Brea Johnson’s yoga classes are not like other yoga classes. The soul of yoga is there, the mindfulness, the focus on the breath, the careful fine-tuning of the body, and the sense of gratitude. The props look the same, the room is even decorated and dimly lit in the typical style of a yoga studio. But the poses and positions, for the most part, don’t look like — or feel like — traditional yoga poses.
“I use yoga as the gateway word,” explains Johnson as she describes that her method is an evolved, or integrated approach to yoga. Layering the science of biomechanics and her understanding of Restorative Exercise as taught by Katy Bowman, Johnson teaches her students functional movements that will help them to better understand their bodies, and to live healthy, pain-free lives off the mat.
Johnson has been a yoga teacher for over 11 years and she says that she struggled for a long time with yoga’s one-size-fits-all approach. The more people she worked with, the more she became aware of the ways in which yoga, while helping certain conditions, was aggravating or worsening other issues in her own body, as well as in the bodies of her students. The culprit, she says, is the fact that we all bring our bad postural habits into our yoga practice and thus exacerbate the problems that these habits cause. Biomechanics is all about correcting those bad habits and imbalances so that our bodies move in the most efficient, optimal way.
“There’s yoga alignment and then there’s biomechanical alignment, and sometimes those match up and sometimes they don’t,” says Johnson, who sees herself as more of a movement educator than a yoga instructor. As she describes it, biomechanical alignment is rooted in the bones. Whereas our fitness-focused culture is all about strengthening and toning specific muscles, biomechanics aims to develop a solid, well-aligned structure.
“You see really bendy people on these posters but that’s not a realistic picture. Nor is that what we want. We don’t want extreme flexibility — it’s too much.”
Johnson saw her business name, Heart and Bones, as a way to pull together the softness of getting to know ourselves and our truth (the heart), and the solidity of a firm structure (the bones). She explains that if the structure isn’t sound, the heart can’t do its job properly.
I had the opportunity to try out Johnson’s Monday night “Align and Refine” class at Shanti Yoga Studio downtown and I could feel the difference in my body afterwards. I found myself standing taller, with my weight in my heels and even over both feet, as Johnson instructs, and found myself thinking about my bones and joints more than I ever have before.
The class is as much a workout for the mind as for the body, as you retrain your brain to notice the subtle positioning of your skeleton. Johnson keeps the class atmosphere light, often making jokes and providing gentle guidance when needed, and her passion is infectious. Over a week later I’m still thinking about the shape of my spine and where I’m holding my weight.
Some of the problems that Johnson tries to address in her work include the typical slumped shoulders that we’ve all been warned about, plus others that get less attention. She says that most people tend to push their pelvis out, rather than holding it in a straight line above their heels, which can lead to decreased muscle mass in the glutes and the saggy bottoms that we often associate with aging. Another common postural issue is what is known as vulture neck: holding your head forward of your shoulders instead of stacked on top of them. Correcting these issues makes your skeleton more stable and helps to prevent long-term wear on the body.
Johnson stresses that the aches and pains that we tend to associate with aging are not as normal as we would be led to believe. They can be prevented by paying attention to how we move — or don’t move — our bodies on a daily basis and working to correct the bad habits that we’ve formed.
“The body doesn’t turn on itself right away,” she points out. “It’s this slow decline that goes so slowly that we think it’s normal, until at some point it breaks. If it was a quick break I think we’d all be moving better.”
This mindfulness can take a lot of work. Johnson admits that she still has to remind herself to correct her posture. But the payoff can be enormous. After spending five long days on her feet dissecting cadavers and learning about anatomy, Johnson says she didn’t suffer from any of the aches and pains that we might normally associate with such an intense experience. She explains that while it’s easier to do what we’ve always done, changing our habits and working towards optimal alignment can make all the difference.
What does body alignment have to do with sustainability and resilience? According to Johnson, it’s everything. In a culture where we tend to be dissociated from our bodies, we can’t forget that they are what allow us to do good work and to make a difference in the world. And it’s hard to do that when we’re in pain.
Johnson talks about looking at the permaculture of our lives: “How is our environment — meaning our office work, our office space, our home, the places where we spend the most time — how are those helping or hindering the body’s sustainability? Because it’s all interrelated.”
In her Resilience Festival workshop, participants can expect to discuss what it means to have a sustainable body and to try some simple alignment movements that can be incorporated into everyday life. “Those little changes make a big difference, they really do. Little pieces throughout the day add up more than your one-hour practice or your one-hour jog,” says Johnson, who says she hopes that participants will leave with a sense of empowerment, knowing that the health of their body is in their own hands.
“Something that is sustainable is something that lasts a long time. And that resilience is having the strength and empowerment to do it for yourself.”
Anyone is welcome to participate, even if there are injuries, and no special clothing is required. Learn more about the festival and buy tickets here: https://thelocalgood.ca/edmonton-resilience-festival/
Johnson runs frequent workshops and retreats, and works privately with clients to correct alignment issues. You can learn more on her website at http://www.heartandbonesyoga.com/