Fill in the Gap
Like many yoga students who have a flow-style practice, I'm in love with movement. I want to dance like Gene Kelly, score like Mia Hamm, swirl like Michelle Kwan, and float through vinyasa like my teacher Shiva Rea. Yoga has always appealed to my athletic as well as my spiritual nature.
There are times, however, when my flow comes to a creaky halt. Recently a heel injury made my favorite Warrior II seem as alien as Foot-behind-the-Head Pose might be to a beginning student. I could no more relax into the pose than if I were standing on a bed of hot coals. Sometimes it's not injury but chronic stiffness, or even fear, that prevents me from settling into a pose. Thanks to my perennially tight hips and achy knees, my Pigeon Pose limps more often than it struts and soars. And, like most students, I've stared in apprehension at a teacher demonstrating some advanced pose and thought, "You want me to put my foot where?"
Working through such difficulties is, of course, an important part of every yogi's practice. But along with persistence, it also makes sense to utilize every tool at your disposal. One of the best ways to deepen your yoga is to complement it with other body-mind disciplines, including the somatics practices that have been developed in the West over the past 100 years—practices like the Alexander Method, Continuum, Hanna Somatics, Feldenkrais work, Body-Mind Centering, and Pilates.
So when Yoga Journal offered me the opportunity to explore how somatic practices can help yogis, I jumped at the chance. I considered starting with Pilates, since the work has become the exercise du jour in the Los Angeles area, where I live. A conversation with Mark Stephens, who teaches yoga at Yoga Works in Santa Monica, California, firmed up my decision. Stephens observed that in yoga, we not only initiate movement from our spiritual center, we also utilize the same physical center Pilates focuses on: the lower chakras. "Most of my students' challenges involve sensing proper movement in the pelvis," Stephens says. "Pilates brings a lot of intelligence to that area."
With this encouragement, I made an appointment with Pilates teacher Nela Fry, who teaches at Bodyworks in Santa Monica. Some Pilates exercises are done on a floor mat, I discovered, but a more typical session will use a combination of up to five different pieces of exercise equipment to sequentially challenge the student's muscles.
Fry started me on The Cadillac, which looks something like a four-poster metal bed minus the curtains. Lying flat on my back, I reached up and grabbed a horizontal bar attached to springs. My feet were braced against the metal frame at the foot of the bed. The movement consisted of simply rolling up and down my spine, with the bar working as resistance and aid.
The routine continued with a few reps for each exercise. Fry paid constant attention to the position of my hands and feet, the shape of my belly (flat: good; poochy: bad), the length of my neck, the position of my hips, and other details. It was all very exacting, though we flowed easily from one apparatus and exercise to the next.