Yoga for Longevity: Expert Tips for Healthy Aging

November 14, 2023

In this episode of The Invigor Medical Podcast, hosts Natalie Garland and Derek Berkey discuss the benefits of yoga for healthy aging with expert instructor Mary Richards.

Mary shares her insights on common misconceptions about yoga and aging, the importance of good posture, and practical tips for incorporating yoga into daily routines. They also discuss the physical and mental benefits of yoga, including stress management and management of age-related conditions like osteoporosis and kyphosis. Mary offers recommendations for healthy aging and advice for those interested in trying yoga for the first time.

Mary’s teaching is informed by the master instructors as well as the perspectives and understanding gained in credited coursework in anatomy, physiology, biology, kinesiology, cadaver dissection, and therapeutic movement. She earned her master of science in yoga therapy at the Maryland University of Integrative Health and is registered as a certified yoga therapist with IAYT. Her scope of practice includes physical postures, breathing exercises, restorative yoga, and mindfulness techniques such as meditation and heart-centered communication.

The Invigor Medical podcast’s mission is to provide personalized medical care through scientifically backed education and wellness solutions.

TIMESTAMPS

  • 01:15-Mary’s background, training,and education in yoga
  • 03:07-How Mary instructs and teaches using science
  • 05:40-Movement pros can benefit from this training
  • 09:09-The importance of body knowledge and personalization for instructors
  • 15:28-Approaches to optimizing aging bodies, slowing decline
  • 19:00-Tips for people who sit at desks
  • 25:25-Becoming more aware of your body
  • 28:04-Positive effects on aging clients
  • 30:40-The surprising path from government work to yoga
  • 37:50-Instruction and changes in methods over Mary’s career
  • 49:48-Anatomic education for yoga
  • 50:17-Advice on how and when to start yoga
  • 54:56-What credentials to look for – initials after names, 10 years experience

Transcript

[00:00:00] Mary Richards: So changing how we sit is important too. Like most of us sit in a way that our hips and our knees are on the same plane. They’re at the same height, and that cuts us off from our deep abdominal stabilization systems when really the way we need to be sitting is with our hips about two inches higher than our.

[00:00:25] Natalie Garland: No, you’re making me self-conscious. I know. I’m, I’m like, I was like, okay, I’m looking at my chair right now. Can I raise this?


[00:00:32] Narrator: Welcome to the Invigor Medical Podcast, where our mission is to provide personalized medical care through scientifically backed education and wellness solutions. It all starts in three, two, one.

[00:00:42] Natalie Garland: Hello and welcome to the Invigor Medical Podcast.

I’m Natalie Garland, and I’m here with my lovely co-host, Derek. Thank you for being with us tonight, Derek. And tonight we have with us Mary Richards, who is a yoga practitioner and teacher, anatomy nerd, dirt worshiping hiker, dog and cat lady, and bibliophile. Mary has been offering integrative health education based on her personal yoga practice and study, which spans nearly three decades.

Welcome, Mary.

[00:01:09] Mary Richards: Thank you so much, Natalie and Derek. I’m thrilled to be here.

[00:01:12] Natalie Garland: Awesome. Well, it looks like you have a couple of credentials, which I don’t really know and understand what they mean. So would you start with telling us what those credentials are, and then tell us a little bit about your business and what it is that you actually do with all of this knowledge and experience you have.

[00:01:27] Mary Richards: Sure. So I’ve been a yoga practitioner for over 30 years, and a teacher for over 20. I hold a master’s of science in yoga therapy from Maryland University of Integrative Health, which is really a formalization of my three decades of practice, experience, and training. And the emphasis is really on, from my perspective, the individualization of yoga.

Science informed practice to facilitate folks comfort and ease in living their lives in their bodies. Hmm. And then I’m also what’s called a certified yoga therapist and a member of the International Association of Yoga Therapists. Which is the professional organization for folks of my ilk, and then I’m what’s called an experienced E-RYT, an experienced registered yoga teacher with Yoga Alliance at the 500-hour level.

Though I’ve had way more than 500 hours of training and I’ve been teaching for so long. So the E-RYT is just a designation that Yoga Alliance uses to differentiate different levels of experience. And it, again, it’s not a certifying organization, but it’s a professional registry. Okay. And then I’m also what’s called a YACEP, a Yoga Alliance Certified Education Provider.

So I am cleared, if you will, with Yoga Alliance to offer continuing education to my fellow professionals in the field, as well as other movement and integrative health types.

[00:03:06] Natalie Garland: Okay, so how do you take all of that knowledge? Well, how does that knowledge and experience play into what you’re doing in your day-to-day?

Are you teaching classes? Are you like doing coaching? Like, what does that look like?

[00:03:18] Mary Richards: Well, I used to teach 19 classes a week.

Natalie Garland: Oh, wow.

