for a weight loss ad. Like a slap in the face, I presumed I was going into friendly territory, and then was shamed for it.

“You would look so much better if…”

I proceeded to communicate with the manager of the web-platform (not the same person who wrote the article), to explain to them how these ads are detrimental. He refused to acknowledge my point of view, explaining to me why my feelings were invalid, and his were correct (a clear case of mansplaining). I think I know when I feel shamed. And when a weight-loss ad pops up while I’m trying to read an article about powerful abundantly-bodied yogis, this is exactly what “fat-shaming” is about. And sometimes it’s not so obvious to those doing it: “The shaming may be performed under the guise of helping the person who is overweight/obese realize they need to lose weight or they will die, become ill, and/or never succeed in life or relationships.” I should not have to be reminded of the so-called beauty standards outlined by mainstream media when I’m trying to find solidarity in connecting to my body with positivity. The term “weight-loss” is grammatically “negative” in and of itself. But I don’t want to dwell on semantics. Body Positivity is about connecting to one’s own body the way it is right now, loving it, owning it; whether that body fits mainstream standards of ability, size, skin colour, gender, or not. Body Positivity is about disregarding the propaganda that capitalism wants to sell us through whatever new trend of the day is, and just being present and accepting our bodies for what they are. In my opinion, the hottest people are the ones who are able to do that, they shine from the inside – they glow with bliss and love of their own bodies. It’s powerful and inspiring.

unhealthy weight-loss

Unhealthy weight-loss

“Body positivity and the wish to lose weight go hand-in-hand…”

Obviously this guy knows nothing about body positivity, nor has any experience about the wish to lose weight. As a female-socialized person who never fit into any beauty norms, I can attest to the experience that I never felt less at home in my body than when I wished to lose weight, nor did I feel any more positive about my body than when I did actually lose weight. Now, at the heaviest I am in my life, I feel the most at home, the most happy. I look in the mirror, and I say “look at that hottie!” About 8 years ago I was on a strict diet that was supposed to alleviate the painful symptoms I had from endometriosis. I lost a lot of weight very quickly, I was 20 kilos less than I am now – in the so-called BMI ‘normal’ weight range, even though my ribs were sticking out. But my immune system got depleted and I kept getting sick. And the symptoms continued to perpetuate. According to the BMI, today I would be classified as ‘obese.’ But I have no desire to lose ‘weight.’ The mass my body has is mostly composed of thick muscle and strong bones. Yeah, I have some fat around my middle, I enjoy a few beers now and then. But according to my doctor, I am very healthy for my age. And I don’t lose connection to my breath while I’m both demonstrating as well as talking through the approximately 30 chaturungas in my yoga classes, as well as practice handstand, and forearm stand regularly. I hardly ever get sick these days. I’m flexible, strong, commute by bicycle and move easily in my own body. If I lost weight, I’d lose muscle and strength.  The BMI is a load of bollocks.

forearm stand to scorpion

Moving up to Scorpion pose

Look at these athletes, how strong they are… I’m sure some of them would be classified as obese. If you slapped them with a weight-loss ad, they’d scoff in your face! I don’t think that losing weight should be a goal for anyone. Especially when it means that some people can take this concept to the extreme and develop eating disorders. I can get behind the idea of being healthy, but at cost to whom? And what’s in it for someone who runs some random web platform to tell others what they should or should not do with their own bodies?

“You should eat healthy…”

The manager of the website went on to explain to me that many of their “readers have a long history of health related issues where many of them are related to unhealthy diets and eating habits.” Firstly, I don’t know how he could know this, he’s judging his readers based on analytics and statistics from what they click on. Just because someone falls prey to the latest weight-loss trend does not mean they have ‘unhealthy diets’ or are even ‘overweight.’ Both of these concepts are based on culturally-constructed marketing concepts sold to us by multi-million dollar companies. Secondly, even using the term ‘healthy’ for food is ridiculous. How can something that is dead be ‘healthy’? Okay, sometimes people eat food that is not dead, but most of us will eat dead and / or processed plants or animals. ‘Healthy‘ refers to an organic material, plant or animal, that is alive and thriving. When we eat, our bodies take nutrients from what we consume, not ‘health.’ One could say that “Kale is nutritious” because it contains a lot of nutrients that human bodies need to remain healthy. But so does a bag of chips and a glass of beer! I just found out about this trend in Berlin called BierYoga, I’m all for it! Why not bring together two things you’re passionate about? I’ve heard some German yogis say that they will never drink beer because it gives them a thick belly. As the old school yogis proudly display their beer bellies, these westerners fall prey to capitalist vanity. I myself don’t see the point of such restrictions, and want to enjoy my life with a few beers now and then. And I will rock my belly in a bikini, despite your jealous sneers. Yes, I do think that fat-shaming comes from a place of jealousy over the fact that this ample-bodied person allows themselves to indulge in the enjoyment of eating and drinking, and the one watching their waistline places themselves in a prison of calorie-counting and latest diet fads. Who’s the one with the ‘unhealthy’ eating habits here? It’s not so easy to say, is it?

