Posts by Martin Yelverton

I'm a plant-powered yoga teacher, Pilates instructor and freelance journalist.

An independent review of Alexandria Crow’s DeConstruct to ReConstruct, a scientific path to the roots of yoga

Virtual Seeker
An occasional series reviewing the offerings of yoga teachers online



REVIEW: Alexandria Crow’s DeConstruct to ReConstruct

Alexandria CrowOne of the premises behind this course is that many of the postures used in popular yoga classes – including many considered basic – require our joints to work beyond their functional range, or that for which the body has evolved to be healthy. Doing this repeatedly has the potential to injure you, as many modern yogis have discovered and are increasingly admitting.

Indeed, Alexandria Crow, pictured, was one. She was a popular mainstream teacher of the kind of flashy vinyasa-style practice that is the bread and butter of the studio industry, twice even gracing the cover of the magazine Yoga Journal. Her musculoskeletal system eventually ended up so damaged that at one stage she was unable to walk – not what yoga was designed to do.

The year-long DeConstruct to ReConstruct course is the result of her intensive anatomical and neurophysiological studies to figure out what went wrong, and how to practise yoga safely. It’s all there in the name: you learn to deconstruct the major yoga postures that crop up in lessons these days, precisely identifying where they might be resulting in potentially harmful stresses to the joints, then reconstruct them in a functional way.

The course is delivered via online webinars, each lasting up to two hours or so. You can watch live when they’re delivered if the time zones work for you (Alex is in the US in California) or view a recording later. To start with, there are five introductory sessions once a week for five weeks, before the course settles into a long-haul pace of a monthly update for a year. The sessions are backed by a comprehensive PDF work manual, links to related material online and a closed Facebook group for discussions with Alex and other students.

At first glance, the material seemed a little daunting to me. The deconstruct/reconstruct process is quite technical to start with – you measure the angles of joints with a piece of equipment called a goniometer and compare what you find with ranges considered functional. Once you’ve done it a few times, though, the process rapidly becomes intuitive (to the point where I soon stopped using my goniometer); when you know what functional is, you know what its opposite is and can investigate how to work with it.

There’s a lot of anatomy in the course, but it really comes to life because it’s 100 per cent functional. My previous studies in this area have been very dry and textbook driven, primarily learning the names of bones and muscles and describing their actions in academic language. Here, however, you learn how it all works in real humans, an absolute joy for someone who previously hated studying anatomy and did so only to pass exams. Clearly, if you’ve done some anatomy before it’ll help, but I don’t think it’s essential for this course – this is what it teaches you.

All very geeky sounding, I know, but the material is delivered in a such a relaxed, natural way that the process of learning it is extremely enjoyable. Each webinar is a skilful mix of scientific content interwoven with discussions applying it in a very practical way to all areas of yoga, from body politics and accessibility to class planning and the ancient philosophy underlying the practice. Continue reading →

‘I fear we’ll destroy our planet but we could probably buy ourselves a bit more time as a species if we go vegan now’

Everyday Vegans
A series in which ordinary people talk about living a plant-based life


 

Our latest contributor is Martin Yelverton, co-editor of Bardo Burner, who believes humanity is slowly evolving towards veganism but that it’s a long, long game

Martin Yelverton, Everyday Vegan

Tell us a little about yourself…
I was born in Zambia but did most of my growing up in Zimbabwe and South Africa, which I left back in the days of apartheid to dodge my conscription into the army after college. I’ve been living in the UK ever since and now consider myself an immigrant Londoner. I’m 52, married, and have a grown-up son. I work as a yoga teacher, Pilates instructor and freelance news journalist.

You’re vegan now; were you vegetarian before? What led to that? How long have you been vegan? What led to that choice?
I became a vegetarian in my early 20s after getting a kitchen job in Germany that involved killing trout for instant cooking (this was during the summer; in winter it would also have involved killing rabbits). I was no good at killing, lasted one day in that job, and decided that if I couldn’t kill animals, I shouldn’t be eating them. About four years ago I watched Cowspiracy and was a vegan by the end of the week (couldn’t resist not finishing off my cheese stash – used to love the stuff, now it grosses me out almost more than meat). Since then, I’ve learnt a lot I didn’t know about how grotesque the dairy industry is; I can’t believe I supported it for so long as a vegetarian, but there it is; one learns.

