Having played tennis and basketball as my primary fitness outlet for the first fifty years of my life, upon starting yoga I was immediate impressed by the imbalance between the left and right sides of my body. During the first two years of my Bikram practice, that manifested in a number of chronic stress injuries, particularly around the right hip and lower back.
While the problems were impossible to ignore, I was pleased with the gross changes in my body. I lost my fluff, slowly converting it to muscle. That was really a first for me – I had never succeeded in building much muscle mass through weight lifting. Bikram is an isotonic practice, holding postures for up to a minute under strain, and that seems to really agree with my physiology. At this point, the deep wells in my clavicles have been filled in, and a little bit of six-pack is peeking through from under my middle-age padding.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t until the last year that I realized how the two things went together. One way to maintain an isotonic posture is to lock all of your muscles. In my case, that reinforced and even exacerbated muscle imbalances. I would do my best, checking in the mirror after every posture to make certain that my shoulders and hips were aligned. After many “strong” sessions, however, when the lights came on to start practice two days later, I would look in the mirror to find myself twisted completely out of whack. The instructors were a little put out by my laughter and pawing at my eyes in disbelief.
Simply, in most postures the mirror is a liar. You can take a standing bow posture and think that you’re aligned, but in fact one hip is higher or lower, or forward or back. Sometimes it’s your limbs that hide the truth, and sometimes it’s that the mirror only shows you one view of a multi-dimensional picture. Psychologically, then, the breakthrough was to stop letting my eyes lie to me, ignore what my muscles were doing, and focus on where my bones were.
This culminated recently with the realization that for as long as I have been doing yoga, when I bend over I drop my left ribs inside of my hip. I was collapsing on that side while the right side stayed strong. Consciously avoiding that exposed tightness in my left shoulder, which naturally came forward with my ribs. I’ve been dragging it back, resulting this weekend in severe muscle fatigue that extended to the right side of my neck. Camel posture has been a real revelation in this regard, as the tightness in my left shoulder forced me to rebuild the posture from scratch over the last three weeks. I just couldn’t get back as far as I did when I allowed my left side to collapse.
The other major side-effect has been in the right side of my lower back. I’ve always wobbled in the standing series, and assumed that it was just poor muscle coordination. But in projecting my left side forward, I realized that I’ve been stabilizing my vertical alignment by locking the right side of my hip. Particularly in the lower back, the muscles on the right side were significantly shorter than those on the left. I focused on lengthening them during class, but could feel them snapping back as I walked to the car every night. But of course, that was because I was also using my right hip to project my balance forward while walking.
This was resolved two Sundays ago down in Culver City. I went to the dance celebration and spent about an hour-and-a-half walking around the perimeter of the floor, stopping occasionally to raise my feet gently in point, paying particular attention to maintaining proper support in the left side of my chest. It was frickin’ miserable! I wore myself out in half an hour!
Given the muscle fatigue in my back from my maniacal focus on keeping my left shoulder back, I was a little worried about class on Monday night. Indeed, I did have some trouble with forward bends, but as for the rest, I actually had fun for the first time ever. I had been wearing myself out trying to keep from keeling over to the right side, and having gotten the bones into alignment, all the stabilizing muscles can relax until their use is required by a specific posture. The heat no longer bothers me, I recover faster from postures, and I was able to get far more length because I wasn’t fighting locked muscles.
What can I say? Being a poser is to be your own worst enemy. Bliss arrived in learning to feel what my body was doing.