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Yoga for Athletes

Fill in Yoga’s Gaps with Somatic Practices

Crosstraining with Pilates, Feldenkrais, and Body-Mind Centering can help free up those hard-to-reach stuck places your yoga practice may be missing.

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Crosstraining with Pilates, Feldenkrais, and Body-Mind Centering can help free up those hard-to-reach stuck places your yoga practice may be missing.

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.

As in yoga, Pilates necessitates concentration, precision, correct alignment, and breath. My class was not an aerobic workout, but I found myself sweating, muscles twitching from the work, and my brain fully engaged. The effort is in doing the movements correctly and not just banging them out haphazardly. Fry commented that many of her clients who have a yoga background have good body awareness, and she thinks this helps them get maximum benefit from Pilates work.


German-born fitness buff Joseph Pilates first came up with the precursors to this equipment while in a World War I internment camp. There he rigged hospital beds with levers, straps, pulleys, and springs, so that the infirm could exercise. The equipment was designed for resistance training without overstretching, and focused on alignment and strengthening the core muscles—abdominals, buttocks, and lower back. Pilates called them the “Powerhouse.”

“Pilates is a resistance workout,” explains Siri Dharma Galliano, who runs Live Art, Inc., a Pilates and yoga center in Beverly Hills, California. “Yet it’s very mind-body integrative and aesthetically satisfying. The rhythm of the work soothes your nervous system in a way that’s similar to yoga. It’s a consistent, rhythmic, dancelike flow that the body relaxes into.”

“There’s no question that Mr. Pilates studied yoga and borrowed a lot of the positions,” says Jillian Hessel, director of The Well-Tempered Workout, a fitness studio in West Hollywood. “There’s an exercise that we call ‘up-stretch’ that begins in Downward-Facing Dog, but it’s done moving on a piece of equipment called the Universal Reformer, a sliding apparatus that works on spring action.” Another strong connection between the two practices, says Hessel, is “the relationship between breath and movement. In Pilates, you become more conscious and aware of moving oxygen in and out of the body, synchronizing the rhythms of breath and movement, and really focusing on the Powerhouse.”

The fluidity of Pilates has attracted members of the dance community like Fry and Hessel since 1926, when Joseph Pilates and his wife first opened their New York studio. Today, many yoga students are using the Pilates method to enhance their practice and understand how movement is rooted in the lower chakras at the core of the body. Pilates’ focused flow may be especially appealing to lovers of vinyasa, but all yoga practitioners can benefit from its attention to core strength, breath, and inner balance.


Most of us have a few asanas we quickly skate through, just trying to hold them with the least possible discomfort. The basic actions of these poses are so abstruse to us that we just can’t seem to get fully engaged, or achieve enough comfort so we can go deeper.

According to the Feldenkrais Method, our problem may be that we’re up against a deep neurological pattern—perhaps an unconscious freezing up around an old injury, perhaps simply habit. As we grow, say Feldenkrais teachers, our bodies settle into habitual patterns—the way we sit, stand, walk, work at a computer, or jump back into Chaturanga Dandasana—movements so common we’re no longer aware of how we do them, or of having other choices. Often, these habitual movements aren’t optimal for us. They can lead to pain, or, at the very least, an inability to reach our full potential. Feldenkrais training offers a way to rearrange our body awareness down to the deepest neurological level. This enables us to make a wider range of movement choices, because the body is shown possibilities that were previously hidden.

An athlete, engineer, and nuclear physicist, Moshe Feldenkrais developed his method in an effort to cure his own chronic, debilitating knee problems. The work eventually evolved into two components, both centering on self-observation which flows from gentle, guided movement. In Functional Integration, a teacher’s touch provides the guidance; in Awareness Through Movement classes, a teacher verbally leads students through a small series of sequential movements. “Moshe Feldenkrais developed thousands of Awareness Through Movement lessons, and many of them were based around asanas,” says Lavinia Plonka, a yogini and the director of The Movement Center in Morris Plains, New Jersey.

Oddly enough, beyond a few books in his personal library, there’s no evidence that Feldenkrais ever practiced yoga. “I don’t know if anyone ever actually saw him doing it,” says Plonka. “Yet he developed all these lessons that obviously show a tremendous knowledge of how to get into these postures.” Lotus, Frog, and Shoulderstand are just a few asanas that Feldenkrais broke down into a series of as many as five or six Awareness Through Movement lessons. “I’ve used those little sequences,” says Plonka, “to help yoga students begin to understand how to connect with the movement necessary for a posture, instead of just working on the outer shape of the posture.”

