We are delighted to have interviewed Sarah who has pioneered the growth of yoga-inspired functional movement training with athletes over the last decade, working for over 10 years with Manchester City and Manchester United football clubs.Now Sarah delivers vocational instructor training in both sport and practical functional anatomy - including the new Teaching Yoga in Sport Accreditation - in her courses:The Body Athletic - Teaching Yoga to Athletes & in Sport. The Body Aligned - Yoga, Functional Anatomy & Injury THE BODY ATHLETIC - Teaching Yoga to Athletes & in Sport.
You have taught yoga to some of the most influential athletes in the world - what has been your highlight over the years?
OMG! – It all rolls into one great big highlight! Just the privilege of over a decade at Manchester City AND Manchester United Football Clubs with their first teams is the biggest highlight in itself. Looking back, it seems extraordinary and I can’t imagine it happening again.
Individually – working with Ryan Giggs as he is such an ambassador for yoga and his DVD, Giggs Fitness, opened yoga to so many regular guys who were only prepared to give it a go because if it was ‘good enough for Giggsy’ it was good enough for them!
Players like Rio Ferdinand and Michael Carrick for their passion and absolute commitment to their training.
Being a (very small) part of the amazing transition of Manchester City from a mid-table club to Premiership winners (I ran round in joy when Sergio Aguero scored THAT GOAL in 2012 – OK for you non-footie yogis, Google it!).
And one very small thing – one of the MUFC Academy players spotted me whilst with a group of his mates and as he told his friends about working with me, I realized he was proud to be ‘doing the yoga’. A teenage football-playing lad, proud to be ‘doing the yoga’. That changes everything.
Broadly speaking, do you think yoga teachers are sufficiently educated in anatomy to teach yoga safely?
Oooohhhh, everyone’s going to throw their coconut-water bottles at me, but broadly No. Not at all.
OK, positives first to try and redeem my situation. Yoga is fundamentally safe and I would encourage anyone who is restricted to go to a class: it will do them good.
But here’s the catch: there is a standard yoga-injury list which every physio/rehabilitator knows and which most yoga teachers do not – including me for years. The acute side thankfully is fairly rare and tends to be around pushing too far / extremes of flexibility.
Where I see bigger problems in not know our functional anatomy well enough is in the chronic injuries – a few areas we need to address as examples.
Endless flexibility is a very bad idea as it destabilises joints and sets people up for the chronic joint issues that are super hard to address: we should not be teaching way, way out of normal joint range (unless your class is in training for Cirque de Soleil).
Flexibility MUST be matched with strength – so loads of passive stretching for weak women who don’t do any real strength work is a no-no – they just get weaker and less stable.
Being hung up on what we were taught/works for us and teaching that regardless of whether that is what our clients actually need or would benefit from.
Back to redemption – I am a huge yoga fan and have devoted a large amount of my adult life to teaching it. We just need to do it a bit more functionally and wise up on our anatomy. Simples
What made your first fall in love with anatomy?
Believe it or not, my teaching training with Brian Cooper back in the day before YAP!
As a yoga practitioner, I was super confused. Every class I went to taught poses that had the same name (Triangle, all the warriors etc. etc.) in completely different ways. This bothered me: I figured that if it didn’t matter how you taught a pose then all we were doing was a kind of slowed-up making shapes. And if it did matter how you taught a pose, then for our bodies it must matter big time. Brian started talking about hamstrings and the light went on: BINGO! ‘If I learn to understand this, then I’ll know how best to teach asana’. And I’ve been learning ever since. I am now a self-confessed anatomy junkie, functional movement geek and stand in awe at our amazing human design.
Do you feel teaching meditation is an important part of being a yoga teacher?
Oh, tricky one. Short answer: Yes.
Longer answer: If meditation is a held focus of the mind whilst trying to avoid being caught up in the flow of thought and emotion, my answer is Yes, we need to teach that. We need to get people into that parasympathetic, non-reactive state so that their soft tissue can, maybe, relax and remodel itself. You can’t make anyone more flexible if their head is just banging on. So I teach that throughout the practice and especially in the longer stretches and final relaxation. Using breath focus so that the mind calms, becomes stiller, and JUST ISN’T BANGING ON AS MUCH, and then the body can relax, adapt and change. No, I don’t sit people in formal mediation sessions – not going to work for my guys – but I’m still teaching the head stuff all the way through.