Mary Richards: Which is insane, by the way. But I stopped doing that in 2016 because I really decided that the, what I wanted to focus on was professional education in the field.

There’s not a lot of science literacy, if you will, in the yoga world. And in fact, there’s a certain degree of science resistance.

[00:03:49] Natalie Garland: Mysticism.

[00:03:50] Mary Richards: Yes. And so I really turned my attention to focusing on things like, you know, anatomy, kinesiology, and what I like to call physical literacy movement – literacy in the context of the sea of gravity.

And so I no longer teach group classes in studios. What I do is I teach online extended courses like experiential anatomy, which is a 50-hour course that I offer. With my dear partners, Judith Hansen Lasseter and Lizzie Lasseter, and then a variety of other multi-week digital courses that help folks delve deeper into the various aspects of yoga practice from a place of science information.

And I also see folks privately and I have my first book coming out.

Derek Berkey: Oh, that’s fantastic.

Natalie Garland: That’s so exciting. What’s the book?

Mary Richards: My book is called Teach People, Not Poses: Lessons in Yoga, Anatomy, and Functional Movement to Unlock Body Intelligence. And it’s being published by Shambala, which I’d just like to point out, publishes His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Which knock my socks off. So, uh, that comes out August 29th. In fact, I just saw my back cover design today.

[00:05:12] Natalie Garland: Oh my gosh. That must feel so exciting.

[00:05:13] Mary Richards: It’s really exciting. I’ve wanted to write a book for decades, and this is really an introduction, if you will, to what I consider the fundamental body literacy and movement literacy information and skills that movement professionals need in their toolkit to facilitate safe and effective practice for folks who come to them on the mat.

Derek: So Mary, when you talk about movement professionals, I’m guessing that entails a wide range of people from anywhere from personal trainers to physical therapists. Can you kind of dive a little bit more into that and specifically how you can help people in those fields?

Mary: Yes. I love that question, Derek.

I see PTs, DPTs, Feldenkrais practitioners, Alexander Technique folks. Alexander Technique tends to be a bit more esoteric though if people work in the performing arts they’re familiar with it as well as Pilates instructors, massage therapists, rolfers, and other structural integration types.

And what I specifically focus on is, of course, how yoga and the physical exercises and the breathing practices, as well as the more contemplative AC aspects of practice like developing your concentration and meditation skills, can facilitate a whole-person approach to health, and in particular, I focus on how we need to understand movement in the context of gravity, because I don’t know if y’all have ever been in a yoga class yourselves.

Derek: Oh, yes, yeah.

Mary: Natalie and you both? Both of you have. Yes, so some of it is rather gravity-defying. Would you agree with that statement?

[00:07:00] Natalie Garland: A hundred percent.

Derek Berkey: No doubt, no doubt about it.

Natalie Garland: The only thing that’s not gravity defying in those classes for me is the sweat dripping off my face and hitting the mat very loudly while I hold that plank for way too long.

[00:07:09] Mary Richards: Yes, yes. So this is something that, you know, I’ve been in the field for decades now and we tend to have a bias toward end ranges of mobility. Without first establishing the fundamental body stabilization and joint stabilizing skills that are necessary to stand on our heads safely.

And so that’s what I do is I help folks identify structure, so specifically skeletal structure so that they don’t get lost in the weeds of soft tissue. Because it’s very easy to conflate a juicier, curvier bottom with a sway back. But when you understand the bony landmarks, where to look for the bony landmarks of the lumbo pelvic hip complex, you’re better prepared to actually understand how that person is standing in front of you and what adjustments they need to make in terms of, you know, width of base and their feet or muscle activation patterns so that they actually can abide in a state of ease and effortless effort.

[00:08:28] Natalie Garland: You know, it’s wild to hear you talk about this in such great detail and clearly you have a lot of knowledge and expertise to back these things up. I think that a lot of people kind of view yoga as this sort of a frou-frou mystic, like, you know, it’s all about “hummmmm” and “Namaste” and what I’m getting from you is that there’s just so much behind this and so much potential to like overall health.

And you know, we’re talking also about like how important movement is as you age and how those things tie in. Can you speak to that a little bit about the importance of these kinds of movements as we age, and how it benefits us to have that kind of body knowledge and movement.

[00:09:09] Mary Richards: Oh, Natalie, you’ve just made my heart sing with joy.

This is one of my favorite things to talk about because certainly there is a woo woo component in yoga. You know, you can spin your chakras like dinner plates if you want. You can let your free flag fly in that regard.

[00:09:26] Natalie Garland: Can you teach me that? I wanna knowhow to do that.

[00:09:28] Mary Richards: I can actually, but here’s the thing, in my experience, and I’ve been a teacher now for almost 23 years, what brings people to the mat is typically some sort of physical concern. Maybe they’ve got chronic low back pain, or they’ve had a knee replacement or a hip replacement, or you know, torn a rotator cuff, or they’re having difficulty managing their stress responses.

