By Karrie Osborn
Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Autumn/Winter 2006.
Sometimes the simplest things are the most complicated. Like trying to make sense of the “like begets like” philosophy behind homeopathy, or knowing that you really need to do better about relaxing and de-stressing at day’s end.
When it comes to simple, the concept of being comfortable is right up there, or so we would assume. But noting statistics on the numbers of stress-related illnesses, work-related injuries, and growing use of pain medications, being comfortable is obviously a lot more difficult than we might think.
Just ask Ofer Erez, a bodywork and movement expert who has been teaching the concept of comfortability to clients for years through a new style of movement-oriented yoga work he developed called Sugi yoga.
It’s simple, and yet it’s not. “It’s about learning to be comfortable,” Erez says from his new school and movement studio, Sugi Health and Fitness, in Pleasant Hill, California, just twenty minutes from Berkeley. And it’s about integrating the dichotomy of the body and mind. That’s something not all of us know how to do.
Think about this—would you say you’re comfortable right now? Are you sure? As you read this article, are your arms and hands relaxed as they hold the magazine, or are your white knuckles giving you away? Are your eyes straining to read the print? Is your jaw loose or rock solid? Are your shoulders in your ears, or are they just a little tight today? So, are you really comfortable right now? Erez says Sugi yoga can help us find our comfort zone again.
The Same, but Different
Sugi yoga is a style of hatha yoga, Erez says, but it reflects a combination of both classic yoga practice and the Feldenkrais Method—a form of movement reeducation bodywork that helps the body discard old patterns and replace them with healthier ways of movement and function. Erez says he found the combination an effective collaboration. “Sugi yoga uses the same traditional asana (physical postures) and pranayama (breathing techniques) as other styles of hatha yoga, yet the way in which these are done, and the way we progress in our abilities is very different from the traditional way.” Erez says with traditional yoga, students go to the limit of their abilities and then are asked to try and go farther by the use of will power, persistence, and usually some exertion and/or pain. “In Sugi yoga, we progress by activating the natural tendencies of the body and mind to improve.” Pain doesn’t enter into the equation.
Sound simply complicated? Erez says it’s really not. “The body has a natural tendency to improve, so you let the natural forces do their work. It’s available to all of us, but we don’t all have the techniques to do it. Our physiology is such that if you give it the right exercise to do, the body improves by itself,” he says.
“It’s the nature of life,” Erez explains. “We expect to get better.” He lays out this example: “As a writer, you expect to get better with practice, not have the process become more difficult. It’s supposed to get better with practice, so let’s work on that deliberately.” Instead of pushing hard to get to the next level, whether it be in sports or yoga, the Sugi philosophy asks you to be in a state of comfort, first and foremost.
“It starts with a different philosophy about movement,” Erez says. That’s what the Feldenkrais piece brought to the table. “In Feldenkrais, when a client is on the table and comfortable, they’re more open to healing,” he says. One of the talking points of this work is a simple one: when you’re doing something really, really well, it should be effortless to do. Erez says it was that line of thought that helped the lightbulb click. “Why not apply this to yoga?” he says.
A Welcome State
Erez’s wife, Amy, co-owner of Sugi Health and Fitness and a tai chi instructor at the school, explains the Sugi philosophy using her own teaching experience: “When I’m teaching tai chi, I ask students to keep their movement in the mid-range of their ability. When they do that, they keep their bodies in a state of openness to learn. When the body is in that welcoming state, improvement happens more rapidly,” she says. “If you push to the very edge of your ability (like most movement philosophies), the body puts out red flags. But when the body is in that open state of mind, information is communicated more readily to the nervous system and brain, and then that information can be communicated more easily to the muscles.”
This is why students in all classes at Sugi Studios are encouraged to take multiple breaks so their bodies can process the newly-learned information. Think of a computer that crashes when it can no longer keep up with the multiple tasks you’ve thrown at it—let it finish processing before moving on to the next command and you have a much happier machine. The same is true of the human body, Erez says.
Movement, of course, is critical to the process. “In Sugi yoga, each student attempts to become more comfortable in the performance of every variation of every posture,” Erez says. “We use movements, specific to each posture, to make it easier to become more comfortable. The movements are not for stretching, strengthening, or any other goal except to help you gain experience and expertise in the art of becoming more comfortable.”
