Am I Making Progress?

Am I Making Progress ?

By Peg Ryan
Mile High Pilates and Yoga

A friend and I were talking as we walked this morning about some of the ongoing controversies within the health and wellness communities.  One example: how do cholesterol levels really impact our health and what are optimum levels?  For many years this seemed to be settled science.  High cholesterol was linked to “bad” fat in the diet.  Everyone jumped on a reduced fat or fat-free diet.  Then research began to show that heredity and genetics also play a part.  Dietary cholesterol intake might not be such a significant factor after all.  Further research began to distinguish between types of cholesterol and also types of fat.   The subtleties of determining optimum levels in diverse individuals began to present additional complications in diagnosis and treatment.  There was a time when some doctors were advocating putting cholesterol-lowering medications in the water supply.  Fortunately, subsequent research has begun to question whether or not previously established optimum cholesterol levels are really applicable to all people.  So even when we think modern methods have settled certain questions, inevitably more questions tend to surface.

To complicate matters even more, increasing interest in holistic approaches to health care recommend taking the whole person into consideration instead of just isolated symptoms or systems.  This means recognizing that our internal mechanisms are not only interconnected but also impacted by our minds and emotions. Add to this the fact that each of us has our own individual responses to various medical interventions, none of which is always true for every person, regardless of the statistical results of clinical trials.  As human beings we have much in common, but we each have unique characteristics that make generalizations difficult if not downright dangerous at times.  My feeling is that we are all an experiment of one.  Getting to know our own bodies is just one step in the direction of learning what is right for each of us as individuals, regardless of what the latest study seems to show.

For many years there has been an ongoing discussion in the fitness industry.  It goes something like this:  is it healthier to be a thin couch potato or an overweight exerciser?  There are, of course, advocates and plausible arguments on both sides.   But in my opinion, all of this points to the many questions that still exist in our knowledge of how human beings work.  We are just beginning to learn about nutrition, what a body actually requires and the best way to provide it. This is no small task since each of us has different needs. This subject is still not well-taught in our medical schools and or even well understood by researchers. We get sound bites of research, most of which is flawed, that the media jumps on as the next magic solution. People hop on the bandwagon only to find that what worked for their neighbor simply doesn’t work for them. Then the next study comes down the pike which contradicts the one before it.  “Coffee is good for your heart!” shout the headlines only to be followed a few months later by, “Don’t drink coffee, it’s bad for you” or “Drink 3 cups of coffee, but not 4”.   It seems that each time some question finds what looks like an answer, a whole new set of questions arises.

Having said all of that, there is one thing that all of us have been hearing for many years and that a mounting body of evidence from many different sources continues to support.  We all need to move more for better health.  Many years of sedentary lifestyles have affected our health in negative ways.  This is just one factor in modern life that affects our health, but this is one we can choose to change.  But how to move, when to move, how often, how fast – all of these still remain questions that each of us as individuals need to answer for ourselves.

So what happens when you finally take that big step forward and make that change?  You’ve made the decision, committed yourself and incorporated a regular movement practice into your life. How do you know if you’re making progress toward better health?  Maybe despite attention your diet and consistent exercise you just don’t seem to be seeing results.  You were expecting to feel stronger, have better balance, ease some of your pain, but it doesn’t seem to be happening.  This can be discouraging.  You may even begin to doubt your own capacity for feeling better.  Thoughts like “I’m no good at this” or “I will never get any better” may begin to creep into your consciousness further sabotaging your efforts.

In the fitness industry we often speak of “exercise plateaus”.  Many people make noticeable gains in the early days of an exercise program.  Of course, this is not true for everyone.  In some cases the very act of beginning a movement practice is so stressful that it can take time for the practitioner to begin to feel better.  In all cases the body gradually adapts to the changing demands on its systems.  Sometimes this results in what looks like a levelling off of change.  But the changes that are continuing – and it is my opinion that they are, in fact, continuing – to take place may simply have moved into a more subtle realm.  This is the time when it becomes more important than ever to focus on continuing your practice and going deeper into the subtle aspects of mind-body connection to find the changes.  Here are some questions you might want to consider:  How do you feel?  If your goal when you began your practice was pain relief, perhaps your pain is still there.  But are you better able to live with it since beginning your practice?  Can you move more easily?  Are you better able to do at least some of the things that were beyond your ability when you started?  Do you have more stamina?  Try focussing on the improvement instead of the lingering limitations.

If your goal was weight loss, but you can’t seem to get there from here, ask yourself:  Do my clothes fit better?  Do I have more color in my cheeks?  How are my energy levels?  Do I fatigue less easily?  Am I sleeping better?  Am I standing taller?  Posture improvement is an important result of many mind-body movement systems including yoga and Pilates.  Another consequence of our sedentary lifestyle is erosion of good posture and resulting back, neck and shoulder problems.  In a recent article in Yoga Journal, Dr. Ray Long speaks of the immediate difference in his patients’ moods when he gives them a simple exercise that allows them to sit upright in a chair.  They change from describing themselves as being “tired” or “sad” to being “alert” and “bright”.  Which brings up another question:  Has your mood improved?  Remember, your emotions, mind and body are all interconnected.  Has working your body helped you to better respond to situations in your life?  Are you better able to relax and find stress-free moments? Maybe you don’t get irritated as easily by little things.  Perhaps you are more in touch with the present moment rather than regretting the past or fearing the future.  There is every reason to believe that your movement practice has contributed to these changes as well.

