The New Yoga

Michaelle Edwards is the creator of YogAlign. Anne E. O’Malley photos

Michaelle Edwards doesn’t dodge the question, or the charges from some in the yoga community.

“I am controversial,” says the founder of YogAlign, referring to her position – so to speak – on how yoga ought to be practiced.

It’s in her new book, The YogAlign Method: Pain-free Yoga from Your Inner Core, due out around Christmas. In 360 pages that include theories of the method, training the brain, functional movement, self-massage, case histories and experiential exercises plus a companion DVD, the opus draws on Edwards’ nearly four decades of combined self-practice followed by teaching thousands of satisfied clients.

“I’m sending it to all major news people, to Oprah – I’m going to get word out that yoga is causing a number of injuries because many positions are not natural positions,” says Edwards. “I’ve been in yoga seminars where instructors try for two hours to put a round peg in a square hole, and when I demonstrate that, my back says oh, stop it!”

Already on her own path and developing YogAlign in response to yoga injuries she’d experienced, Edwards was further bolstered by reading Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice by Mark Singleton, released this year. Singleton poses the question of where modern yoga came from, and according to reviewers, including elite teachers and practitioners in varying schools of yoga, Singleton’s done his homework when he explains that the physical practice of yoga today, believed by many to be thousands of years old, is in fact less than 100 years old.

Developing her system

Edwards, who’s accredited by Yoga Alliance, a national education and support organization for yoga in the U.S., developed her system over time. She practiced yoga for 20 years before training to teach it.

Also a licensed massage therapist, Edwards says she began doing intense styles of yoga that were physically grueling, and wondered whether she might design a system allowing the body to be in alignment without doing a lot of uncomfortable positions.

“Then I studied anatomy, learned how muscles are controlled by the brain and ways to change the directions that the brains give muscles, and began to incorporate them into my yoga work,” she says. “I started to observe babies and young children and how they moved, and I figured out that a lot of yoga systems put the body into positions that have nothing to do with functional movement.

“I decided to design a system that would rely on natural breathing and natural spine alignment so that the body would intrinsically be at ease. People say over and over that it makes sense.”

Students from around the world come to Kaua‘i to study with Edwards (left)

Edwards says it all goes back to the chair, that the chair gives us dysfunctional positions.

In YogAlign, she says, “I got rid of any positions that look like you’re sitting in a chair, which is when legs are at right angles to the trunk. The body is not designed to do this, does not want to do this.

“If you askedme, ‘Who is your teacher,’ it’s my body and my clients’bodies. I figure the body knows more than I do, and it’s designed a system to help you. You start to fine-tune your alignment by asking your body, ‘does this feel right?'”

Edwards tells her clients that yoga is something you practice in the studio, yes, but then you do it in your life.

“It’s not something that ends when you step off the mat. It just begins; the performance is out there.”

Psoas muscles rule

For Edwards, every conversation about the body must come to the psoas muscles at some point. She defers to expert Ida Rolf, who founded Rolfing and who says the psoas muscles are the most important muscles of the body.

“The psoas (pronounced so-az) are two guidewire muscles that attach at the root of the diaphragm and lumbar spinal vertebrae and discs descending down through the groin to attach to the inside of the upper leg bones,” she says. “They are known mostly as a hip flexor, but they do much more as they connect your spine to your legs and provide a shelf for your internal organs. The work I do in YogAlign lengthens and tones the psoas, reversing the shortening effects that happen to many from sitting in chairs and/or doing controlled exercises that shorten and tighten this muscle group.

“They’re breathing muscles that support your organs and hold your emotions. If they’re dysfunctional, your body is dysfunctional.

“Get the psoas in shape and you’ll learn to move from the center of the body, which will keep you pain-and injury-free.”

Issues in the tissues

Speaking of the psoas, Edwards relates a client’s story. A cameraman with BBC sought her help through the Internet, having learned he had psoas problems.

Suffering from chronic back pain and sciatica for a decade, the fellow, employed in his field for about 20 years, told her he’d tried every means of therapy ranging from chiropractic, massage, Trager, Rolfing, acupuncture, physical therapy and more.