And why then add stress to folks already over full plates by asking them to do things that are inherently odd to the body. Standing on your head or doing downward-facing dog, where your head is below the plane of your heart, and what that signals to the nervous system is “Alert! Alert! The head is below the plane of the heart!”

Because we have all of these different built-in autopilot systems called righting reflexes that are designed to keep ourselves upright and our heads on a swivel so that we can take in information from our environment to make decisions. Right? You with me?

[00:10:45] Natalie Garland: Right. I’m with you.

[00:10:47] Mary Richards: And so what I think is so important for yoga professionals in particular is that we meet people where they are. Instead of trying to impose conformity with aesthetics of Asana. Asana are the physical poses of yoga.

Because when you look at a yoga book, and you know there are gazillions of them, what you’ll see typically is you’ll see a very slim person in what looks to be a very complex expression of body posture. And you both, you know, you both, Derek and Natalie, have been on yoga mats before and you’ve seen some of these expressions of posture, and they are difficult, and yet what is often not taught in class is just the fundamental nuts and bolts of abdominal stabilization.

And also then looking at people’s bony structure, again, their physical architecture so that we can individualize instructional requests for the person. Because the reality is, and I say this in my book as a mantra: everybody’s unique. Just like everyone else. And yoga came out of individualized instruction.

And so really, the group class model is an invention of modern times that really doesn’t correlate with the, you know, the millennia of tradition where practice was highly personalized to the person. And I believe by facilitating literacy in structural anatomy, and then the science of movement, again, in the context of gravity, we help folks co-create conditions where they can practice yoga poses safely for themselves.

[00:12:52] Natalie Garland: That’s really important I think. I think that it’s easy, especially if you enjoy fitness and you’re like, I’m gonna try yoga and like do one of those really cool poses and you like just start working on the pose.

Right? But I remember seeing a video some years ago that was like, really the things that you need to do in order to be able to execute that pose are not even close to what that pose looks like. There are these like basic stretches and movements that you need to do in order to be prepped, and it’s so easy to just get frustrated and be like, “Throw the mat out the window. I can’t do this anymore.”

[00:13:23] Mary Richards: Yes. And it discourages people because they’re moving too far, too fast. It increases the possibility for injury. And this is particularly important in yoga because yoga, Asana, the physical practice, is really, in my opinion, the only holistic system of health that uniquely targets the joint segments of the body. Because we’re asking people to sit in lotus pose, you know, with really, really deep knee flexion, and then their feet tucked on top of their thighs close to the hips.

Or we’re asking people to take arm and leg positions where they’re bound into those positions at end ranges of motion, and they may not have the neuromuscular training to actually handle that load and strain. So, for instance, if I’m gonna teach someone how to do downward-facing dog, which is that inverted V position, I wanna make sure that they can do at least 10 pushups.

Because the pelvis is the largest, heaviest region of the body, and in downward-facing dog, I’m asking my students to lift their pelvis up in the air, and much higher than their head, while their head is hanging down. So again, all of their righting reflexes, their kind of gravity positioning system in the body, which is called proprioception, is already on high alert.

And so I wanna establish the fundamental strength skills that people need so that they don’t jack up their shoulders or their low backs when they’re doing downward-facing dog.

Derek Berkey: You know, a lot of the stuff that you’ve touched on so far, it’s like little bells ringing in my ear. Cuz here at Invigor Medical, a big part of what our mission is, is to help people as they age, be able to live their best lives and be able to do the things that they want to do. And all the things you’re talking about, proprioception, strength, joint mobility, structural of the bones, you know, as we age, obviously, all those things like go down, and the more we can, the more we can do now to prevent those things.

And some of them are unavoidable, like osteoporosis or just like the natural kyphosis of when bodies start to hunch over and they start to cave in and things become harder to do on a regular basis. I’d be curious are, have you worked with any clients that are aging, and what is kind of your method or what is your approach to, helping people optimize their lives and their movement patterns for longevity?

Mary Richards: Yes. So Derek, I’d like to say, that, you know, aging is real, you know, but one of the things we can do, especially with yoga Asana, is we can slow progression. And my oldest yoga students, I’ve worked with folks that are 96. And still able to get down to the floor and up off of the floor. You know, I’ve worked with them for 20 years and preserved that foundational functional mobility because the reality of movement training, whatever it is, is, you know, use it or lose it.

Right? And the way that we can facilitate usage through the life cycle is to make sure that we’re not overloading too far, too fast, too hard, but we’re really pacing ourselves and doing a little bit every day. And this is the key, you know, consistency, I believe, is the highest form of discipline.

