Balance & the Value of Learning to Fall

I saw something sad in the park this morning. A boy was trying to learn to ride a bicycle, but I could see that he never would — not with his present approach. Why? He had one training wheel, and the bike was leaning about 15-degrees off vertical as he struggled to use the bicycle as a tricycle. I could see that the metal arm that supported the training wheel was starting to bend from the strain — thus making the lean ever more pronounced. [Incidentally, with two training wheels, I think he might rapidly learn to ride because he’d experience tipping from one side to the other, through the balance point.]

I’ve told yoga students before that there are three timelines for learning inversions (upside-down postures, which all require one’s body to learn to balance 180-degrees out of phase with the balance we all mastered as toddlers.) The first timeline is if you are willing to learn break-falls (i.e. how to safely land when — not if, it will happen — one loses balance.) If so, one can learn any inversion (that one is otherwise physically capable of performing) in an afternoon. Second, if one gets near (but not up against) a wall, and only uses the wall when one is falling towards over-rotation, then one can learn the inversion in a month — give or take. Finally, one can lean up against the wall for a million years and one will not spontaneously develop the capacity to independently do the posture. Why? Because one’s center of gravity is outside one’s body, which means one is in a perpetually unstable state, and one cannot stabilize into a balanced position from a state of falling (and leaning is just falling with a barrier in the way.)

Finding balance requires that the body be able to adjust toward any available direction to counteract the beginning of a fall in the opposite direction. I was fortunate to have studied a martial art that required learning break-falls from the outset, this made learning balances (not just inversions, but also arm balances, standing balances, etc.) much easier because there was no great concern about falling. I knew my body could fall without being injured.

Without falling there’s no learning balance, and if you only fall into the under-rotated position, you are still not learning to achieve stable balance. At some point, you will need to experience the dread fall towards over-rotation.

Time to ditch the training wheels.

5 Ways to Fake It til You Make It

5.) Adopt a power posture: There’s been a lot of research in recent years suggesting that posture isn’t a one-way street–i.e. body doesn’t necessarily have to follow our mental state. One can reverse the flow, improving one’s mental state by adopting a strong  and confident posture.

One of the most thorough discussions of this phenomena is in Amy Cuddy’s book Presencewhich famously mentions the “Wonder Woman” pose. However, another widespread example is using the up-and-outward fist pumping posture that is widely seen among humans and even other primates (i.e. with arms outstretched as Usain Bolt is seen above.)


I got my eye on you

4.) Master eye contact: This is dreadfully difficult for an introverts such as myself. We tend to look anywhere but the eyes.

If one is traveling in risky places, it’s important to have a grasp of the fine art of eye contact. If one doesn’t make any eye contact, then one risks looking zoned out–potentially inviting aggression. If one rapidly  looks away, offering too short an eye contact period, one appears intimidated–potentially inviting aggression. However, if one’s eye contact is too long, it may trigger some primal fight impulse, or–at a minimum–suggest you have taken more interest in the individual–which may invite aggression. This means one has to balance a fine line that says, “I see you, you know I saw you. Now I’m going to do me and let you do you.”


3.) Adopt the opposing viewpoint:  Say you find yourself obsessing about some perceived slight or wrong.  While you want to address this issue, you want to be calm enough to avoid saying or doing something you’ll regret. You want to be seen as a sensible individual while being persuasive. The key is seeing both sides, and taking a moment to realize that your opposition is probably not the black-hearted villain of his own story. He likely has some reason for his behavior. Maybe it’s even a reason you can empathize with, given your own experience–i.e. being overworked and distracted, facing a decision that only allows for a best worst option, etc.


2.) Visualize it: It may seem as though anything that occurs solely in the mind can’t have that much force, but–in fact–it can. Visualizing can help one get over one’s anxieties. By systematically considering how events will unfold, one can break the cycle of worst-case scenario creation that the brain readily falls into. This will make an activity seem less intimidating and more manageable.


1.) Start small: Often when a person would like to be more kind or compassionate, she’s flummoxed or overwhelmed by the scale of the problem. She sees problems that she can’t make a dent in. So schedule one small act of kindness in a week or maybe a bigger one monthly, or as is possible. Do it, see its value, and be content.

One also sees a need for starting small with advanced physical practices. If you can’t do a yogasana or martial arts move, figure out what capacity building or modifications one needs to get to the end goal. Then take it on bit-by-bit. There are many videos on how to systematically build up to challenging maneuvers like the press handstand or planche, moves that almost no one can do with out a great deal of prep work.