While stationed in Moscow, he found her site and began to e-mail her, saying he thought she could help him. He came and pitched a tent in her yard for three weeks as he began to learn the YogAlign method.

Edwards is up a tree while (from left) Erin Wascher, Margaret Huang and Wilke McClaren do yoga poses. Ted Lauder photo

“When he first got here, I said, ‘Wow, you’ve been all over the world,’ and he got stone cold and said, ‘You don’t want to hear about it,'” says Edwards.

In Kosovo, in Africa, in Indonesia after the tidal wave – his beat is the world and all of its tragedy and horror. Says Edwards, “He saw friends blown up.”

Edwards began working with him, first on his breathing.

“This is a powerful man, 6-foot-6, strong, looks like a gladiator,” says Edwards. “We got into some very intense psoas work and he started sobbing and shaking and crying.

“The emotion was in the muscles – the issues are in the tissues.”

Edwards says he began to process the emotions and thanked her repeatedly. He told her, “You saved my life. I can’t sleep, sit. I’m in constant pain.”

After the first session, he told her, “Oh, it’s so good!”

He’ll return this winter and is sending her some acquaintances from Europe whom he thinks will benefit from learning the YogAlign method. Edwards says he’d like to train as a teacher in the method.

She has stories by the dozens about people who claim the YogAlign method has helped them heal:

* A woman living in Czechoslovakia before it became a republic had built up tremendous fear from living behind the iron curtain before escaping through the mountains. She found Edwards on the Internet and came to study YogAlign, healing from the fear.

* A woman who’d had a mastectomy could barely raise her arm. Her physical therapist told her she’d gotten most of the range of motion she’d ever have again. She sought help from Edwards. A month into practicing the YogAlign method, her arm regained a full range of motion.

* A woman with a frozen shoulder couldn’t lift her arm above her shoulder. After working with Edwards for an hour, she was able to lift her arm above her head without any pain.

Edwards says the woman told her, “My shoulder hasn’t felt this good in 20 years.”

An accomplished life

A person with multiple interests, Edwards has been a musician for more than 25 years and recorded three CDs. She had a jazz trio that used to perform at Hanalei Bay Resort and was awarded an apprenticeship by the State Foundation on Culture and the Arts to learn slack key.

“I’m a slack-key guitarist. I play jazz, Hawaiian, blues and I’m a singer song-writer – I have a lot of energy,” says Edwards. “I fully plan to be doing more of that.”

For a long time, she says, “This book demanded that I write it. It comes in my sleep, even, and I say OK, OK!

“So it’s part of my life even though sometimes I want to just sing the blues.”

Edwards with father Gerald and son Zachary Gilbert. Photo from Michaelle Edwards

Born and raised in Ankara, Turkey, where her father was stationed as a career U.S. Air Force pilot, Edwards’ family moved to upstate New York, where they had an equestrian center.

“I’ve always been interested in horses, gymnastics, anything to do with movement,” says Edwards. “I was interested in philosophy, who am I and what am I doing here, and I was deeply attracted to Eastern books that led me to books on yoga poses.”

She moved to Montana, where she says there were no yoga teachers. But she continued on her own, and when she moved to Hawaii in the 1980s, she studied with different teachers “until I realized I wanted to go my own way. I got injured, and pain was a great motivator.”

Today, she’s focused on finishing the book, leading 200-hour teacher trainings in the YogAlign method through her Kaua’i Yoga School at the Mana Yoga Center on the North Shore, and dancing just for fun. She enjoys surfing, windsurfing, kayaking, sailing her own catamaran, running, skiing, and has even done some rock climbing.

“I’m still doing everything as good or better than I did in high school,” says Edwards. “I feel confident about my work, that it’s keeping me young and I feel I can teach anyone to do this.

“I feel a lot of gratitude about my life and how I’m able to do work that’s really important because it helps people heal themselves, and I can train others to help do it. So we have more and more people going around teaching good posture and breathing to everyone.”

To learn more about YogAlign, visit Edwards’ website at manayoga.com, where you can watch for information on the date her book will be available. Also, see her online in various videos posted on YouTube, or call her at 826-9230.

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