And we often have an idea, you know, we’re our own worst enemies where we think we need to go to an hour-long session at the gym or a 90-minute yoga class to benefit when the reality is, and the exercise science backs me up on this, is 10 minutes a day. Little movement breaks throughout the day has a cumulative effect that can slow the progression of loss of bone density.

I’ve worked with lots of folks with osteoporosis, osteopenia, with bilateral lumbar fusion, you know, rods in their necks and their low backs, with scoliosis, with, you know, cy rinks in their spine, things like that, in their spinal cord.

Natalie Garland: And my back hurts just thinking about all of this.

Mary Richards: Right? It’s, but see, it doesn’t have to be a tale of woe. And especially as we age, it’s very important that we do weight-bearing exercise to preserve what we have.

And, you know, research is increasingly demonstrating that we can, you know, gain some muscle mass by doing resistance exercise through, you know, body weight, which is what yoga Asana is, is body weight-based exercise.

We can actually, you know, build strength and muscle even if we’re 80 years old. As long as we’re consistent and we don’t overwork. Now, we also don’t wanna underwork. You know?

[00:18:57] Natalie Garland: Right. Well you mentioned something that we wanted to touch on anyway, which is, you know, just the regular immobility of most of our lives sitting at desks and all of that.

So what are some tips or tricks that you could give to those listeners that are, you know, in a job. Where they don’t require a lot of movement and they’re sitting at a desk, what are some basic things that they could do daily at their desk and how often to really help improve their movement and their bone density and their overall longevity of health?

[00:19:25] Mary Richards: Oh, this is one of my favorite things to talk about. Yay!

Derek Berkey: That’s why we brought you on.

Mary Richards: Cause I know lots of desk drivers. I live in the Washington, DC Metropolitan area and I see a lot of folks who, you know, will work 12- to 14-hour days and they don’t get up. They don’t hydrate, you know, they don’t feed themselves, they’re not sleeping well, and there are so many things that we can do just sitting at our desks that don’t require special equipment or getting a sweat on, for instance, just doing heel raises.

Setting a timer on your desktop or your, you know, your smartwatch or your phone that once an hour you’re gonna do three minutes of, just sitting at your desk with your shoes on, heel raises working the calves. People underestimate how metabolically active the calf muscles are in the body and how integrally important those muscles are for our balance and our mobility.

Derek Berkey: You know, we actually had a guest previously on the podcast say that exact same thing, and there’s actually studies behind this that if you essentially just do these calf phrases throughout the day, that it can actually have a significant impact on your metabolism, and you can burn like significantly more calories throughout the day.

Natalie Garland: How did I not know this?

Derek Berkey: It’s very impactful. Yeah. There’s actually scientific studies about this that we’ll have to like post with the episode, but yeah, it’s very, it’s pretty cool stuff.

[00:21:00] Natalie Garland: Well, you know what I’m doing? As soon as we are done recording, I’m setting that timer.

Derek Berkey: I’m doing it now. Oh, right now I’m doing it right now.

Natalie Garland: Me too. Cause I’m wearing heels so I’ve always got the heels on.

[00:21:08] Mary Richards: Throw in some compression socks with that, you know?

[00:21:11] Natalie Garland: Oh my gosh. Yeah. I’m gonna be setting that timer for when I am at my desk to be doing that, cuz that’s just something I never would’ve thought of I’ve done before. Kind of like the cat cow at the desk when I start to feel all that kind of stiffness come in, but to me, I’m usually thinking more about stretching in those moments. I’m not really thinking about muscle activation.

[00:21:31] Mary Richards: Yes. And stretching is great, you know, clearly as a yoga person, I have a bias towards stretching. But here’s the thing, we often get things out of order, and we stretch when we actually need strength.

And, one of the governing principles that I rely on as both a yoga teacher and a yoga therapist who does specialize in the therapeutic application of the practice, is I focus on stability before mobility at all times. Because stability is the key to safe and efficient movement.

And so, one of the simple things we can do as well is after, you know, 45 to 50 minutes of sitting, because we’re really not bio-designed to sit for extended periods of time. Again, you have that timer and you just stand up. You stand up, you can even do squats into your desk chair, as long as it’s not gonna roll away from you, you know, and you put your hands on your desk and you can do standing heel raises.

You can just shift your weight from side to side, do a-b duction leg lifts. Abduction leg lifts – where you’re just lifting your leg out to the side. Those things have a profound impact on, you know, venous return to the heart, our efficiency of breath, all of these things that are necessary to maintain a felt sense of vitality.

And again, we don’t have to get a sweat on, but just standing up for, you know, a few minutes every hour and doing some basic exercises. No one’s even gonna necessarily know you’re doing them. And if they do, you invite them, you know, to your world. Because everyone benefits. Because here’s the other thing: Motion is lotion.

You know, and we get stiff and we wanna stretch when we’re seated for an extended period of time because our body has stagnated. It’s like, this is hard, you know? We rely on the little movements of the spine to try and support our seated posture, and that’s not even their job.