BOOK REVIEW: The New Rules of Posture by Mary Bond

The New Rules of Posture: How to Sit, Stand, and Move in the Modern WorldThe New Rules of Posture: How to Sit, Stand, and Move in the Modern World by Mary Bond

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

This book’s author, Mary Bond, was a UCLA-trained dancer who became an Ida Rolf-trained Rolfer. If that sentence makes no sense, you’re probably unaware Dr. Ida Rolf and her self-named system. Rolfing was popular decades ago, but fell out of favor—possibly owing to its reputation for being agonizing. (However, I did recently read an article suggesting renewed interest in this practice.) Rolf’s system is generically called Structural Integration, and it’s intended to better align the body with respect to the force of gravity. The heart of the practice (though not addressed in this book) is a massage-like system that focuses on fascia (connective tissue) rather than musculature (as massage generally does.)

[This paragraph is background, but isn’t about the book per se. Feel free to skip it if you are familiar with structural integration or don’t care.] It should be noted that Rolfing is controversial. I’m not sure what to make of this controversy. On the one hand, the system hasn’t been helped by zealous advocates and practitioners. In any such system, zealots often suggest their beloved system is a panacea for all that ails one. Furthermore, the more hippie-esque practitioners try to reconcile / unify Structural Integration with ancient systems like Ayurveda or Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM.) This neither helps to validate those ancient systems nor improves the case of Rolfing as a methodology rooted in science. On the other hand, not even yoga has been free of haters. There is a sector of humanity that is openly hostile to the notion that the only way for many people to feel better is for them to do the work of improving their bodies (e.g. posture, range of motion, strength, etc.) (i.e. If your problem is rooted in your shoulders not being over your hips or you have an imbalance in your core between your ab and back muscles, there is no pill nor surgery to cure you—you’ve got work to do. And—it should be noted–both of my examples can cause a person to feel like crap in a number of different ways.) Another element of controversy is that Structural Integration places special emphasis on fascia (connective tissue.) While it’s not clear from scientific evidence that fascia deserve special attention, I’m also not sure that Rolfers don’t have a point when they note that everyone else completely ignores this tissue.

Having written all that, The New Rules of Posture isn’t a book about Rolfing as massage-like practice. Instead, as its subtitle (how to sit, stand, and move in the modern world) suggests, this is a book about how one can improve one’s posture, breathing, and movement (i.e. most notably walking). It’s arranged as a workbook, and it contains over 90 exercises and observations for the reader to perform. The author calls these exercises “explorations” and “practices”; the latter are more extensive and are more likely to require revisiting.

The ten chapters are arranged into four parts: awareness, stability, orientation, and motion. Each part has two or three chapters. The author divides the body into six zones (pelvic floor, breathing muscles, abdomen/core, hands, feet, and head)—the first three of which are associated with stability and the latter three with orienting the body. The six middle chapters (parts 2 and 3) are each tied to one of these zones. The book uses vignettes and side-bars in an attempt to make the material more palatable to readers who aren’t deeply interested in the topic.

The author gives attention to a wide variety of modern-day activities that can have an adverse impact on bodily alignment such as driving, computer time, and rushing about. I suspect this book will offer something useful to almost anyone.

The book’s graphics are line drawings—some are anatomical drawings and others demonstrate postural problems or exercises. The drawings are clear, well drawn, and useful. In addition to the usual front and back matter, there’s a brief bibliography and a resources appendix.

I’d recommend this book for yoga teachers and those interested in the body generally and movement and postural improvement specifically. If you’re having problems that you think may be linked to postural problems, this isn’t a bad place to start thinking about how one might improve one’s situation. It’s very readable and clear.

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READING REVIEW: March 20, 2015

I started a Registered Children’s Yoga Teacher (RCYT) training course this week, and so it’s not been a big week for reading. The only new book I acquired and have begun reading is that course’s text, Yoga Education for Children, Vol. 1. That book is put out by the Bihar School (Swami Satyananda), which has done a vast amount of work and research about educating children through yoga.




I will probably finish Mary Bond’s The New Rules of Posture over the weekend, which I only have two chapters left to complete. I discussed that book in last week’s reading report.


Other than that I’ve been plugging away at some of the books that I’ve mentioned in previous reports when I have a moment here or there.  It’s been sort of a technical week for reading. I hope to have more to say next week.

BOOK REVIEW: Yoga Body by Mark Singleton

Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture PracticeYoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice by Mark Singleton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

I was excited to stumble across this book because it proposed fresh insights into the history and development of posture-centric yoga. Singleton’s premise is that yoga as it’s practiced in studios around the world today (i.e. practices focused heavily on asana, or postures) has almost nothing to do with historic yogic traditions and is to a large extent European (or Western) fitness practices fed back to the world with a patina of Indian-ness instilled by a few Indian fitness teachers (e.g. T. Krishnamacharya and students.) This is a bold and stunning hypothesis. The problem is that Singleton leaves plenty of room to doubt his thesis. I’m not saying that I’m certain Singleton is wrong, but after reading the book I’m no more inclined to believe his hypothesis than when I first read the book blurb.