Do you see yourself ever going back to being an omnivore?
I can’t imagine that happening. However, I’ll never say never, because I did return to eating meat for two years during my long stretch of vegetarianism. I studied Hung Gar kung fu with an old school teacher who believed you had to be a meat eater to be strong enough for some of the stuff he taught. When I do something, I’m all or nothing, so for the sake of the kung fu, I tried going back to eating meat to learn these things. I tried to convince myself I was getting stronger. I wasn’t. And deep down I knew I wasn’t being true to my principles either. Eventually I drifted away from the kung fu and into yoga, returning to vegetarianism. It was a big lesson: don’t take a teacher’s word as gospel – this is something I try to impart to the people who study yoga and Pilates with me.

Are you a ‘healthy’ vegan? Often people assume we’re all fitness-obsessed, when the reality is that we come in many flavours and for many people life is an eternal hunt for vegan cake. What makes up your diet?
I try to be a healthy vegan, with varying degrees of success. I mainly eat rice, wholewheat spaghetti and variations on vegetable stews and curries, as well as tons of fruit and nuts. I eat a little more processed food than I’d like to, but keep working towards a whole food diet as an ideal. I’m inclined to beat myself up when I don’t manage this, but try not to; being a fundamentalist is never a good thing. My biggest challenge is processed sugar. For the most part I don’t use it, but every now and again I’ll treat myself to some of the fine vegan cakes and desserts out there, and I always regret it, because the sugar gets right up there like a monkey on my back. I find it scarily addictive. If I can keep processed sugar out of my life, my diet tends to be pretty healthy.

Where do you shop?
I shop at local supermarkets, whether big chains or independents. We are spoilt for choice in London; vegan food is everywhere. I sometimes feel guilty shopping at the big supermarkets, which do so much to keep the meat industry alive, even as they’re serving vegan customers so well, but, hey, it’s not a perfect world.

Do you consciously think about where you get your protein, etc, from?
No, not really. I sometimes go through the motions, but it’s not a big deal for me. I’ve gone through phases of being too protein obsessed but I think that’s a fool’s errand. I simply try to eat a balanced diet and let nature take its course: fruit, veg, grains, nuts, pulses. And so far, so good; I’ve never been healthier.

For many vegans, the initial realisation of facts that make us turn to a different lifestyle is pretty life-changing and alienating. We view things differently, from the supermarket shopping experience in a meat-eating world to the people around us. How was that change in mindset… the reality of being an outsider in many situations… for you?
To start with, it didn’t bother me much. I believe passionately that we’re all just doing our best to get through the dark night of the soul, whether we eat meat or not. Life is hard and we do the best we can; I try my best to empathise with all beings. But the more time passes, Continue reading →

On six years of sobriety: living moment by moment with the dark, bottomless thirst for oblivion

glass of water

I sit opposite my dining companion, me with my glass of water, she with her single glass of wine. I enjoy the company, I enjoy the meal, I enjoy my water; however, the whole time – sometimes more strongly, sometimes less, but always – there is this thought in the back of my mind.

Why on earth would you do that? Why on earth would anyone drink one glass of wine? Why would you not by now be on to the second glass, the third, the fourth; why would you not already be ordering the second bottle, and indeed contemplating the whiskeys to follow?

This is a consistent thing whenever I am in the company of a “healthy drinker”, one who is happy to have “just the one”. It is one of the big things that reminds me why I do not drink alcohol, why I am today six years sober. It indicates very clearly that deep inside the dark, bottomless thirst for oblivion still remains in me.

I am less inclined these days to throw the term “recovering alcoholic” around, although that is indeed one of the things I am. My path is the path of trying to see who I am from moment to moment, of trying to emerge from the grooves – of behaviour, of thought – into which I constantly fall. So self definitions seem slightly at odds with the project.

Of course, as someone still grubbing in the lowest muds of the path, this business of escaping the bonds of patterning is more an intention than a reality. For now, it helps occasionally – particularly on each January 28 that I am blessed to mark as another year of sobriety – to remember where I have come from. To remind myself that I am a recovering alcoholic, grateful to be sober, one moment at a time.

A ‘basic’ yoga posture that’s anything but (and why you should listen to your body rather than your teacher)

Reversed Warrior yoga posture

For all we know, the guy in this photograph is pictured at the very moment of enlightenment, uniting with the wider cosmos via his body. So it goes without saying that there is nothing wrong with what he is doing.

It should be noted, though, that his spine is curved back and to the side at angles way beyond what is considered functional for the human body; similarly his rear leg is extended far beyond natural range, with powerful effects on his hip joint and pelvis. Again, no problem – it’s his body, he can do whatever he wants with it.