You know, that’s really the deep abdominal structures, especially the iliopsoas, these postural control muscles that need to be working at a low level of, and that’s what they’re designed to do. They’re muscles of endurance, to sustain our posture. And so changing how we sit is important too. Like most of us sit in a way that our hips and our knees are on the same plane, they’re at the same height.

And that cuts us off from our deep abdominal stabilization systems, when really the way we need to be sitting is with our hips about two inches higher than our knees.

Derek Berkey: Now, you’re making me self-conscious.

[00:24:29] Natalie Garland: I know, I’m like, I was like, ok, I’m looking at my chair right now. Can I raise this?

[00:24:35] Mary Richards: But you’ll feel the difference if you do, just check. If you just move to the front edge of your seat and find your, what we call in yoga, your sitting bones or your ischial tuberosities. You sit on those bones rather than the soft flesh of the buttocks, and automatically you’ll feel your belly cavity open up a bit and your chest lift. Yes?

[00:24:57] Natalie Garland: Oh, I’m just thinking of anybody watching this podcast and seeing me and Derek just like slightly, you can, I can like see you out of the corner in my eye and I can feel myself like just making these adjustments as you talk and I’m like becoming aware of how my body’s sitting and moving, and I’m just wondering how it’s gonna look on the recording.

Derek Berkey: It is gonna look pretty interesting.

Natalie Garland: But I am, that also makes me excited for people to listen to it and whether they’re driving in their car or whatever’s happening and they start to notice and think about, because would you, you know, would you say that one of the best things that people can do to get started is to become aware of their bodies and what they’re doing in their regular daily movements?

[00:25:32] Mary Richards: Oh, yes, absolutely. The first thing, and this ties to yoga practice directly. So yoga is an eight-limbed path, and Asana, the physical practice, is just one of those limbs, and two of the limbs are concentration and meditation, and concentration comes before meditation for very specific reasons, which is that we need to cultivate our attentive discipline to notice how we feel here and now.

And so just paying attention to what’s alive in our, in our bodies, our somatosensory awareness, is the first step to wellness, in my opinion. And so paying attention to how we sit, how we stand, how we walk, how we talk, all of these things can lead us to make different choices in, you know, how you adjust your car seat, for instance, because driving is, can wreak havoc on sacroiliac joints, for instance, because we’re in a position of rotation.

Because you know, we have our right foot forward on the accelerator in using the brake, and that requires enough resistance that it can imbalance our sacroiliac. And so adjusting our car seat so that our bum is higher than our knees is the first thing that we can do. And the other thing that’s really helpful is to take a small towel or a washcloth and roll it up into a tube and place that vertically behind our left hip behind our left sacroiliac joint.

So it balances the pelvis when we’re driving. Especially if you sit in traffic or you drive a manual transmission, which is, you know, a millennial and Gen Z anti-theft device.

[00:27:37] Natalie Garland: Anti-theft device. I love that. Oh man.

[00:27:40] Mary Richards: You know, these are small things that we can do that have a profound effect on our felt sense of comfort.

And this is the whole organizing principle behind the physical practices of yoga, is we can’t actually learn to concentrate and meditate unless we’re first comfortable and steady in our bodies.

Derek Berkey: Yeah. You know, these two additional branches that you just talked about are obviously very cognitive in nature.

Like they have very much to do with the mind and the mental plane. How have you seen these branches, because I know this is a large part of your work, how have you seen these branches affect overall mental health as people age? What are, because you’ve worked with clients that have lived up to be 96, what are the effects that you’ve seen on, those types of clients?

Mary Richards: An acceptance higher comfort level, if you will, with the actual aging process. It’s not a catastrophe. And this comes with, you know, chronic conditions related to aging, you know, I’ve worked with folks with really severe hyperkyphosis, you know, the very rounded, upper back, you know, hunchback of Notre Dame sort of effect.

Derek Berkey: It’s such a hard condition to deal with.

Mary Richards: Oh, and the forward head position that comes from that, because again, the body’s trying to keep the gaze level so that you can take in information from your surroundings. So folks develop that crane neck. Which causes all kinds of problems. And, to a certain extent, we can ameliorate some of the musculoskeletal discomfort that comes with those conditions, but it’s not likely that we’re gonna be able to correct them, because we’ve come too late to the party, you know?

But what we can do, especially when we help people learn to pay attention to the sensations and actions of their breath, and then the thoughts that accompany the sensations of their breath is it shifts their relationship with their bodily state in such a way that it’s a type of enemy imaging, if you know what I mean.

So we can make friends with ourselves as we are right now, and once we become friendly with ourselves, in my experience, that tends to enliven wonderful changes in our self-relationship where we’re no longer shaming and blaming ourselves for how we got into this situation in the first place, but instead we cultivate a sense of agency and autonomy that allows us to believe that what we’re doing is good enough and we can continue doing it.

