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Is Yoga Enough?

Die-hard yogis are now branching out into other movement modalities, cultivating a “hybrid practice,” so to speak. But why? Does yoga leave something out? How can somatic practices like the Alexander Technique, the Feldenkrais Method, and Body Mind Centering inform a yoga practice?

On Thursday, March 19, at The Breathing Project, YogaCity NYC tried to answer these questions at its ninth Deeper Learning Series discussion. The panelists—senior teachers Amy Matthews, Witold Fitz-Simon, and Joe Miller—vetted the similarities between yoga and the other somatic practices in which they specialize. Founder/Publisher Brette Popper moderated.

“I feel like I talk to a lot of people who are doing somatics, but they don’t think they are doing somatics,” Matthews said, explaining that the word “soma” is a Greek word for “body.” “Somatics are body-based practices that come from the experience, or intuition, or inner knowledge of the body, rather than, say, bodywork, where someone might work on you from outside and you would be completely passive.”

She noted how this concept should, and could, apply to asana. “To me, there’s no distinction between my asana practice and my somatics practice. I think that sometimes, in asana, we let go of deciding for ourselves…and your first place of knowing shouldn’t be reliance on an outside authority, but on your own direct experience, your perception. And that’s what we should be doing in yoga.”

Matthews, who studied with Alison West and Mark Whitwell, specializes in

Body-Mind Centering (BMC). Founded in 1973, BMC is an integrated approach to movement with two primary areas of inquiry: embodied anatomy and developmental movement.

“How is it in my body?” Matthews said, referring to BMC’s embodied anatomy wing. “I can look in a book, I can see what the bones and joints look like, but then how does my experience change when I actually live into it?”

The developmental side of BMC investigates the movement patterns of babies—from birth until walking—and the layers of skills needed to attain those abilities. “Then, later on in adulthood, if a step got skipped or if a piece is missing, we can go back and re-pattern it,” said Matthews. “We can change what hurts or we can change how we approach what hurts…and that creates more possibility.”

In this way, BMC shares similarities with the Alexander Technique.

Fitz-Simon, who studied with Donald Moyer and at the Integral Yoga Institute, came to the Technique via a sacroiliac injury. “The yoga wasn’t enough…it wasn’t doing what I wanted it to do for me anymore—partly because I couldn’t actually do it, with my back pain,” he said. In 2013, he became a certified teacher of the Technique.

“It changed my understanding of the body and the mind and how they work together,” he said. “My back is in much better shape, I’m stronger and more flexible, and I can do poses now, at age 47, that I couldn’t do when I was 32.”

Pioneered by Australian actor Frederick Matthias Alexander who, after losing his voice, re-trained himself to speak, the Technique identifies and helps change habitual patterns. “The idea is to bring the body into a greater sense of poise so that, when you do move, you're moving more efficiently, more smoothly…doing less damage to yourself,” Fitz-Simon said.

The work is taught in two ways: one-on-one and in groups.

“Group work is terrific in its own way…you get to learn from other people. But, ultimately, the direct interface between the student and the teacher, through the teacher’s hands, is the most powerful way to learn,” Fitz-Simon said.

The Feldenkrais Method is also taught and practiced in two different modes: led classes—called Awareness Through Movement classes—and one-on-ones. Israeli physicist

Moshe Feldenkrais created the method while working through a knee injury. In a session, students lie on a mat and make small movements within a pain-free range.

“Many of those movements explore development patterns that you would go through in infancy,” Miller said. “Basically, the idea is to move a person through some series of movements to communicate to the central nervous system and develop self-awareness,” Miller said.

Miller, now a Guild Certified Feldenkrais Practitioner, has studied with Glenn Black and Pattabhi Jois. He came to the method accidentally. How does it relate to yoga? “I feel like I’m still figuring this out,” he said. “I feel like I understand movement better…and it’s certainly helped me in terms of developing my hands-on skills as a teacher.”

The Method has also changed his understanding of alignment.

“It’s helped me get rid of any idea of ‘imposed alignment,” he said. “I now deconstruct the instructions that I’ve given over the years…and let go of any fixed ideas about what alignment should be.”

Now, thanks to the Alexander Technique, Fitz-Simon understands alignment “to not just be position and shape, but to be a relationship between what you’re thinking about and what your body is doing.”

Agreeing, Matthews used to think that there was a specific set of rules about alignment, but BMC “blew it wide open. There’s a million ways to get aligned,” she said. “I can align through my organs, my endocrine system, my cells, my bones…the idea of ‘rules and alignment’ has come to be really questionable to me.”

Popper asked about the controversy of hands-on adjustments.

When putting his hands on a student, “I don’t really think in terms of ‘I’m going to move you there!’” Fitz-Simon said. “It’s like having a dancing partner…to perhaps get the student into a better place. I think it’s a shame that I had to go outside of yoga to learn how to put hands on people in a constructive way.”

Miller noted how hands-on adjustments are, and should be, a form of clear communication. “I’ve always thought of them as a dialogue,” he said. “But I think I’m much more conscious of myself listening and doing less talking than I used to be.”

“I personally find hands-on adjustments to be the least helpful kind of adjustment,” Matthews said, who doesn’t like being “pushed” into a pose. “I don’t like getting put into something I can’t get into by myself…but should touch go away altogether? No. To be touched somewhere where I’m not moving is incredibly informative,” she said.

“Maybe we need a new term…,” Miller suggested. All heads nodded.

For a complete transcript of the discussion click here.

—Michael Laskaris

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