The end result with Sugi yoga is no different than with its other yoga kin. “The benefits of strength, stamina, balance, etc., are still very apparent with Sugi yoga, albeit more quickly and with less pain and injury,” Erez says.
“Sugi yoga is, in many ways, backward to other styles of yoga. We use the same postures you will find in other yoga styles, but, whereas in others the perfection of a posture is measured against an observable ideal, in Sugi yoga the perfection is measured by how comfortable you are. We work at a posture from the inside out, rather than from the outside in.”
Erez says the first priority for Sugi yoga students is comfort and ease in performing the postures, not the visual aspect of the posture. In fact, looking at Sugi students might not give you an immediate clue they are even doing yoga.
Consider what a headstand posture might look like: “In Sugi yoga, we teach a person to do a headstand over a long period of time. They start by standing on their hands and knees and putting the top of their head on the floor, between their hands. The movement begins with a small roll of the head, backward and forward, getting comfortable with the pressure on their head.” Erez says at this point, the posture looks nothing like a traditional headstand. Students continue to work to find comfort with that pressure and position before slightly rolling the head side to side.
Yet, there’s no stretching involved in Sugi yoga. “Stretching happens at the point where movement stops,” Erez says. If you keep yourself in the comfortable range, there never is a stretch. The comfortable range will increase as if on its own.
Next, Sugi yoga students might actually go into what’s called a half headstand, but still with their feet on the floor. Once comfortable, they would begin walking their feet toward their head and back again to both learn the skill and find their comfort zone. “In Sugi yoga, you might do this for half a year, or it might be a few weeks, before you go to the next stage,” Erez says. “The process is totally individual. Your job is to get so comfortable you don’t really care if you ever move on.”
In traditional yoga class, neither the headstand nor any other posture takes comfort into account. In fact, Erez says, “Comfort rarely enters into it.”
Finally, while Sugi yoga students are working through this process, the spine aligns with their hips and their feet begin to lift a little as they walk them back and forth in the headstand. As part of this reacquaintance with the body’s natural tendency, movement is a critical link, helping students learn to feel safe and comfortable in each position.
Erez says if you took a photo of someone just beginning to do a headstand in the Sugi yoga tradition, it looks like all they are doing is putting the top of their head on the floor. “It’s not very impressive externally,” he says. “But internally, you’re trying to get more comfortable being there for a longer period of time. It’s that internal work that’s important.”
The Importance of Finding Comfort
Repeated attempts to improve through a mind over matter attitude, as in most styles of yoga, create internal conflict between mind and body,” Erez says. “In Sugi yoga, we eliminate this conflict from the beginning of our practice by refraining from the mind over matter attitude.” The result is a body that moves more freely, and with greater confidence, all while functioning in a state of comfort.
“Just the fact that most of us have no clue how to be comfortable shows how unique Sugi yoga is,” Erez says. “We should not only have a clue, but a high level of expertise in how to be comfortable.”
Part of the problem is that we don’t even recognize the process our bodies undergo to become uncomfortable in the first place. We end up with a new, inappropriate and often painful sense of what’s normal without even knowing it. “We live in a society that values discomfort very highly as the means for achieving success, as symbolized by the no-pain, no-gain attitude in exercise and fitness, by how much you are willing to sacrifice for success in business, etc.,” Erez says. “From an early age we are taught to ignore our discomforts because of this attitude ... and this habit accompanies us for the rest of our lives.”
Erez says along the way we develop tensions that reduce our ability to sense the world. When we sense less, we also notice less. So as we get tighter and more tense, we notice our discomforts less. The perpetual cycle has begun.
When we don’t live in a state of comfortability, we are denying our bodies and minds a healthier life, Erez says. “We increase wear and tear on the body, we increase chances of injury, we lose abilities as we age, and we become less aware of harmful activities; we become less sensitive to the needs of our body and mind, as well as the needs of others and the environment.” Erez says this reduced sensitivity allows for destructive behaviors toward ourselves and others and becomes the mantra for a twisted body, heavy heart, and numbed mind.
Conversely, however, when we begin to live in a state of comfort, the benefits of living, exercising, and moving with ease can change the course of our lives. Erez says we age more healthfully, we reduce unnecessary burdens on our bodies, we’re less prone to injury, and we become aware of harmful activities sooner, so we can stop them. Ultimately, Erez says, “We develop awareness of ourselves.” Sugi yoga, he says, helps us remember how.