[00:30:27] Natalie Garland: I love hearing you talk about all these subjects, cuz not only is it clear that you have such a wide range of knowledge in this, but also that you’re so passionate about it. And so it’s just, as you’re talking, I’m like thinking, I’m like, how did she even like get started here? Like, did you just like go to a yoga class one day and you’re like, “This is it, this is the game changer.”

[00:30:49] Mary Richards: No. Yeah. Okay. So do, I’ll tell you this story. It’s funny, I think, so in my previous life, I actually worked in nuclear non-proliferation for the U.S. government.

[00:31:03] Natalie Garland: Wow. That’s not what I thought you were gonna say.

[00:31:06] Mary Richards: I know. So I was an NCAA athlete. I was a track and field athlete. I threw shot put, discus, jav, hammer… loved the weight room.

[00:31:17] Natalie Garland: She’s so cool. She can call it jav. I’m like, we can’t call it that.

[00:31:21] Mary Richards: And so I was always very physical. You know, I’d started competitive athletics as a very small child, and I was a really kind of precocious reader, which my dad in particular really facilitated with me because he was a literature major from the University of Virginia.

And, so he introduced me when I was about 14 years old to the seminal text of yoga called the Bhagavad Gita, which is the Song of Krishna, the Song of the Lord. And I really just connected with that. And so I’d always had a proclivity, if you will, a propensity toward yoga philosophy, and Buddhism in particular.

And I go off to undergrad and I major in international affairs with a concentration in U.S. National Security Studies and a minor in Russian. And I lived in the Soviet Union right after the Berlin Wall came down as a language immersion program. And I had a job waiting for me when I got out of undergrad.

And this job necessitated that I work in a secure communications vault. And I worked shifts, and those shifts changed every seven to 10 days. And so, you know, it’s not like if you’re working the 11:00 PM to 8:00 AM shift, you could take a nap at 3:00 AM, you know. There’s a reason why we were there 24/7.

And so, I was the youngin’ in the, the skiff, and I worked with a foreign service officer and you know, so there was adult supervision, and I was always rolling around on the floor when it was possible doing pushups and planks and leg lifts and monster walks and all this stuff to stay awake. And one evening my watch partner, who had been posted in India, said to me, “Hey, have you ever tried yoga?”

And I was mid-something on the floor and I pop up to a seated position, I said, “No, but I read the Bhagavad Gita and the Dalai Lama about…” you know, fire hosed her and she said, “Okay, youngin’, I’m gonna bring in a V…” This is the days of VHS tapes. This is back in 1992, and she brings in this VHS tape called the Unworkout with Dixie Carter.

Dixie Carter was on this fabulous show called Designing Women with Annie Potts and Delta Burke, and it was about this interior design practice in Atlanta, Georgia. And they were, you know, saucy women. Sort of like middle-aged Golden Girls, if you will. Well, and it turns out Dixie Carter was a trained viniyoga teacher, and viniyoga is a specific lineage of yoga that probably the emminent voice in the United States for viniyoga is Gary Kraftsow, who’s just fantastic.

And so she gave me this tape and I wore it out, literally demagnetized it, I watched it so much and I went down one day to the desk, the South Asian affairs desk, cuz if anyone’s gonna know about India, it’s those folks. And I said, “So I’m really interested in yoga. Is there any sort of place I can go to buy books about it?

And the person at the desk said, “Yes, there’s this bookstore in Springfield, Virginia called Nataraj Books.” Nataraj means dancer in Sanskrit. It’s the King Dancers bookstore. And I was like, “Sweet! I know exactly where that shopping center is.” And I go over there and I made the fellow’s sales year. I literally bought like 40 books on yoga, and one of them that I bought was B. K. S. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga, which is kind of one of the Bibles, if you will, of modern postural yoga practice.

And I’m kind of autodidactic by nature. And he had in the back of the book a 365-day course of practice. And I was like, “Sweet, here’s a map.” And so, that’s how I began. And then I would go up to, you know, there weren’t many yoga studios back then. This is the early nineties. It’s not like now where you throw a rock and you hit a yoga studio, you know?

And so I would go up to Bethesda, Maryland, which if you’ve ever been in the DC Metropolitan area, that might as well be London because of traffic. And I would take a 90-minute metro ride to go to classes at this studio in Iyengar’s lineage. And that’s how I got started. And I would go to classes, you know, on my days off.

And, you know, I wore this tape out from my colleague and I just never looked back. And then in oh, 2000 I was in a yoga class and the teacher, and I saw this teacher every week, usually twice a week, came up to me after class one day and said, “Hey, have you ever thought of teaching yoga?” And I said, “No, I haven’t.”

