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The Culture of Wellbeing: Jill Miller and the Great Yoga Controversy

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2011-03-18-Jillw_Balls_385.jpg I am always amazed at the lengths writers will go to in order to promote their books, not caring about the casualties they create in their wake. The latest controversy is about the practice of yoga and was started by an illustrious science writer at the New York Times who declared the practice unsafe, throwing beloved yoga guru Glenn Black under the figurative bus in the process. Actually, what irks me even more is that he seems to have thrown all of us who practice yoga for exercise, an uplifting experience and just a plain old better life under the nirvana bus too. But he is looking to sell his book and in today's world, controversy sells.

While it's important to realize that any exercise routine can create strain on joints and muscles, is the alternative -- sitting on a couch, eating chips and drinking beer -- a better solution? Of course, choosing the right yoga guide may be the most important decision one makes in the quest for a better body and quieter mind, and a teacher who concentrates on stretching, breathing and strengthening, not acrobatics and pushing students to the limit while turning their bodies into human pretzels, is ideal.

Recently, I was lucky enough to meet such a teacher in West Coast Yoga personality Jill Miller. While it would be easy to call Miller just another pretty face -- she is petite, blonde and utterly cute in person -- once I took one of her Yoga Tune Up workshops I realized that behind the all-American girl facade lives a powerhouse of training, care and knowledge. It's exactly a teacher like that who will guarantee that her students never get hurt.

Miller's basic principles are to strengthen, stretch and relax the body's "blind spots," those areas that have become weakened due to overuse, under use or just plain misuse. She utilizes a basic yoga mat, blocks, elastic bands and her magical Therapy Balls, which all conspire to help the body relax and respond, while also learning to breathe the way nature intended us to.

Her own background is one of modern dance, Pilates, Shiatsu and Bodywork, but also one where she admittedly felt that within her tissues "there were gaps of critical information missing from so many techniques." She studied with the newly controversial Glenn Black at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, N.Y. She describes Black as "a masterful yogi and a bodyworker who specializes in a type of Orthopedic Physical Therapy called Bodytuning" she continues, a bit tongue-in-cheek "my relationship with my teacher is a very old fashioned mentor-mentee, very wax-on wax-off." What Miller does not easily disclose is her own difficult journey, one which brought her to finding an exercise regimen that could make her both healthy of body and quiet of mind, something we can all be so lucky to welcome into our own lives during these uncertain days.

She addresses the issue of injuries, brought up in the NY Times piece:

Often, the quest for "spiritual enrichment" can obscure the reality of what certain asanas are doing to the body. Overemphasizing precious elevated associations over structural soundness is just plain damaging in the long term. I can most certainly appreciate the spiritual enrichment that comes from various poses but it can't be at the cost of long-term physiological damage.

Most of the workshop I took in NYC involved lying down which Miller admits is done so "the pressure of being upright is greatly reduced, and your spinal muscles and respiratory diaphragm are literally 'unloaded' from having to hold so much of your structure upright. This automatically reduces stress on our heart and lungs and subsequently we begin to calm down."

When I thanked Miller after the workshop, feeling flexible and relaxed like never before, she facetiously added "my workshops are better than sleeping pills." And much safer too.

Ultimately, our relationship with our body is as personal and individual as our spiritual beliefs and only we know what is best. But in order to be true to that Dharma, we need to be in tune with the inner voice of wisdom, the one that always points the way to safety and well-being. Choosing the right fitness routine becomes simple that way. For me, it was much like choosing the perfect lover: some luck, a lot of clarity of mind, mixed with the courage to wait for the right one. And no couch potatoes need apply.

Top image courtesy of Jill Miller, used with permission