The book consists of nine chapters:
1.) A Brief Overview of Yoga in the Indian Tradition
2.) Fakirs, Yogins, Europeans
3.) Popular Portrayals of the Yogin
4.) India and the International Physical Culture Movement
5.) Modern Indian Physical Culture: Degeneracy and Experimentation
6.) Yoga as Physical Culture I: Strength and Vigor
7.) Yoga as Physical Culture II: Harmonial Gymnastics and Esoteric Dance
8.) The Medium and the Message: Visual Reproduction and the Asana Revival
9.) T. Krishnamacharya and the Mysore Asana Revival

One can see the flow of the book in this chapter listing. It begins by describing the ancient yogic traditions (e.g. Jnana yoga, Bhakti yoga, and Karma yoga.) Singleton then goes on to put immense weight on very few voices that were speaking globally about yoga in the late 19th century—largely European but notably including Swami Vivekananda. (This, by the way, is where I noticed the most glaring weaknesses of the book. There seems to be an assumption that what the most vocal people were saying during this time was the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.) One will note that the late 19th century is an arbitrary point to make the critical juncture for a study of yoga—this era’s sole importance seems to be in that that’s when Europeans started entering the scene (and documenting it in English and Western languages to a large extent.) I understand that there may have been a dearth of information previously; however, I’m also skeptical of equating the sum of truth with the sum of what is documented.

The book then shifts into the early 20th century when Singleton proposes the proto-postural yoga is beginning to coalesce with both Western and indigenous Indian influences. Singleton writes extensively about this period, and presents what he believes is the path by which postural practice evolved over a short time into modern yoga as we know it. The book ends in the mid-20th century with an extensive discussion of T. Krishnamacharya and his pack of brilliant students (i.e. B.K.S. Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, T.V.K. Desikachar, and Indira Devi) who are responsible for a lot of how yoga is practiced today (for virtually all of modern yoga by Singleton’s reckoning.)

It should be noted that this book is put out by an academic press, Oxford University Press, and there’s all the front and post matter that one would expect of a scholarly press publication. This includes an introduction, notes, and a bibliography.

So, you might be wondering how I could have so much doubt about the veracity of the book’s central claim—a book written by a Cambridge educated scholar and published by Oxford University Press. It’s, after all, chocked full of facts that are designed to bolster Singleton’s argument. I’m certainly not suggesting that Singleton lied or presented false facts (however, I have–and will further–argue that he frames facts throughout the book to diminish those statements and facts that run counter to his argument while wholeheartedly accepting statements that validate his argument—even when the people whose statements he leaves unchallenged would seem to have their own agendas. I don’t know, perhaps T. Krishnamacharya was—as Singleton intimates though never explicitly accuses—lying when he claimed to have received his sequence and approach from a scripture he was taught by a Himalayan master. However, interestingly, he would be lying to minimize his role in the development of yoga rather than to increase his fame. This stands in contrast with the European authors who Singleton readily accepts who were seeking to build their bona fides as experts in the esoteric systems of India and the Himalaya, who arguably had a lot to gain from being seen as having a full understanding of these systems.)

The best way to understand the root of my skepticism is to tell a make-believe story. Imagine a race of aliens came down to Earth. For whatever reason, they want to understand (presumably among many other things) the Roman Catholic Church. One astute alien scholar notes that, after having reviewed not only the entire Bible but a vast canon of theologian discourse, there is scant mention of sitting or kneeling. However, when cameras came around, there came to be clear evidence of pews and kneelers in the church. The aliens conclude that Catholics had always stood during worship, but with the advent of the camera they began to sit and kneel. The aliens, having big and bulbous butts, conclude that the Catholics have become concerned that their own big, bulbous butts will be captured for posterity (pun intended) by the cameras and have, thus, opted to adopt postures that would more adequately provide cover. In the present day, sitting and kneeling are the bulk of what Catholics do with their bodies when [overtly] practicing their religion, and so it must be those postures–rather than abstract notions like achieving “grace” are now the most critical part of the practice. (Besides, the earliest photos of kneelers came from Protestant churches, so perhaps Anglicans taught Catholics how to kneel.)

