Joe Miller knows what it’s like to put his foot behind his head. But after more than 25 years of practice, his movement vocabulary has expanded into other disciplines, such as the Feldenkrais Method and strength training and conditioning, with occasional bouts into yoga nauli.
The popular teacher, who earned his master's degree in applied physiology from Columbia University, currently leads injury workshops and classes at Equinox, Sacred Sounds Yoga, and Now:Yoga at the Shala. In a recent interview with YogaCity NYC’s Ann Votaw, Miller, who is 55, looked back at his evolving practice.
Ann Votaw: You have become certified in strength and sonditioning. That seems like a contradiction to yoga, but is it?
Joe Miller: I don't feel it is at all. If you look at the history of modern yoga, a lot of our contemporary asana practice was influenced by European gymnastics and calisthenics.
Ultimately, asanas are just vehicles to engage our awareness. There is a form to an asana, but there is no significance to the form in and of itself. As the Heart Sutra says, all forms are empty. I don't see why I can't bring the same awareness to any physical activity or form. In that way, I don't really see a separation between asana and other types of exercise. These days, I also try to run and swim and to practice explosive movements such as sprinting and plyometrics, along with asana and slower movement explorations such as Feldenkrais.
It's all important and beneficial and, at this stage of my life, I'm primarily interested in being fit and healthy in a well-rounded way. Asana is an important tool for me, but it's one tool in a continuum of movement.
AV: You mentioned revisiting certain moves like handstand. What did you learn when you brought it back, and why did you stop?
JM: One thing I learned when I started playing with them again is that, although I was rusty at first, they came back pretty quickly. That was a good reminder that ups and downs in an asana practice are no big deal.
At times in my life, I've been an obsessive exerciser. I have some students that are like that too. They get worried or upset when life intrudes and they can't keep up the same level of asana practice they've been used to. They worry that they'll lose whatever gains they've
made in their asana practice, whether it's strength or flexibility or skill. I've been there myself, but I've come to see that it's not healthy, either physically or mentally.
AV: What type of nauli are you practicing now, and why did you bring it back into your practice?
JM: Just basic nauli, abdominal churning on an exhale retention.
I brought it back because I like it and I think it's useful for me. I only do it first thing in the morning. It feels energizing and it's an interesting challenge to my habits around breathing.
AV: What does Feldenkrais add to your movement vocabulary?
JM: There's a huge range of movements in Feldenkrais Awareness Through Movement lessons. It's a far larger vocabulary than we have in asana. A lot of the lessons are based on how we learned to move as infants, so it's also been interesting to learn about neuromuscular development.
Feldenkrais has primarily helped me to develop my awareness of how I move. And also my awareness of whether I'm straining or forcing a movement. A few years ago, I wouldn't have thought so, but I see now how often I'm straining and over-working in asana practice.
AV: How were you affected when OM yoga closed in 2012?
JM: The biggest loss for me was the community that I had at OM. However, I went with several friends of mine across the street to teach at The Shala, where we teach under the name Now:Yoga. Some of our students from OM followed us there, so I feel like we've managed to keep some of that community alive, and that's been great.