What is a problem, however, is that the shape he is producing here is frequently offered in yoga classes as a reasonably standard, basic posture called Reversed Warrior, sprinkled into flowing sequences of poses, or vinyasas, for a bit of variety.

As the teacher – perhaps hypermobile, as many in the yoga game are – arches beautifully into the shape, burbling the instruction “now reverse your Warrior”, mere mortals attempt to do so and swiftly discover the natural limitations of a healthy human spine and hip joint. If this were the point that the posture was being used to demonstrate, that would be a good lesson.

However, the suggestion is more often that if we keep practising our yoga, one day we too will be able to make this shape; this despite the fact that if we were to continue to do so, there’s a reasonable chance that we might never get close – cue potential feelings of inadequacy – and indeed might hurt ourselves somewhere down the road.

But almost worse than the risk of injury, to my mind, is the fact that instead of the practice being a means of exploring what is happening in the body, mind, the universe, right here and now, yoga becomes something that has to chased after, a goal to be achieved in the future, like a mansion, or an expensive car, or £1million in the bank. And the future, as we know, is something that is by no means guaranteed, considering that we do not even know whether we will be alive in a minute’s time.

I am categorically not suggesting that people should stop doing Reversed Warrior, or any number of other modern yoga postures that similarly require joints to be taken far beyond functional range (that for which the body has evolved to be healthy). If this is the kind of yoga you want to do – if making shapes you consider to be aesthetically pleasing is what the practice is all about to you, if striving and goal-setting and achievement are your thing – then by all means go wild.

However, if you simply want to move your body in a functional way, building useful degrees of strength and flexibility while practising the art of being in the present moment – which is what I think yoga is really all about – it is perhaps worth thinking carefully before you start trying to push yourself into positions like this.

(If, by the way, you find positions like this easy to get into, it is probably worth investigating whether you are hypermobile, and how you might adapt what you do for the health of your joints.)

Remember, you do not have to do what any teacher tells you to do – when it comes to your body, they do not know better than you – and if a teacher tries to physically push you into positions like this, remember you absolutely have the power to tell them to back the hell off.

Remember, too, that there is nothing sacred or special about yoga poses – they are mere positions in which to put the body. The postures that are offered in mainstream yoga classes are generally modern, 100-odd years old, and were mainly invented by blokes who knew little about anatomy and who history has often shown to be pretty nasty pieces of work.

This is not to say there is not plenty of value in these poses; they can be excellent body laboratories in which to explore the deeper layers of who you are. But it is important to reinvent them as you will to suit your own body, or to find ones that work better for you. Just make sure they are serving you in a healthy way.

Fortunately, more teachers are coming round to the approach that empowers practitioners rather than the image-based studio industry. A leading figure helping to inspire the process is Alexandria Crow, whose work I particularly recommend if you are a teacher wanting to learn more. I also strongly recommend Peter Blackaby’s book Intelligent Yoga: Listening to the Body’s Innate Wisdom; and if you ever have a spare hour and a quarter, there’s a deeply inspiring talk by Blackaby here.

In my own quiet way, this is the kind of yoga I am trying to teach in my classes in London. If you happen to be near Woodford Green and are interested, please get in touch. Full details on my website.

A note on the photo
The picture with my post was taken from an online repository of open-source stock photos available for anyone to use as they please. I would never pull a picture at random off a yogi’s personal website or social media feeds. I have used this photo under an open-source licence purely as an illustration of a posture as it is often taught and encouraged in yoga classes, not as a comment on the model.

Reverse-engineering the urge to get drunk: an interview with This Naked Mind’s Annie Grace

annie2I’m supremely grateful to be nearly six years sober now; truly feels like I’ve been given the opportunity to have a second crack at my life, having come this close to screwing it all up. I started the process of recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous and will always have a place for it in my heart, but over the years I’ve related to it less and rarely attend meetings now.

My medicine is primarily yoga and meditation, but I am also inspired in my sobriety by works such as This Naked Mind by Annie Grace (pictured). It’s a powerful book that has had a profound effect on many people concerned about their drinking. A highly simplified summary of its message is that alcohol is a poison that we’re culturally programmed from a very young age to believe is a route to good times, something we often keep believing even as it becomes obvious that it’s not true. Its approach to reverse-engineering this programming is scientific and undogmatic, with lots of good information about what alcohol does to the body, and helped to free me from the slightly fatalistic outlook of AA.