Yoga has become very competitive. What do you think is a good strategy for yoga teachers to gain a competitive advantage?
When I started teaching there were maybe 10 yoga teachers in a 20 miles radius. Now there’s well over 100+. That’s competitive.
I’d suggest finding your passion and teaching that – the old, the young, the injured, the stressed, sporty, pregnant…. Learn everything you can about it, understand your people, and teach what they need and in a way that is accessible to them. Remember it is about them and their bodies and their needs, not about you leading a practice that works for you.
So specialise – have several specialisms! Look for advanced teacher training specialisms (declaration of interest: I teach a couple!). If you understand and teach what a specific group need you will connect far better with them and they will become your kind of teaching people, and then people like that will start seeking you out (hopefully).
How do you think teachers can avoid burn-out as a yoga teacher?
Terribly difficult and you’re asking the wrong person!
I’ve been teaching 20+ hours a week in a challenging environment for around 15 years and last year I realised I was on a fast road to a bad end. Too much physical demand, too adrenally charged, and not enough recovery, self-compassion or recharge. And there’s no sick pay if you’re a self-employed yoga teacher.
So how? The obvious answer is Teach Less and go for higher value stuff – workshops, retreats, specialisms, teacher training. But the obvious problem with all of that is that every yogi and their dog is doing a bunch of that already and will copy whatever you do.
The honest answer, I don’t really know. I’ll get back to you on this one.
Do you feel yoga has seen a natural segregation between the physical and the spiritual? And do you think these different paths tend to attract gender specifics?
Very difficult question. I don’t think it is as simple as blokes tending towards strong asana practice and women tending towards chanting.
OK, deep breath. I think it is a question of what door you walk through. I work with lots of more athletic type people and their motivation for change is that their bodies are under pressure / injuring. And yes, (huge generalization) often men find this path a more accessible one. But a class more focused on physiological change may also be deeply spiritual. Or not. Depends on how you teach it. So the people I teach have to learn how to calm their minds, be still, relax and focus in order for their physical tissues to remodel. It’s not exactly a Satsang on non-duality, yet it is a deeply spiritual process.
Look at it the other way, I did a strong Ashtanga practice for years with the pranayams and meditation but not for one moment did I let go of my super-achieving personality: I bullied my body more flexible and used my mind to force non-thinking. There was nothing remotely spiritual about any of it. BTW, that’s a criticism of me, not of Ashtanga.
I suppose I would like to see a more holistic view: To lead a healthful life we need strong, supple bodies and calm internal chemistry (however you define that) and the former is dependent on the latter. There’s nothing ‘natural’ about a division between the physical and the spiritual. They are inseparable. We have to help our students towards that complete place regardless of which door they walked through.
You were involved in our Yoga Therapy discussion last year - do you think there should be regulated ongoing quantifiable assessments and training to be a yoga therapist?
Yes, absolutely. Once we use words like Therapist (with a capital) then the public righty equates this with words like Physiotherapist, or Speech Therapist, and then figure every Yoga Therapist has the same level of training, learning and qualification based on high-level examination as the Physio or the Speech Therapist. This is clearly not the case.
So here’s an example of the problem based on my own area of interest. Yoga is fantastic for long-term postural health and rehab from injury. Every doctor and physio knows this. BUT yoga has a bad rap with the medical community for two reasons: first physios/medics see students who have injured themselves doing yoga (remember the standard yoga injury list) and second, it is impossible to tell from any yoga teacher’s qualifications whether they are going to be teaching good, helpful functional movement or the super stretchy, non-functional, seriously-not-useful sort of yoga.
So what’s a medic going to do? They err (rightly) on the side of caution and don’t recommend yoga (well, not often)
So for my area, I would LOVE to see quantifiable training and assessments in yoga-inspired functional movement training and rehab. How else can anyone know whether what you are about to do to their body in your class is OK or not?