In her own yoga, says Plonka, “Feldenkrais gave me an anchor of self-study. By moving very slowly, by listening attentively to my habitual approaches to things, I was able to translate that to my own personal yoga practice. I began to be aware of ways that I used myself in my yoga that were counter-productive.”

Inspired by Plonka’s explanations, I booked a Functional Integration session with Ralph Strauch, who was trained by Feldenkrais himself in the early 1980s. As I lay on a low, padded table, Strauch advised me that it was more important to think about how I felt rather than any of the specific work he was doing, which involved gently bending my joints.

When Strauch finished with my left side and asked how I felt, I realized that I was aware of that entire side of my body. Not just in a broad sense: I could sense each fiber, each muscle, every bit of skin and bone. The sense of awareness extended from the bottom of my foot to the top of my head. I felt lighter and longer. In contrast, my right side felt lifeless. I could sense only portions of it, and my back and leg felt jammed up with sciatica.

“What you’re feeling,” Strauch explained, “are two different ways of organizing yourself. Right now, your right side is still organized more in your habitual way. The left side is another possibility. I didn’t create it. It was there all the time; you just don’t normally use it. The fact that you feel a difference in your face, which I haven’t touched at all, indicates that we’re working with not just the mechanical results of the movement, but with some deeper neurological change.”

Much of the neurological repatterning in Feldenkrais work happens on an extremely small scale. It reminds me of my early experiences with yoga. I had no trouble understanding large-scale movements; when a teacher told me to bring my knee to a right angle I could see the intent and work toward it. But when a teacher asked me to turn my outer thigh in, or pull my kidneys down, or engage mula bandha, such subtle movements were much harder to grasp. I no longer had a connection to these places in my body. However, with time, effort, and instruction, my brain found a way to reestablish the links. Feldenkrais seems to work on similar principles.

Even for those with injuries and chronic pain, Feldenkrais’s gentle method allows the body to remain in an easeful, and therefore receptive, state—so the information you get through a teacher’s touch or voice isn’t drowned out by discomfort and can be integrated on a neurological level.

As physical therapist and Feldenkrais teacher Jane Diehl of Redondo Beach, California, explains, “We want the body to understand that it’s possible to move and be comfortable. Once you understand that, you have more options for movement creating flexibility.”

So when we’re stuck in our asana practice, Feldenkrais can offer a way to move ahead. “The purpose of Feldenkrais work is to allow you to do whatever you do better,” says Diehl. As a complement to your yoga practice, Feldenkrais can help your body to understand the range of actions possible in an asana, so you can move more deeply into poses you find difficult.

Body-Mind Centering

For my final somatics exploration, I made an appointment with Diane Elliot, a Body-Mind Centering teacher with an eclectic yoga background, including the Iyengar and Kripalu styles. “What would it be like,” she asked, “if your sense of yourself included an awareness that went right down to the cellular level, so that you could imagine the movement between the cells? Wouldn’t that provide a much deeper and subtler way of entering into movement or posture?”

As Elliot explained, a basic premise of Body-Mind Centering (BMC) is that we can develop awareness, receive information, and learn to move from each of the body’s systems—from individual cells and their components up to the larger, more obvious systems like the skeletal, glandular, circulatory, and nervous systems.

“Somebody might be very tuned into their muscles or their skeletal structure,” says Elliot, “but they might only ever enter movement from those systems, because that’s what they’re familiar with. Those are the systems that tend to get worn out. So I’ll look for the systems that aren’t being used. We use the term ‘the shadow’ for that which is less expressed.”

BMC also explores the movement patterns that develop from the time we’re in utero through fetal development, birth, and the early years of life. The founder of BMC, Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen, sees all of these movements as echoes of nature and of other animals that form the evolutionary chain. For example, she compares the fluid patterns within our body—like the ebb and flow of craniosacral fluid—with the fluid patterns in nature, such as ocean currents.

Understanding such subtle complexities takes more than one lesson, Elliot cautions. Rather than trying to explain them intellectually, Elliot starts with the concrete. She asks me how I feel about my yoga practice. What do I enjoy? What do I find difficult? Then she asks me to lie down on the floor and begins touching me lightly. Once she touches a student, she explains, she can get a sense of which systems and movement patterns operate strongly, which may be hidden, and which may be in distress.

“I often begin with breathing to get a student in touch with her body,” Eliot says, “because the work is going to unfold as a dialogue between us, not as me doing something to make her feel better. What I’m looking for is a way that I can begin to connect with her, and help her connect with her own body. Breathing is a great way to do that because it’s something that people have control over.”

