Last fall, I applied to the yoga teacher training program at Avalon Yoga in Palo Alto. I wrote the following to the director, the scientist and historian Dr. Steve Farmer:
“I am perhaps the least naturally-gifted yoga student ever.
I was surprised to find through a chiropractor’s X-ray, at age 50, after a lifetime of athletics, that I have a full suite of spinal diseases: arthritis, scoliosis, anterior pelvic tilt, military neck, spongylosis, etc etc. That explained, finally, why never in my life did I feel the “core engagement” other people did. In fact, I’ve been trying quite earnestly to “engage my core” for at least a decade through yoga, Pilates, pole, and various homebrew interventions, only lately succeeding somewhat, and as a result have been the most annoying question-asker in many a class.
On the other hand, I am a biophysicist, neuroscientist, and technologist with a fair claim to understand the basic principles on which yoga and virtually all other alternative embodiment modalities (say acupuncture and chiropractic) are based. That understanding has enabled me, in spite of a spine and a diaphragm wrapped in sensorimotor dark space, to resurrect much of my neuromotor circuitry from a lifetime of core-free, breath-free, outside-in operation. The best restoration project ever, repairing a healthy but completely locked-up middle-aged body. It’s an amazing transformation, and I’d like to share it.
So as a student I might be a nightmare or a blessing.”
Once I was accepted and began attending classes, 4.5 hours in a row in a basement, the nightmare part became obvious. Every second minute during class, my hand would shoot up (or flutter discretely) to interrupt the speaker with neuromechanical commentary, some of it helpful, all of it weird and contrarian.
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But the “blessing” part dominated, at least for me. That program was practically the best experience possible, a perfect mid-life activity for a middle-aged, middle-class, meddlesome technologist. I went to class every Saturday and Sunday afternoon with a bunch of sweet, energetic people. We sat on mats like in kindergarten and got to stick our butts in the air and do headstands when restlessness struck during class. Being allowed, nay invited, to move during meetings makes a bad day of yoga better than a good day of work. What better way to spend weekends?
No Words Needed
We learned straight from the best, master-class style, about all kinds of yoga — the most important field of activity anywhere for making human beings healthy and happy. Rebecca Kovacs led a resonant gathering, complete with sound, to illuminate her idea that “the spine is a spiritual antenna” (I agree). James Fox, founder of the Prison Yoga Project, showed how to relax and destress people living in one of the most stressful places on Earth, an American prison. No wonder he has such an impact, his program now in hundreds of prisons worldwide: James Fox guided our group into amazing cohesion, like a priest or orator.
Our student group’s maternal, collaborative energy — ultimately all women save me — gently deflected even the most tone-deaf lecturers. While the Palo Alto sidewalk upstairs parked million-dollar sportscars and billion-dollar deals, downstairs, in our windowless bunker, our primate kin group sat around on the ground, glowing with something rare and wonderful in this valley: self-awareness and group resonance for their own sakes, uncorrupted by monetization or self-promotion. We did what humans evolved to do, we had fun, and we felt nourished.
Everybody agreed that group yoga is the most potent. Evolution helps: A reasonable definition of paleo primate play is to hang out with age-mates moving in fun or comfortable ways, showing off and cheering each other on, with all triumphs and failures visible at close range, groans and hoots together. Homo sapiens’ original path to social and physical happiness remains a collective exchange of information in which megabytes of subtle sensory signals fly back and forth, no words needed.
My biggest personal enjoyment and accomplishment was stretching, bending, “ironing out” the many kinks in my own old bones and enjoying the afterglow among other people doing the same thing. Now, I feel physically better than I did as a teen.
My second-biggest enjoyment was discovering that the abstract neuromechanical theory I’ve been working on for years in private, which explains how yoga works in secular terms, may be what yoga as a discipline needs most right now.
Spontaneously in class, often without warning, one or another of us students would be asked to lead everybody in an exercise. More times than I can remember, I invented a brand new physical activity on the spot using neuromechanical principles, and people really liked it. In particular, igniting and sculpting what might be called “group resonance” became my specialty: live delicious human connection, inspired by theoretical physics. I also invented a trick to make people feel safer with physical contact.Embed from Getty Images
Backstory: The very most successful yoga traditions and practices involve hands-on touch, often called adjustments or assists, in which the instructor places hands on the student, presumably to improve their physical posture. Unfortunately, too many charismatic teachers have touched too many students the wrong way, in which case a whole therapeutic yoga practice (not just the abuser) falls into disgrace, leaving yoga students even more afraid of being touched than before, and leaving both teachers and studios more afraid to offer assists in their classes.
Here is a trick I used several times to address that critical concern about consent. In front of each student’s mat, I place three colored index cards: red, green, white, with the white card on top. I ask them to put the red card on top if or whenever during class they do not want touch. Or they might instead display the green card as an invitation to ask about my assisting. During instruction, I can now approach any student whose green card is facing up, knowing at least an offer of assistance is expected and welcome.
The cards work because they give students more choices and more power. First and most obviously, using a card each student can declare a preference without having to talk (and without the teacher needing to remember!) and can change it at any time. Furthermore, no one is forced into a choice. Just leave the white card on top, so the instructor will know they’re not playing that game.
Common-sense communication inventions like those cards, along with the more subtle principles of neuromechanics, could create a revolution. They will allow us to create techniques especially responsive to modern maladies, unhindered by tradition. I want my new career to be reviving the minds and bodies nature gave to us.
First among the skills we will need to enact this revolution, especially in tech-obsessed Silicon Valley, is collaboration. In a “collaborative yoga” class, students one by one would invent, explain and demonstrate new poses as in a collective laboratory. Once people learn to co-invent collaboratively as easily as individuals invent alone, the whole game changes, putting play and fun as number one.
Next up will be my own specialty, “data science yoga,” because yoga practice provides specially-tuned information streams essential for recalibrating mechanically sensitive bodies. Data-science yoga will unabashedly invoke neuromechanical ideas about learning for certain people, such as data scientists and “spectrum” people like myself, who find the language of technology more actionable than vague terms like “core,” “diaphragm,” “pelvic floor” and “heart chakra.” Especially people unfamiliar with those internal sensations deserve to know how to make them work inside themselves.
As of last week, our teacher training course is over. To keep in touch, we’re hosting parties and sound healings, and trading advice on yoga jobs. My perfect yoga job would be holding workshops, teaching people how to drive their nervous systems using nature’s manual. I know I’m lightyears away from the popular image of a yoga instructor — I’m bald, male, crusty, middle-aged, abstract — but I have wonderful news to share, and a new language to share it. In particular, now I am ever more certain that yoga has answers to life, and that neuromechanics has answers to yoga.
This article was first published in Fair Observer
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