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Knowing My Limits

After nearly a decade of doing yoga, Neal Pollack still struggles with the physical details of the practice. But he's learning to accept this about himself, and to call for help when needed.

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A few weeks ago, at my regular Wednesday night class, the instructor asked us to do some partner work. When improperly deployed, which it often is, partner yoga is just a lazy time-filler, wherein you end up sitting down, pressing the soles of your feet against a stranger’s, and moving your torso rhythmically while knocking your spine out of alignment. In this case, though, our experienced teacher just wanted us to help each other sink deeper into Chair Pose.


The other youngish, strongish guy in the class got assigned to me. The teacher gave us very specific instructions. We were supposed to hold each other’s wrists in a certain way and then do something with the shoulder blades and then pull or sit or stand firm. Actually, I didn’t understand what was supposed to do, and therein lies my problem.

I’ve been consistently practicing physical yoga for nearly a decade now, and have had the privilege of studying with some of the finest teachers in North America. In 2010, I completed one of the toughest, most exclusive teacher trainings around. I’ve taught classes and workshops from coast to coast.

And I wouldn’t understand how to give my students serious adjustments if you guaranteed me a $1,000 a body.

My yoga, whether I’m practicing it or teaching it, happens very slowly, one pose at a time. But it’s not Iyengar Yoga either, where the physical instructions are so detailed that you feel like they’re trying to turn you into an android. Honestly, I don’t understand how those teachers who do complicatedvinyasa flow classes constantly sooth out their physical instructions. I’d go crazy after five minutes.

Lifting, lowering, sliding, externally rotating, internally rotating: Very little of it makes any sense to me. Teachers will correct me one day, and the next day I’m still making the same mistake. It took me five years to learn how to plant my back foot during Warrior II. So how am I supposed to tell a student what to do?

The answer is not to teach anything I don’t understand. For instance, I feel like I have a pretty good grasp of basic pranayamatechniques, so I give detailed breathing instructions at the beginning of class. I also understand, from my own experience, that if you bend your knees a bit in Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend), it’s not as hard on your lower back and you also preserve your hamstrings. A few tumbles have led me to understand to draw your elbows in close during Headstand to give yourself a stronger base. You can only teach what you know. If I’m a little slow on the physical uptake, then I need to teach like that, with sincerity.

One of the great side benefits of yoga is that I’ve come to realize how my brain works. For many years, I had trouble telling my right from my left. I didn’t learn how to ride a bike until I was 16 years old. If my kid wanted me to build Lego sets or do puzzles with him, I simply wouldn’t be capable. But for good or bad, he’s inherited my lack of interest and ability in the minute physical details. This used to torment me, but now I deal with my deficiencies with acceptance, most of the time. There’s room in yoga for clumsy incompetents, too.

So on that evening in class, I went first, letting the other guy give me the necessary adjustments, and he did a great job. Then it was my turn, and I muddled through, not hurting the guy, but not giving him the full benefits of the pose, either. So I called the teacher over, and he took my place and gave my fellow student what he needed. Sometimes, you just have to know when to call in the yoga cavalry.