“Emotional over-eating is the cause of obesity …”

Some people, no matter how careful they are with what they eat are still unhealthy, and those who just eat whatever they want whenever they want are very healthy, like myself. Emotional over-eating is not the problem. And I would even venture to say that emotional over-eating may stem from the very thing you keep pushing at people. Mainstream beauty ideals tend to alienate more people than they include. Weight-loss ads just create more eating disorders than they help people get healthier. Contemporary western society is so food-obsessed that we’ve lost track of what food can do for us as social human beings and how we can connect to each other. People are constantly counting calories, worrying about whether what’s in their food is GMO or contains this preservative or that salt, or whether something is deemed as organic or fits in with the latest hipster trend and makes them look cool. I fear that people don’t enjoy their food anymore, that it’s become a status symbol, something to post on Facebook. I’ve heard people say “at our age, we have to leave more on our plates” when ordering at restaurants. So… what happens to the food on your plate? It gets tossed in the garbage. This just emphasizes your status as a wealthy person who can afford to order a lot of food, and then not eat it, because you’re ‘trying to keep slim.’ This makes me so angry when I see food go to waste. Food should *not* be a status symbol. In most places of the world, people eat what they can get their hands on. They cherish the food that they have available to them, because there IS nothing else. I grew up with food as a social tradition. We would gather around a feast. Food was important to keeping our culture thriving, and over-eating was a sign of respect. And we would never, ever leave food on our plates. If we couldn’t eat it all, we would put it away as leftovers for the next day, because there was a time when my family remembered having very little or nothing to eat and they didn’t want to go through that again. In South Korea, over-eating is one of the most popular things to marvel at – it has become a kind of sporty entertainment! And here in the west, we’re ‘counting calories.’ Except for the lower-income people who don’t have access to fresh produce. Could these so-called ‘food deserts‘ be the cause of obesity in the United States? These are also often in places where city folk don’t venture to go, there are no yoga studios in a lot of these lower-income regions, no soccer fields, no cooking classes. People are struggling for survival in a society that deems them under class, they don’t have time to count calories or the money to buy better food.

“Obesity IS the cause of many illnesses our society is suffering…”

The capitalist machine has invented a fear of ‘fatness’ to sell us overly-priced food and weight-loss regimes. The capitalist machine has also invented fast food, deep fryers and over-sweetened our cereal, so that they can feed the machine, shower us with images of what we should look like and sell us back weight-loss regimes. It’s a well-thought out campaign to keep profits high and consumers feeling shitty about how they look. This is the reason why weight-loss ads earn money for web platforms like this one I went to. The manager claimed that he would like to represent diversity, but he wants to keep the website going. Yup, weight-loss ads sell, and diversity makes you no income, because it is revolutionary and counters capitalistic devices. I’m not going to disagree that a lot of excess fat in the body contributes to heart disease and limited mobility. But people get heart disease who are slimmer as well, and limited mobility can be caused be a lot of different reasons. When I was attending the first module of the yoga therapy teacher training program, the teacher, who’s also a practicing orthopedist, asked us if anyone knew what the main reason for bad knees was. A fellow student piped up, believing that obesity was the cause. He shook his head, ‘no,’ and said that’s one of the most common misconceptions. Yes, people who carry around extra weight, like myself, stress their knees more than smaller people. But that can actually create more strength in the knees, because of the pressure on the bones. Time and again, with every illness in the body, he kept referring to “too much sitting” as the most common cause of illness in our society.

Advertisers feign interest in people’s health in order to make more money for themselves. They don’t actually care about the health of other people. If they did, they’d stop shoving images of plastic unattainable bodies at us, fast food and weight-loss campaigns. If you really want to help people get more healthy, you’d actually go into lower-income communities and open up community kitchens with affordable nutritious food, cooking classes, economically-accessible exercise programs and community events that get people interacting with each other and moving around. Reduce the workweek, so people spend less time sitting at desks. Provide everyday office activities that everyone would enjoy – going for a walk or lunchtime yoga. Weight-loss ads only benefit those who are selling the ads, nobody else. Body Positivity is about enjoying yourself, your body, how it is now. My interpretation of mindful eating is rather than a selfish and vain approach of ‘watching what you eat’, to enjoy and be thankful for what I have to eat, and to recognize the connection between all of us on the planet through food.

Juli teaches Community Yoga classes in Berlin, with a focus of creating space for those who feel marginalized by mainstream yoga, offering classes both in German and English. Juli offers two weekly Vinyasa Flow yoga classes at our English yoga Kreuzberg studio

Jennifer Lung at English Yoga Berlin

As we rework our schedule, we welcome Jennifer Lung to guide our last Community Yoga Class in Kreuzberg on the Friday 19:30 slot.

Jennifer Lung teaches at English Yoga BerlinJennifer is a 500-Hour ERYT (Experienced Registered Yoga Teacher).  She has been teaching from Northern California to Berlin, since 2008 in a style that ranges from dynamic vinyasa flow to statically held postures and restorative. Her accessible classes are popular with all levels as she provides modifications and options throughout the session.

Jennifer is passionate about guiding students to discovering their own journey and tapping into their highest true potential. She is a lifetime student of yoga and also serves as a karma yogini at various yoga centers and ashrams. She also holds a certificate in Thai yoga therapy from Ritam Healing Arts and is a professional vegan chef with a self-published cookbook, The Bhakti Kitchen – A Yogic Way to Vegan Cooking.

When:  Friday 29th May, 19:30

Where:  English Yoga Berlin

We remind you that, although we are stopping this specific donation based yoga class, there are more donation based yoga classes that we offer at English Yoga Berlin.