In my continuing series of interviews with yoga teachers finding unique voices within a practice built on tradition, meet Kate Ellis. Kate is a long-standing member of the triyoga teacher-training faculty and has been teaching for over 15 years. In recent years her practice has gravitated towards exploring the dynamic play between opening and closing movements, reaching out and gathering back in. Her classes use classical yoga poses as a foundation for exploring flowing movements that incorporate the latest thinking around biomechanics, neuroscience and developmental movement.
In your practice and teaching you have adopted an unconventional and non-dogmatic approach to postural alignment that often runs contrary to what many people teach and expect to do in class. How would you describe this approach? How did it develop and who influenced it?
I’ve spent twenty years (ten of those working one-to-one with a teacher called Sarah Litton) investigating yoga postures to find out what it is that we’re actually asking the body to do.
It’s taken many hours to explore the actual engagement of muscles, placements of bone, and movements of fascia as we travel into and out of a pose. Having witnessed and adjusted hundreds of bodies I’ve found that the way you invite someone to execute the pose depends entirely on their individual structure. I know that sounds obvious but there’s a tension here in how we work with this whilst teaching a class. For example, if I’m working one-to-one with someone who’s more of a ‘rotator,’ I’ll give them a Trikonasana as a rotation and get them to bring their back leg hip forwards. But if that person is more ‘vertical’ in their spine with less rotation, I might ask them to work with it more as a high side bend. Whichever approach I take, the aim is to get the energy moving in the spine. When I teach a class it helps if I can spot if I have a majority of rotators in the room. Then I can pitch a more rotated side angle pose and then go to adjust the vertical ones individually. My overall aim is for students to experience a steadiness in which they feel their whole body working, and that they fully take up the space a pose is offering them according to their structure.
I’ve found it really helpful to explore the relationship between bone structure and how we physically and psychologically occupy space. Over time I’ve learnt to read and feel from the outer shape of a body, what we can expect from the shapes of the bones inside and how they will both limit and afford movement. For example, a ‘rotator’ will have a slightly different vertebrae shape which affords more movement in rotation. A ‘sagittal’ body will have more of a snaking spine through the curves and a ‘vertical’ one will be more upright through the vertical axis. We are all a combination of these types and have certain energetic styles that go with them in varying combinations. Interestingly they can help us to explore how we inhabit space on a psychological level. Do we reach far and wide and try to encompass people and things around us? Do we find centering things like mediation easy? Do we have clear cravings and aversions towards things? Are we prone to inflation and deflation? It’s fascinating to explore how our tiny habitual movement preferences are linked to both our structure and psyche. By developing this awareness in our yoga practice we can start to get some insights into our emotional body and this can help us to explore our wider relationships in the world.
I’ve witnessed a lot of stress in bodies over the years because of people enforcing a set way into and out of a pose with an inappropriate emphasis on a pose being this way or that. This is perhaps where the ‘unconventional’ label has come from since I don’t believe in teaching a class that’s dogmatic about style. I try to reduce all ‘shoulds’ and encourage the ‘what’s’ and ‘why’s.’ Experiencing the range of difference in many bodies over the years means that whichever alignment instruction is given it’s not going to work for everyone. I think that we need to start challenging on a deeper level the assumption that there is just one way to do a pose. Invariably we fall back on the common instruction: ‘just work within your limits.’ But that means that students often miss out on finding out the details that lead them to the total engagement that each pose has to offer (for their individual body). Finding the best route to keep the spine and limbs in relationship, whatever the pose, means getting the optimum angle for each bone to connect to the other. This has a profound and connecting quality on the musculature and breath. By tasting this total body/mind experience we then know what it is to not have it. Importantly the ‘on/off-ness’ of this starts to wake up our somatic intelligence – the body starts actively seeking and making more connections. It’s deeply fulfilling, nourishing, and ultimately therapeutic.
Do you find resistance to change, or alternatives, in studio classes?
Yes I do! I’m not going to lie about this as I face it all the time. And for a while I found it quite disheartening. But there’s my ego! And this has been a really useful challenge for me. I’ve learnt that there’s always a good reason for resistance. If the resistance is due to a person’s individual body structure then the reason for it is clear. I think it’s really important to get that sense of clarity across to the student in both classes and 1-2-1’s since it lets them off the hook of thinking that they should be doing it in a certain way. Whilst it might be easy for me to spot a structure that would be better suited to this angle or that it can take time for a student to really experience this for themselves. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of showing someone that their body can do something in a different way and then they get the experience of choice. Basically, resistance always has something really useful sitting right behind it!
We all talk about alignment but it feels a bit arbitrary when everyone stresses different alignment. It feels like it’s just another way of saying this way over that way. Alignment for me is when the energy flow can travel through the densest material (the bones) and that when this happens muscles, fascia, breath, spatial awareness, feelings, emotions and energy are all affected and come into awareness. The result is always greater than the sum of its parts.