You know, cause I think I’m funny. And she said, “That’s exactly why you can teach: no ego.” And I was like, “Really?” I mean, yeah, I did gymnastics as a kid and I swam competitively for 14 years, and I was a thrower. And in undergrad and all that, I’ve always been a jock. I played on the women’s rugby team. I was the number eight, the starting number eight.

I’ve always been, I’ve always had a high level of physicality. I’m a, to this day, a dirt worshiping, tree hugging hiker, and, she was like, “I’m telling you. You’re gonna teach for the rest of your life,” and here I am, you know, 23, you know, 23 years later and I have not stopped teaching.

Derek Berkey: So Mary, another question kind of to continue this story.

Over that 23 years, obviously you’ve learned a lot, you know, even before, you know, soaking up a lot of knowledge. But over the course of that 23 years, how did your practice of, and teaching of yoga change? And at the very beginning of the episode, you talked about how you had to battle some misconceptions about yoga being, you know, “woo woo” and, and having to fight against kind of a resistance within the yoga community of science-based tools.

Can you talk about how you were able to get to the point where you are now?

Mary Richards: Oh, sure. Yeah. So when I first, I feel like I should apologize to all of my students when I first started teaching, cause I very much taught according to the rules of practice that I had internalized and that had been repeated to me for over a decade.

And I took those rules about how Asana yoga practice was supposed to look, and I followed them as close to the letter as I could, even when it caused injury for me. But I had this belief that certainly, you know, my yoga teachers, many of whom had been teaching for as long as I had been alive or longer, knew better than me, and I gave away a lot of my power to them.

And so when I first started teaching, I was very rigid and very much, “This is how we practice plank pose, and we practice triangle pose, you know, like we’re in between panes of glass, and your front heel bisects the arch of your back foot exactly.” You know, if you’re eight years old, you can get away with that, but at some point you have to understand you have a sacrum and you need to respect your skeletal width, you know?

And so I got injured a lot because I was a yoga teacher’s nightmare. I was strong, flexible, and determined. And that was very much the way I taught and I was very, this pains me to a certain degree to say, I was very successful at it. I had always had full classes. I was very, I was celebrated for my ability to recite these rules of practice and also to display them in action.

And what happened was, I had a couple of really serious joint injuries as a result, a direct result, of hands-on assists, in two very common yoga poses. Teacher tore my right rotator cuff, when I had my arm, my shoulders and extension, so my hands were behind me and the teacher came up behind me.

So I had my hands in prayer, prayerful mudra, behind my body in practicing this pose, and the teacher came up behind me and forced my elbows up. And I heard, we heard my rotator pop, my superspinatus, and I unleashed a torrent of profanity that my brother, who was in the Navy, was truly would, he would’ve bowed down to me cuz it was quite painful.

And then couple years later I was in a lunge type of pose. And the, the rule, if you will, was that, when you’re in this lunge pose, your front thigh, the lunging leg, is parallel to the floor, and the instructor came up to me and forcefully, externally rotated my front hip to bring me past 90 degrees and tore my labrum. My hip labrum.

You know, that lip of cartilage that helps hold the head of your thigh bone in the hip socket. And I was set up for that injury, not so much because the person was like an NFL linebacker, but because I had been overtaxing those tissues for so long at that point, by abiding by these rules of aesthetics rather than function. And those injuries, they were just huge wake-up calls for me because I kept asking myself, “I’m doing everything, you know, air quotes, “right”. I’m doing everything I’m supposed to be doing. I’m praised for this. I’m pulled out in front of classes. This is how you do this pose.”

And yet I was getting hurt all of the time. And so what happened was my regular teacher said to me one day, we were practicing a forearm balancing pose where I was literally standing on my forearms, you know, doing a handstand, if you will, but on my forearms.

And she had tied my arms together at a certain width. And I said, “Oh my gosh, this hurts so much. You know, this rotator cuff is still bothering me. I need more space.” And she yelled at me in front of the class and said, you know, literally said, “Shut up! This is how the pose is done. You know how the pose is done. Get upside down now.”

And I kind of snapped, if you will. And I said, “No, this hurts. I’m not gonna do it.” And she said to me after class, she was like, “Listen, if you’re gonna persist in this anatomy stuff, you need to go see Judith Hanson Lasater.” Judith co-founded Yoga Journal. She’s a PT. She’s been teaching now for about 54 years.

I actually co-teach with her now. Which is one of the greatest privileges of my life, and she’s my dear friend and mentor. And it just so happened, I guess I have kind of instant karma, that Judith was doing a weekend workshop in Charlottesville, Virginia, which is about 110 miles south of me, on the shoulder, a four-day workshop on anatomy and kinesiology of the shoulder

And I was like, “Fine, I will go to that workshop,” and I did, and I haven’t looked back. Because that workshop, it was the first time any teacher or coach had asked for my consent to touch and waited to receive my yes or no. And it was the first person who spoke to me in a way that I understood as a former NCAA athlete, which is that, you know, if you’re gonna throw a shot put for instance, you don’t hold your shoulder blade down and then try to put the shot; you actually throw from your shoulder blade, from your scapula.

