In 1995, I earned a BS in Mechanical Engineering and proceeded to work for 9 years as an engineer for Lockheed Martin… And then I left the corporate world in order to teach yoga full time. When people hear this, they often remark how different engineering and yoga are, but I see them as a continuation on the same line of inquiry:
What works and what no longer works? What can I do to change what no longer works? How do I know it’s changed?
Whether it’s an engineering problem, or a physical challenge, an unwanted emotion or disruptive thoughts, I still employ the same process.
Building the model
When I enrolled in my first 200-hour yoga teacher training program, I was overwhelmed by the anatomy and physiology material (still a challenge for me). I fell back on the way I had become used to looking at complex machines, as a series of pulleys, levers, pumps and fluids. I understood the lift of the leg happened because the muscles on one side of the bone shortened while the ones on the back of the bone lengthened, which took me back to my physics courses. I also gleaned that if a muscle on one side was organically short, it would inhibit the movement on the other side, etc. While I couldn’t name all the muscles, I could intuit how to adapt the body in order to elicit more range of motion. As I delved deeper into the organic workings, I realized that the fluids move through valves similar to the way I had learned in fluid dynamics, and the ideas of pressure and inner rhythms began to make sense. I had become so used to imagining the problems in my head that when the concept of energy flowing was presented to me, it didn’t feel foreign at all, just another medium subjected to external forces.
Testing the model
Sometimes there is no answer to the discomfort of this life. Sometimes, the answer is “I don’t know.” I do try to exhaust all my resources when I’m working on a solution, though. How do I know if it is a solution? I test it out.
All my yoga practice is experimental and experiential. For example, today I was working with an older man who had years of yoga practice but who was dealing with painful tingling in his right arm from cervical impingement. His range of motion and functional movements are now quite limited. As I was propping him up, I told him, “This is my working hypothesis; tell me if it makes the tingling better, the same, or worse.” We tried several ideas and settled on one that tested out true… for now. I always ask my students to test what it is we’re doing – even if it is something they have done before – and determine if it still makes sense for them to do it. Do they feel exhausted, in pain or more agitated after working with me? Those are red flags that we haven’t yet met the right combination of practices. Sometimes it means that I’m not the right teacher for them, in which case I usually ask what does work for them, so that I can add it to my tool kit.
These initial models that me well in the beginning of my teaching. They formed a sort of outline for me, and the more bodies I worked with, the more details I added. The models don’t always hold up now, because I’m seeing people in terms of time, space and emotions.
Dismantling the model
Several years ago, I was taking a private lesson with one of my teachers and she asked me to sit and visualize a certain energy in my body. During that sit, I realized that I had been visualizing my body as a wireframe 3D model that floated somewhere over my right shoulder. The lines of the rendering were red, similar to the computer-aided design (CAD) tools that I had grown used to using during my engineering days. When this teacher asked me to feel something in my body, I actually modeled it instead of feeling it. She “saw” or understood what it was that I was doing and asked me to let go of the model. I had to then map the sensations onto my own body, and track them real-time. This was a bit frightening for me at first, but I’ve since grown used to it. I can also map what someone else is feeling onto my own body in order to deduce what shifts are available to relieve suffering, if any.
The more I know, the better the models can be. My tools are calibrated and recalibrated during my own practice and study about yoga, and I hope that never ends.