Going back to the concept that we are each an experiment of one, each of us will respond differently to whatever interventions we adopt to address our health needs.  As you begin to examine the more subtle changes in your mind and body, you will no doubt think of other ways to note your progress.  What works for the person next to you in class may not work for you and vice versa.  We each have to find our own way.  But it helps if you gear your measurements to your own needs rather than the needs of others or anything you read about in the popular press. Develop your own yardsticks of progress and if one ceases to work, find another.  There is no one perfect measurement.  After all what is progress?  Make your own definition.  But if it means positive change then I am confident that you will find it if you take the time to look.

The important thing is to stick with your practice no matter what.  Don’t give up. Change it if you need to reignite your enthusiasm or cut back if your body demands it.  But don’t stop moving. Whatever your definition of progress, it will certainly stop if you do.  And it is much more difficult to re-start after stopping than it is to just keep moving at whatever level you can.   Even if you think you aren’t getting anywhere, you are exactly where you need to be.  Be kind to yourself, practice patience, be grateful for your ability to move and breathe and honor your body’s desire to maintain that ability.



An Open Letter to Yoga Journal

many-yogis-one-classThe November 2016 issue of Yoga Journal featured an article titled: “What it Takes to Teach” by Tasha Eichenseher.  (Here is a link to the online version called, “Is 200 Hours Enough to Teach Yoga?” ).  The article discusses the ongoing controversy over teacher-training standards.  Whether or not you know anything about preparation for yoga teachers or even yoga itself, you would have to be living under a rock with no media access to be unfamiliar with this controversy.  It has been going on in every educational institution for many years.  To make that connection, here are some of the highlights of the controversy:  What makes a good teacher?  How do we train good teachers? How do we identify “bad” teachers?  Is it possible to turn “bad” teachers into “good” teachers through mentorship, supervision, incentives, threats or other seemingly objective evaluative concepts?  Do we need uniform standards?  How strict should they be?  How do we honor tradition and retain what is valuable in the process of implementing change?

All of us have heard all of these questions arise in multiple situations, especially in recent years as we witness change happening all around us. Many of the institutions we have all accepted and relied upon for years are not longer serving us.  Some of us cling to the past and want all new things to find someplace else to exist.  Others of us recognize that the need to revisit and maybe even update the way things have “always” been done is both necessary and overdue.  As a result we are witnessing a clash of cultures, which, in very simplistic terms, is between those who want to pull the past forward and those who want to move on.

In response to the article, the first comment I would like to make is this:  in my opinion, teaching comes from within, not without. You can try to feed ability from the outside in.  Many volumes have been written proclaiming the right way to do this.  But all we have to do is look at the results to know that some of those approaches will work for some people, but none of them work all the time.  Institutional thinking from government to corporations to medicine, etc., loves one-size-fits-all solutions.  We want to be able to apply one standard (or product, or rule, or cure, etc.) to every person and situation.  Makes for standardization, right?  And efficiency.  That way, whenever you get a product, rule, cure or academic course, you are getting a dependable, uniform treatment that you can rely on.  We can rest easy that not matter where you receive this service, it will be the same as everyone else who received it.  Admittedly I’m dating myself here, but what comes to mind for me is recalling a family vacation many years ago travelling the old highway U.S. 1 down the East Coast. We would search for Howard Johnson’s restaurants.  You always knew that you could get the same thing no matter where you were.  In some ways McDonald’s and Starbucks have taken over this role in modern life, but even those juggernauts have found they need to continuously change or suffer the consequences.  Our global community is too large and too diverse.  Unfortunately, though, individualized solutions are expensive and inefficient.  So the conflict continues.

The article mentions some long-time teachers who learned their craft “the old fashioned way”.  That is, through years of study with an individual teacher who would not let them teach until deemed ready.  And even then only taking on that mantle gradually and under ongoing supervision.  Some of you may know that yoga is more than a physical practice.  It is also a philosophy for living that encompasses additional practices beyond yoga poses.  Teachers from this old-style tradition spoke also of the many years of studying this philosophy and history to incorporate these important concepts into their teaching.  There was no counting of hours spent studying anatomy or the Yoga Sutras.  You simply studied because you wanted to learn all aspects of the discipline.  Through the years I have seen similar arguments in the Pilates community as those who learned their craft from the original disciples of Joseph Pilates advocate adherence to those strict guidelines while many newer teachers have continued to adapt and morph the principles developing new versions to address the needs of an ever-enlarging public.