Elliot explains that the breath can help move the body from solidity to fluidity. When most of us think about how to initiate movement, we approach it from an awareness of bones and muscle. But the body is 70 percent water.

“If you think about the interfaces between the organs and soft tissues and functional joints,” she says, “then there’s a lot more possibility for movement at many levels. Oftentimes we have a concept of certain parts of ourselves, even unconsciously, as being glued together. If you can infuse those places with a consciousness of the potential of fluid movement, that actually helps things unglue.”

At one point, both Elliot and I wind up on the floor in an attempt to help me understand some of the more subtle BMC principles, such as awareness of the inner organs. I think of the story of the yogi from India who could stop his heart at will. My hope is that we’ll start with something a little less indispensable.

Elliot begins by demonstrating a basic twist, first by initiating movement from the more obvious structural sources (bones and muscles), then contrasting this with movement initiated from within the actual organs themselves.

“The mind of each organ is different from the mind of muscles,” she says. “Not that one is better or worse. If I always use one way of movement, the other avenues atrophy because they’re not getting use.”

When it’s my turn, Elliot attempts to guide me in search of my liver by placing her hands over my diaphragm and on my back. She reminds me that twisting poses are excellent massages for all the internal organs. Now, however, the idea is to access the “mind” of just one organ and to initiate movement from it.

My liver is obviously part of my shadow, and my shadow is eluding me. In fact, I have no sense of my liver at all. All I can summon is the image of that lifeless slab of meat my mother used to bring home from the butcher.

When I mention this to Elliot she laughs good-naturedly. She does this occasionally throughout our session, usually after some deeply esoteric explanation. Perhaps she understands that to most people, the idea of communicating with each of our cells or the idea that the liver has some kind of intelligence sounds a bit, well…esoteric.

Part of the challenge in learning Body-Mind Centering, says Elliot, “is that it’s an actual value not to engage cognition right away. If you approach movement with your conscious mind and nervous system, you tend to be looking from the place of what you already know. It’s very hard to actually have a new experience from that place. So part of the method is to go into the depths, into the shadows. One of our maxims,” she adds with a laugh, “is that the mind is the last to know.”

There is, however, a logic to BMC’s systematic investigations that reminds me of yoga. In yoga, for instance, we’re often told to “open our hearts.” This is partly metaphorical, yet in another sense it’s grounded in physiology. A tight chest cavity constricts blood and oxygen flow, so opening it can have an obvious physical benefit for the heart.

Similarly, there is both a physiological and a more metaphorical, spiritual aspect to BMC. On the one hand, BMC uses the basic language of Western science—anatomy and physiology—but it also encompasses a more Eastern spiritual quality—the experiential nature of the work, the more existential understanding that we can root our awareness deep in our bodies.

“If you think about yoga as a spiritual and a lifelong practice,” says Elliot, “then what you want is the sort of stimulation that’s going to keep opening the postures for you rather than pinning them down. I think that’s something BMC can do. This is the kind of many-layered work that can help you open up a posture or any sort of movement practice. You find so much to work with, so much to pay attention to. It creates a richness that helps you understand why yoga and BMC are lifelong practices.”

A New Perspective

As I move through my practice these days, I find clear echoes of my Pilates, Feldenkrais, and Body-Mind Centering experiences, all just waiting to give me guidance.

In forward bends, I can’t fall into my habit of focusing completely on my hamstrings. If I do, the memory of Strauch’s hands and voice pop into my mind, reminding me that my lower back is involved, too, and that my whole body is an interconnected system.

If I start to clench my buttocks in Downward-Facing Dog—a tendency my yoga teachers have slowly weaned me away from—I suddenly remember my experience of fluidity in my BMC session. And since my Pilates session, I finally understand why teachers often lead us through asanas that awaken the abdominals before we do inversions and arm balances. Now that I’m more aware of my core, poses like Handstand and Crow are much easier.

Of course, Pilates, Feldenkrais, and Body-Mind Centering all tap into essential components of yoga: breath, body awareness, strength, alternatives to bad movement habits. My yoga teachers have been offering me similar tips and pointers for many years. But my experience with Western somatics practices helped me assimilate those lessons, allowing me to return to yoga with newly opened eyes and ears. I discovered that sometimes the easiest way through difficulties in yoga can be stepping outside the traditional practice to view its principles from a new perspective.




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Rhonda Krafchin is a freelance writer living in Southern California. Her work has appeared in numerous publications covering adventure sports, children’s folk art, and science fiction.