If you’re interested in what This Naked Mind is all about and have even the slightest unease about your drinking – I regularly hear “healthy” drinkers saying “I sometimes think I should drink a bit less” – I’d highly recommend reading it. If you want to learn a little more and don’t want to read the book, you could do worse than listen to this excellent interview with Annie on The Grind podcast.

I also fired off a few questions to her in an email, and here’s what she sent back…

So what’s your take on AA these days? I think AA has an important place, especially as the support is daily and live. But I also don’t believe it is for everyone. My work focuses on the 90 per cent of drinkers who are not physically addicted, while I think AA focuses more on drinkers who have a physical addiction to alcohol.

What do you make of the word alcoholic? Do you think there are things that “qualify” you as an alcoholic or is it simply a definition one takes on oneself?  As far as the term “alcoholic” goes, the importance lies in taking responsibility for your alcohol consumption. I have a wonderful video response on this you can watch here:

Are the companies that hawk booze any more moral than crack dealers? Why do you think they have such freedom to hawk their wares when there is so much information about the harms? Do you think they are scared about the prospect of losing business as awareness grows around what their drug does? These are very good questions, and ones I think you need to come to the conclusions for yourself. That being said, the alcohol industry has a powerful influence on us from a very young age, and the media pushes this agenda even more.

What would you say to anyone who has the slightest concern about their consumption of alcohol? I think it is very good to question your alcohol consumption – to reflect on what you are drinking, how much, and truly why you are. The Alcohol Experiment [Annie’s new book] is a great place to start to give yourself 30 days alcohol free, along with some amazing information about alcohol and its effects on the body.

How do you feel about having had such a strong impact on so many lives around the world? What do your loved ones think about your mission? I am passionate about bringing my message forward and sharing all the information I have found on alcohol. My family is very supportive and understanding.

Do you ever worry about your kids growing up as drinkers? Have you been educating them about alcohol from a young age? I talk with my children honestly about my experiences and what alcohol truly is and can do. I hope that me sharing my truth with them they will be able to make the right decision for their life when they are older.

You have a new book coming out… What’s it about? Is it a follow-up to This Naked Mind? Would it be a worthwhile read for those who have already benefited from This Naked Mind? Thank you so much for asking – my new book is The Alcohol Experiment. I think it is a great addition to This Naked Mind and certainly worth reading.

For more information, including an online community discussing drinking and associated issues, visit thisnakedmind.com

Functional foot yoga that anyone can do (and so much better for you than Instagram-friendly contortionism)

Foot yoga

Here’s a tasty little movement practice that you can incorporate into a yoga or Pilates session, or simply use as a standalone practice even you’ve never done, or plan to do, a single moment of yoga or Pilates. It’ll bring you a lot more functional benefit – ie, helps you in your everyday life – than any “journey” towards an extreme backbend, contortion or headstand etc.

Stand barefoot, take a few slow, deep breaths, take a few moments to feel how your feet feel – really feel, don’t analyse – then scan slowly up through your legs, same thing, just noticing how you feel. Now lift all ten toes off the floor, spread them as wide as you can, hold for a few seconds and notice everything – physical sensations from the feet rippling up through the legs and higher into the body, also mental reactions. Release, relax, stand with no particular engagement in the feet. Notice the contrast with the toes-up experience.

Now press the pads of your toes more strongly into the ground. Hold for a few seconds and feel what you feel, all the way up from the feet. Release. Feel the contrast. Now lift each big toe individually while leaving the four outer toes of each foot on the floor. Hold, feel, notice (this really is the heart of the practice). If it’s easy it’s easy; if it’s not, notice your reactions and smile. Stand neutral again. Observe. Now keep each big toe grounded while lifting the four outer toes of each foot. Hold, notice everything: physical sensations – maybe your hands are doing some interesting things – as well as mental reactions. Just notice. Neutral again, observe the contrast. Now go nuts… Keep the big toe and little toe of each foot grounded while you lift the three inner toes simultaneously. There’ll be plenty to observe here.

It doesn’t matter if your toes don’t do the things you’re asking them to do: simply by trying to do all this stuff, you’ll be activating neural pathways that may have grown rusty through years of shoe wearing; you’ll be engaging muscles and tendons in the feet and legs that may be underused; you’ll be able to look your ego in the eye, maybe laugh a lot; you’ll be more grounded. Do each exercise once, do each one a few times; doesn’t matter, just use whatever time you have – three minutes while waiting for the kettle is fine, longer is fine too.

A baffled cat and yoga mat are not obligatory.