Desiree Rumbaugh is just one of the luminaries teaching at a Wanderlust Festival this summer. Join us at an event near you! We can’t wait to see you there.
Most of us have a physical challenge we are working with: the aggravated left wrist, the painful knee, the lower back twinge, or the tight right shoulder. When we come to yoga, these issues can arise more fully in certain postures. But how many of us raise a hand at the beginning of class to list our ailments? How many of us go to our teacher and ask for his or her advice? All too often we believe our physical challenges to be “normal” and we ignore them. Alternatively, we can push through a posture in pain hoping it will somehow cure our complaint, or we avoid the posture altogether.
We’re missing out on exploring our bodies and taking the time to deeply listen and heal them, says yoga teacher Desiree Rumbaugh. “The purpose of yoga is to bring up suffering and help us reveal it so that we can move through it. Yet many students don’t realize they can move beyond their discomfort.”
Desiree has been a practitioner of yoga for more than 30 years, and teaches alignment-based workshops across the U.S. and internationally. Now, at the age of 57, Desiree says one of the greatest lessons she learned from her teachers in yoga was to listen to her body, and to act upon what she heard.
“The purpose of yoga is to bring up suffering and help us reveal it so that we can move through it. Yet many students don’t realize they can move beyond their discomfort.”
One of the most common mistakes we make as yoga students is to blindly follow whatever the teacher is telling us—assuming our body will somehow painlessly move into the correct shape with practice. And yet Desiree believes that yoga is an investigation.
“Our body is individual to us,” she says. “And yoga invites us to reflect, to explore. It’s not about accomplishment or doing the posture correctly when we are told to do so.” We could rather be asking ourselves about where we feel resistance; where are feel tight. When and why does pain arise?”
“We can think—Oh, I’m suffering because of the posture, therefore I won’t do it anymore,” she says. “But if we sought to understand why, then we may learn that pain felt in Warrior in our knees could be a result of tight-hamstrings because of the way we are sitting at our desk,” says Desiree. That we can easily amend. All too often we think we cannot change our bodies, but with curiosity and assistance we can.
Desiree notices four types of body in her classes. Those with both flexibility and strength who don’t have many challenges. Those who are flexible but weak, and therefore are prone to injury as they push through postures. Those who are strong but inflexible who can become frustrated by their slow progress, and finally those who are neither strong nor flexible who find yoga the most challenging.
“It’s not about accomplishment or doing the posture correctly when we are told to do so.”
When we understand which body type we have, we can make changes in our lifestyles and our practice to best support us—but this requires investing in our own wellness. “I was very flexible which can take you a long way in yoga, but I did not have strength. I tore both my medial meniscus, and had weak inner thighs and tight outer hips. So I had to work on strengthening my thighs but also my glutes and my lower belly and in time I was then able to make seated forward bends more comfortable for me,” says Desiree.
That only came from being deeply inquisitive and finding teachers and physiotherapists who had the expertise to work with her, says Desiree. “Don’t just avoid postures that hurt your wrists. Go and see someone who can advise you why they are hurting. Perhaps you simply need to do some non-yoga exercises to strengthen your wrists. It can change your whole practice, and speaking as someone approaching 60 I can promise you you won’t be sorry.”
Here are five tips Desiree shares as how to learn more about your body.
Raise your hand: Don’t be afraid to admit if you have a physical complaint—even if you believe it to be minor. Your teacher wants to help you.
Become deeply interested in your body: How does your spine curve? Do you have hyper-extended knees, and what does that mean for how you move? Figure out your body versus the model body and you will never be hurt in a yoga class again.
Seek advice: If it is your knee that gives you pain in a posture, go and find a yoga teacher who can answer questions about your knee. There is no one way to do a posture and when you find a teacher who can really work with your body you will surprised how much more enjoyable a class can be. Similarly don’t be afraid to see a specialist—preferably one who understands yoga, and can give you advice on what postures to avoid until you recover or gain strength rather than just say “Never do yoga again.”
Slow it down: Many of us in our youth lean towards faster-paced classes but make time to add in a slower class where you can spend more time observing your body and understanding how alignment is for you. A great way to slow it down is to begin to incorporate a home practice into your regimen where you have more time to work just one or two postures that allow you to explore your body.
Become a good student: A good student listens, asks, and learns, rather than just ‘doing’. When we go to a yoga class we are going to learn, not just to be led in exercise. We will learn far more about our body when we begin to view it as a teaching device.
Helen Avery is a senior writer for Wanderlust Media. She is also a journalist, writer, yoga teacher, minister, and full-time dog walker of Millie, residing in Brooklyn, New York. You can find out more about her on her website, Life as Love.