In some ways, yoga is a victim of its own success.  What was once an esoteric practice thought to be limited to a few “bendy” individuals, yoga has gained widespread interest among a huge variety of participants.  The Yoga Journal article mentions a peer-reviewed study released by Dr. Dean Ornish showing the positive health effects of yoga which sparked enormous public demand.  That, in turn, created a need for more teachers. Thus, teacher-training programs began to proliferate.  Think about the rise of “for-profit” universities.  This also began as a direct in response to demand for trained workers in certain industries.  But as the training industry grows, the focus can become skewed and quality can be stretched beyond its capacity.

In recent years leading yoga teachers have continued with Dr. Ornish’s ideas. There have been increasing efforts to have yoga recognized as a genuine therapeutic intervention that can work in concert with the medical community as part of a more holistic approach to health care.  The International Association of Yoga Therapists is a prime example of this type of advocacy.  This organization recommends more training, more mentoring, more hours, more supervision.  All noble and welcome ideas.  The Yoga Journal article further quotes teacher-trainers who impose similar requirements before releasing their proteges into a classroom, a potentially sound approach.  But here is another consideration:  all of this is expensive and time-consuming.  The article also states that fewer than 30% of yoga teachers registered with Yoga Alliance , the primary trade association of the yoga community, make a full-time living teaching yoga.  Ongoing training is not free.  Neither is mentoring.  If a would-be yoga teacher must maintain a job and/or other obligations, how does one justify the expense?  Granted, no one goes into teaching of any kind for the money, but few yoga teachers have any job security, health benefits, tuition assistance or paid leave time.  In my own experience of more than 20 years in the fitness and movement industry, most teachers who work for an organization (e.g., studio or YMCA) make $10 – $20 per class.  Through the years I have funded all of my own training all of which has been driven by my own interests and the needs of my ever-changing student population rather than any mandates from certifying bodies.  I did not start teaching until I felt ready, but I have learned much more about how to teach by actually teaching than I ever did by being told how to teach.  I often say that I “lead” sessions rather than “teach” since I learn just as much – if not more – from my students as I try to impart to them.  If I had to wait through all of those years to try to teach not only would I have lost a great deal of personal knowledge and skill, but I like to think my students would have also.  After so many years of studying and experience, I would also not want some governing body to tell me I did not have the correct credentials to be a teacher.

So what are we to do?  Obviously, there are no easy answers.  Despite the hand-wringing, however, I think there are some positive aspects to all of this which need to be brought to the forefront.  As always, nothing is always negative.  For example, one good thing about the proliferation of yoga teachers is that a participant has lots of choices.  I live in a town of 2,000 people and we have FOUR yoga teachers holding classes here on a regular basis.  If you don’t like the way one of us teaches, you can choose another teacher.  A short drive either north or south of my town provides even more yoga teachers and styles.  Also Pilates and many other mind-body disciplines.  There is something for everyone.  Teachers tend to weed themselves out, also.  People pursue teaching for any number of reasons, most of them well-meaning. But some aspirants may find that teaching is not what they thought it would be.  As with any profession, there is this idea that anyone can acquire the right skills with proper training, but this is simply not true.  The fact is that not everyone can be a good teacher.  It’s just not in their DNA.  Just like not everyone can be a good waitress, or hairdresser, or engineer, etc. etc. We are all different and we all have individual strengths and weaknesses.  We all need to find our own way.

The public will also voice its opinion.  If no one likes a particular teacher, they will stop attending that teacher’s classes.  This will either cause some soul-searching by that teacher that might lead to more learning, or perhaps a complete change of career path.  I recall a would-be yoga teacher years ago who began to teach classes thinking he was ready.  One day a participant came up to him at the end of a class and began describing her fibromyalgia.  At that point, this teacher realized he wasn’t ready to teach after all.  So there are other methods besides governing bodies that can sometimes also prevail.

Of course, we do not want participants to become injured and sometimes poor teaching can create some unfortunate consequences. This can give the industry a bad reputation which, I think, is part of the underlying concern here.  Personally I am a believer that there is a form of movement (maybe yoga, maybe not) that is appropriate for everyone and I would love to see everyone find their way to their own style. However, even the best teacher cannot necessarily control the way a student behaves.  The Yoga Journal article quotes Dr. Timothy McCall who says, “A teacher can encourage students not to do things they shouldn’t be doing, but a lot of people will just do what they want.”  No amount of teacher training is going to change that.

So I hark back to my initial opinion – teaching comes from within.  Mary Taylor, one of the long-time teachers quoted in the Yoga Journal article, speaks of the way training used to be.  “You had to really want to learn,” she says.  I couldn’t agree more.  One of the things I love most about yoga and Pilates is that there is always something new to learn.  Love of studying should always be part of the teaching vocation. I know we will continue to witness the struggle between how and what to teach teachers, but I hope that the discussion always allows some flexibility.  Yoga is all about strength, flexibility and balance for the mind and the body.  If we want to keep those ancient concepts alive any imposition of rules and standards needs to take that into account.