The problem that I see in many asana styles is that not all place sufficient emphasis on the structural alignment of the body as a means to experience energy. The key is to experience the relationship between energy and structure. My initial exploration of yoga laid poses out as being good for this or that without much encouragement to notice what was actually happening below the surface in my structure. I was taught to feel the energy of the pose without connecting the experience to what I was doing structurally. In this way the yoga stayed rooted in an eastern aesthetic which appeared to have a much greater authority on energy than I could understand given my western upbringing. For example, when I was learning Thai massage from Thai teachers my western understanding of anatomy wasn’t valued at all and instead, we focused on the feelings of things that were subtle and difficult to express in words. We aimed to make energy flow and usually, we used a set sequence that had already been worked out for us. So when I started to explore my structure in more detail I started to experience how aligning it in certain ways for me gave me an instantaneous experience of energy. This was a new thing! And crucially the felt sense of it was very grounding and stabilising. I would describe it as a feeling of ‘coming home.’ I hadn’t experienced this in asana practice before where I’d simply done as I was told. I had experienced parts of my body in any given pose and often felt strong sensations and releases but I hadn’t experienced the connection between structure and energy and how when these two things work relationally you get to feel and contact so much more. My problem with not working with these in relationship is that the practice can become quite prescriptive based on an eastern understanding of energy. What I mean by that is that some classical systems tend to view the energy as an isolated element and wait for the structure to catch up. I see a lot of yoga working with this emphasis on energy, which ends up with the work becoming quite prescriptive. ‘This pose is good for hypertension’ etc. I worry that Classical Yoga Therapy can have a tendency to undervalue a phenomenological approach. Conversely, in the west we’re educated with an awareness of what we can tangibly see and measure like bones and muscles, but we get shy when talking about energy. So my path is about observing and working with both phenomena and exploring how they relate.
So how do we test this out?
When you get the structure well aligned, you can tangibly notice the energy connecting and moving (commonly out to the extremities and back to the centre). Tuning into the flow of energy can be then utilised to further align the structure and so on. It becomes a tangible relationship since you can begin to experience how they affect each other. Crucially I found that if I keep energy and structure in relationship and don’t exclude one over the other then the experience is very grounding, stabilising and therefore effortless. This is what I gained from working one-to-one with my teacher. But you have to work very attentively to keep this relationship and not everybody wants to work in that way! I see a lot of hunger from students simply wanting to be pushed into over-stretching and working harder. As if the harder the work the more in touch with themselves they might be. It’s an interesting feeling to be on the receiving end of this as a teacher – and it can easily muddy the boundaries if you simply acquiesce to it. Furthermore, it’s unhelpful for the students as it can lead to them projecting onto the teacher: ‘can you please carry the perfect and strong image of myself.’ This image constantly needs to be given back to the student; I think it’s really important as a teacher to regularly show a few flaws! Otherwise, the teacher can end high up on a pedestal. The higher the pedestal, the larger the shadow it potentially casts. I often wonder if the ubiquitous gloss of modern ‘Yoga Journal yoga’ actually casts a large shadow and that within this shadow hides swathes of inner persecutors! We’ve all got one and the gloss and effort of perfection seems to be really unhelpful in drawing this part out into consciousness. I think it’s crucial to watch out for when the ‘inner persecutor’ drives the practice and this can be especially difficult in faster-paced practice.
You are a strong proponent for 1-2-1 teaching and train teachers internationally in this form. What are its benefits? What if you can’t afford regular 1-2-1 classes?
I received such a deep learning from practicing in this way so I’m completely passionate about teaching and learning 1-2-1. Hopefully, my training for teachers to develop their skills for working 1-2-1 illuminates just how deep this can be. I feel one of the key benefits of learning this way is ownership. To investigate and experience poses to such a level gives you a surety and connection to your own body that I’m not sure you could get by going to classes. The difference is also in the teacher-student relationship. The level of mirroring in 1-2-1 is tremendous. It’s this that builds the container in which deep and lasting transformation happens. A class couldn’t build this type of container because it gives you more of a collective experience and this has a different use. I guess I could describe this as a level thing. And I don’t mean how good you get at doing tricky poses! But to what level do you want to work? How deep do you want to go to explore who you are and who you’re not and how, with all of this, do you relate to others?
When I met my teacher I was clear, going to her classes would not suffice. When someone else is holding the space of attention with you it amplifies your own awareness. This was what I wanted. I thought ‘start and the money will come.’ Then she pointed out to me that by the time I’d been to 3 or 4 classes a week I’d pretty much paid for a private. So I saw her once a week and did the rest of the work at home on my mat. This really helped my self-practice and teaching since by being in a 1-2-1 relationship I got constant support, feedback and the challenges were held in the container of the relationship. I know how finding this level of support can be a struggle for trainees and teachers who just go to classes and do self-practice. Plus my awareness shifted a lot faster working 1-2-1 than if I had gone to class. To have got to the same level by going to classes would have taken twice as long and ironically would have ended up costing more. All of my accomplishments and difficulties were amplified but they could then be processed more deeply. So each week when things moved, they really moved and when things felt stuck, they really felt stuck. What a range! That’s where the gold is. I still draw on this for my own practice and teaching every day.
Stay tuned for part two!