If you haven’t figured it out, in my little scenario, the late 19th century Europeans who were writing the English language tracts that formed the heart of Singleton’s research material are the aliens with big, bulbous butts. I would propose that the Europeans aren’t viewing yoga completely objectively but through the lens of their own experience and desires. Furthermore, they are also only giving weight to what they see and hear (which may or may not be a full picture.) I would further argue that just like Catholics don’t devote much text to discussing sitting and kneeling in the documents of the Vatican library doesn’t mean there isn’t a long history of those practices. Postural practice is:

a.) not the critical end result that everyone is concerned with even if it takes up the bulk of one’s time in [overt] practice. It’s certainly true that there are a vast number of yoga practitioners whose only interest is in the fitness aspect of the practice. However, there are also many who spend most of their yoga reading time learning from Vedas and reading yogic philosophy even though the bulk of their practice time is asana.
b.) extremely difficult to convey via text but readily conveyed through demonstration and hands-on teaching. If you were a Catholic and wanted to teach someone kneeling, would you write them a three paragraph text description of the process, or would you just demonstrate how to kneel and correct any glaring (albeit unlikely) deficiencies in form.

At no point does Singleton get into the postural details of individual asana. He mentions another scholar that supposedly has done some of that work, but Singleton feels it’s not critical. However, it’s very hard to prove what he’s trying to prove without getting into that level of detail. Yes, there will be similarities between various systems of stretching because of the nature of the body. For example, European stretching systems had a forward bend that looks reminiscent of paschimottanasana (the body folds that way and stretching the hamstrings is one of the most important functions in any stretching regimen), and it shouldn’t be surprising or revealing if the first photograph of this posture was in a European gym (the fact that Scandinavians had cameras before Himalayan yogis isn’t a sound basis to conclude that Himalayan yogi’s learned to bend forward from Scandinavians.) A there are a lot of postures that two systems might reasonably independently discover, but one also can’t rule out that the Indian yogi taught the Europeans and not the other way around. (I know it’s hard to comprehend in the era of FaceBook, but failure to be documented does not equal failure to be true. The farther one goes into the past, the less of what happened is going to be documented, and some cultures are going to be more likely to document events than others. e.g. Would our aliens be right or wrong if they concluded that 85% of humans are females between the age of 12 and 24 years old because 85% of the selfies posted on the internet are among that group. )

Singleton’s book does have some graphics. They didn’t always help his case, however. I was struck by how few of the fine details of the European postures correspond to practice as we know them, while some of the very old paintings look almost exactly like present day asana. (If one accepts that the fact that they didn’t have the greatest grasp of capturing perspective back then isn’t indicative of how flat the postures and people were back then.) I’ll readily admit that I wouldn’t definitively count Singleton wrong on my subjective observation of the pictures, but it does leave me with a lot of room for doubt.

I suppose the next question is why I didn’t completely pan the book. Three stars isn’t a tragic rating. I thought the book contained a lot of good information and food for thought (even if it fell far short of proving its central hypothesis.) I particularly enjoyed the chapter on T. Krishnamacharya and his now-famous student body. I’ll also say that part of why I came away from the book with such a muddled perception of this history is that Singleton doesn’t hide facts that are damning to his case, but rather presents them and then tries to marginalize them. A prime example would be the Hatha Yoga Pridipika (HYP), a 15th century text that mentions a number of the asana considered classic yoga postures today (some of which form the core of a Hata practice)—though admittedly HYP emphasizes the importance of only four seated postures.

I can’t say that Singleton didn’t help give me pause to wonder about the truth of the received understanding of yoga’s evolution. I’ve practiced yoga in places as varied as India, the U.S., Thailand, and Hungary, and I found it shocking how similar the practice is around the world. This bodes well for the argument that yoga as it’s practiced today has coalesced recently. By way of contrast, there are many myths about how one martial art is the ancestor of another but the two systems often look nothing alike. (e.g. I’ve studied Kalaripayattu, which many believe was the ancestor art taken to China by Bodhidharma through Southeast Asia, but which today looks nothing like Kung fu or Muay Thai. Furthermore, Kung fu styles usually look quite unlike the Korean and Japanese martial arts that they are said to have inspired.) If the latter among these martial arts did come from the earlier, they evolved apart quickly. While the evolution into different martial art forms is quite possible, it raises the question of why yoga should be so similar internationally. A skilled yoga teacher would likely give a given student the same alignment adjustments for, say, Warrior I, regardless of whether the teacher was in Prague, Manila, Tokyo, or San Diego.

I can’t say that I’d endorse Singleton’s argument. It would take much more precise information for me to buy it (and it’s likely that said detailed historical information doesn’t exist.) However, if you’re interested in the history of yoga, you might want to check out this book. Your conclusions may differ from mine, but even if they don’t I suspect you’ll learn a thing or two of interest. Yoga Body was reasonably priced as a Kindle book when I bought it.

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