Peter Blackaby workshop review: do no harm

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Last weekend I was able to enjoy a two day yoga workshop with visiting teacher Peter Blackaby, loosely titled ‘investigating movement with yoga’. He’s visited Aberystwyth a couple of times before so this was my second time of attending his workshops and I think his key principles sunk in a bit more this time, although I know I’m going to ponder and reflect on his approach and philosophy for a long while.

Let’s start off with where his teaching is coming from at the moment. (Everything that follows is my interpretation, and I may have misunderstood some things!) He believes in not doing any harm to the body, not adding unnecessary tension to the body, and to only do things that are beneficial to our body (or mind). The physical work of yoga should free up space for breathing. So if we’re straining to reach our toes, straining to bind our hands behind our back, struggling to maintain a balance, and our faces are all screwed up etc, it’s likely that the breathing is going to be less than relaxed, the mind will be less than relaxed, and the body will be undergoing stress and strain.

So what? Well, tension is going build up and build up, and will manifest itself in other ways, maybe anger or irritability, maybe in bodily pain, headaches, painful muscles or joints etc. Tension is not going to help the body heal or be comfortable. Rather than doing yoga postures that add tension, it may be more appropriate to do things that free up stiff areas or allow movement without adding in tension and effort.

That’s not to say it’s all floppy, relaxed lying on the floor! We worked hard and I found the alternative way of coming up into a ‘downward facing dog’ much more work for the legs and much freer in the upper body. To try this at home, squat down and if your heels don’t reach the floor use a block under them. Place your hand 6 inches infront of the feet, then undo the legs so they move into a ‘straight’ position (it’s ok to have the legs bent). The arms and shoulders should feel soft and relaxed. Come down into squat again. Move the hands further forward. Repeat the leg bit. Etc. Each time move the hands further forward until you’re at your limit.

We also practised a stealthy way of coming up into headstand, or moving towards that position. I say stealthy because before I knew it I was able to balance on my hands and head, almost without effort and realising what we were doing. We’d just been doing some floor based work, using hands and neck, and then all of a sudden it was an inverted balance on the head!

Another of Peter’s approaches is to always ask ‘What is the intention of the pose?’ Why are we doing something? He challenged us to really think what our intentions are in many of the standing postures – most of which he no longer bothers with, or he teaches them in a radically different way eg trikonasana. For Peter he teaches this as a rotation (removing the side-bend element) and his version is much nicer for me, and I don’t want go back to the ‘old’ trikonasana now! [Edited previous sentence – see comment below.] Especially not after he explains how side-bend + rotation is terrible for lower back and disc problems. (He’s also an osteopath.)

As an aside, he also recommended the Yoga Body book which I reviewed a short while ago. Are we doing some yoga postures because we think they must be good for us because ‘they’ve been doing them for thousands of years in India’? If so, we’re probably pretty wrong. Most of the ancient yoga texts mainly only refer to seated postures in terms of the asanas we know today. As the Yoga Body book explains, a lot of the ‘hatha’ yoga we do today is actually less than 100 years old and comes from gymnastics and other exercises. That’s not necessarily bad, but what it does mean is that we shouldn’t be afraid of critiquing it, and should not see it as sacred or not to be modified or altered.

Peter’s more modern approach is currently influenced by key thinkers in the field of psychology, neuro-biology and other ‘new’ scientific disciplines. He focuses on the evolutionary pattern movements e.g. side bending and seeks to work towards an integrated body, and is also interested in things like evolutionary biology, emotional biology etc.

The two days were a mixture of discussion, practice, pair work, reflection, and we were even able to relax in the sun over lunch both days, as it was probably the hottest weekend we’ve had all year! It was a really enjoyable weekend with a huge amount to think about in terms of my own yoga practice, my yoga body, and particularly my yoga teaching. (And I also enjoyed my evening of bhakti yoga (devotional) at the Hare Krishna event on the Saturday – a very yogic weekend!)

Views of anyone else who attended very welcome!

UPDATE  – 5th JUNE 2012 – My yoga blog has been nominated for the 2012 Fascination Blog Awards in the Yoga Teacher category on the basis of this blog post and the comments! Thanks everyone!

Fascination Awards

9 thoughts on “Peter Blackaby workshop review: do no harm

  1. Alyson – as I understood it Pete doesn’t teach trikonasa for a number of reasons: there’s no clear intention ie. it’s not just sidebend, but involves rotation too (hence increased disc prolapse as you say), it can also involve shearing of the lumbar spine if you ‘reach’ outwards to gain more stretch in the initial sidebend (he mentioned that in previous workshop) and also because of potential risk to the knee through slight rotation caused by turning the back foot out. The intention of the variation that he does teach (as you know he prefers not to give a ‘name’ to a pose but identify the intention) is not a sidebend though, it’s a rotation. You’re meant to keep the hips level with the floor and the spine in neutral, so the twist takes place in the thorasic spine, without any flexion of any other kind occuring. A good way to check is to get another person to stand behind you and check you keep the hips level and do not arch the spine. It’s quite hard to know if you’re doing it without bringing those other movements in!

  2. Nice one Alyson, like this lovely blog and the review. The only thing I would say is re the tension – I think the point is that we build up tension all day in everything that we do so why add more in a yoga class? If the rest of our lives were tension free there may be some point to adding tension in our yoga sessions to balance it out – if only eh?!

  3. Thank you for the observations and personal perspective Alyson. Mine is still in note form but what keeps coming to the surface for me is that Peter ‘s extensive analysis and practise of Yoga has brought him to the point where “Less is More” and perhaps we have to experience the “More” ourselves before the “Less” transforms our own practice and teaching.

    • Thanks Sue, I agree with your interpretation. Less can bring more in various ways. My notes are still very much in untidy scribble form in my notebook, and my drawings will never make it onto the blog!

  4. Hi Alyson, for me trikonasana feels like a hip opening + hamstring stretching move. I haven’t done any teacher training and I am pretty flexible so I don’t know how the pose feels like for someone who’s stiff in their back and hips. My teacher always teaches quality of the breath comes before the asanas. All that strain you talk about while doing yoga… I find they are alleviated with the teacher’s deepening adjustments. The key is to find teachers who are skilled at adjusting… they’re hard to come by I guess.

    • Hi Yyogini
      Thanks for your comments and observations. Definitely, appropriate adjustments can really help deepen a pose, or find the optimal position for you. I need to get more confident with adjusting people in my classes. The thing with what each pose feels like for different people is very interesting because I’m increasingly aware that the same pose can mean different things for each person – sometime say it’s hips, some say it’s back, some say it’s their hamstrings etc. And I think this is because we’re all got different physiques, different body types, different levels of flexibility and strength etc. So, when I’ve been teaching what I call ‘Peter Blackaby’ style trikonasana or downward facing dog, some people love them, but, other people prefer the traditional approach! So, what I’m trying to now do with my teaching is provide options so people can work with the pose that is best for them. And hopefully, which ever one that is, their breath is free and relaxed. Interestingly, Peter B didn’t teach much breathing work during his workshop because he argues that if you’re in the right posture shape for you, then your breathing will be free, relaxed, and you won’t need to worry about it. So, it’s the same side of the coin as your teacher, that the breath is the most important, but it’s different ways of getting that! That’s what I love about yoga, that there’s so many approaches to suit everyone.

  5. Pingback: Intelligent Yoga book review | Holistic yoga with Alyson

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