Which makes so much sense that you want the joint cavity oriented in the direction that you want the limb to move, in retrospect. Yet, in yoga we’re told all the time, for instance, in downward-facing dog, where we’re upside down in a closed chain, our hands and feet planted on the mat. We are told to pull our shoulder blades the opposite direction that our arms are positioned.

And this is how we get hurt. Because we’re creating schizophrenogenic conditions in the joint. We’re separating the joint cavity from the joint convexity, which violates the fundamental principle of joint movement, which is called the Law of Concave Convex motion, which basically states we achieve normal, maximal movement when the concavity moves over and around the convexity.

In other words, when the cave of the joint is moving over and around with the rounded knob of the limb. And so it was just such a light bulb for me, this workshop. And I had also been told, “Oh, you have a sway back. You have a sway back.”

Well, I don’t have a sway back. I have a backpacker’s bottom. I’ve got great glutes. You know, I mean, to this day, even at 53 with a titanium hip, I can still push 275 pounds on a leg sled for reps. Cuz I have great glutes. But people were confusing my soft tissue for structure and telling me to tuck my tailbone, tuck my tailbone, tuck my tailbone.

And of course the problem with that, when you’re in a standing posture is that unwedges you at your sacroiliac joints and takes your abdominal muscles out of the stabilization equation.

[00:46:50] Natalie Garland: Wow.

[00:46:52] Mary Richards: So it creates all of these problems. So all of these rules that we are perpetuating in yoga actually have no bearing on anatomical or kinesiological reality.

And so because of these injuries, I went back to school. And I started taking, you know, anatomy classes, comparative anatomy and physiology, kinesiology, clinical kinesiology, pathophys, all of these things. I was originally on a DPT track, a doctor of physical therapy track. But, for me, I was like, I don’t wanna be a PT, I’m a yoga teacher through and through.

I love this practice because it’s not just about physical exercise. It’s also about training our breath and training our attention and developing our concentration and our meditation and understanding our ethics and our values. And so I eventually ended up getting a Master’s of Science in yoga therapy.

And it changed, you know, plus when you’re working with 96-year-olds, and I had private clients in their 80s, you know, it was very clear to me that I didn’t wanna break them. And they were also a lot smarter than me because they had lived in their bodies longer. And what I realized was I really needed to learn to listen to people.

And to give them the space to actually communicate with me. And by learning to do that with others, it taught me to do it for myself. So now I’m a much nicer yoga teacher. You’re still gonna do planks with me. But I’m gonna be much nicer about it.

[00:48:33] Natalie Garland: It just kills me that that instructor said, “If you’re gonna focus on this anatomy stuff…” It’s like, oh, “anatomy stuff.” Cuz that’s not important.

[00:48:45] Derek Berkey: I would’ve told her, I would’ve told her, “No, I’m gonna stay at home today.”

[00:48:52] Mary Richards: But you know, here’s the thing, in yoga standards, and I was on the teaching standards committee, the Digital Standards Committee for Yoga Alliance, you know, the standards are so loose and so they’re better now than, you know, from years ago.

But you could count chakra anatomy, like these vortices of energy that correlate with different regions of our bodies, that would count as anatomy. Like what? That’s an interesting idea. It’s interesting conceptually, but it’s not gonna help folks with low back pain or hip pain, and it’s not gonna help folks figure out how to safely position their knees when they’re doing lunges.

And so I believe that there’s such a necessity in the yoga world in particular, but honestly also in Pilates, in Feldonkrais and in heck, you know, physical education classes in K through 12, for actual anatomically realistic instruction. Let’s teach people the names of their parts, where they’re located, and what those parts indicate is possible in terms of our movement.

[00:50:17] Natalie Garland: So I’m curious, what advice would you give, whether it’s someone who’s getting a little on in years and is looking to find a way to age with some more physicality and flexibility, or someone who might be a little younger in their 20s or 30s, who wants to start now to do the long path? What advice would you give to those two groups?

Maybe it’s the same, maybe it’s different, I don’t know, on where to start now that we’ve covered all of this, you know, what’s the benefits of yoga, but also so much more in anatomy and all of these deeper ideas and lessons that you have within it. Where do we begin?

[00:50:55] Mary Richards: Yeah, so that’s, that’s a great question.

Most of us get hurt when we’re younger. You know, when we think we are invincible. And, I have a 22-year-old son and a 19-year-old daughter, and I’m constantly, you know, saying to them, “You’ve only got, you know, so much in those golgi tendon receptors,” you know, so be sure you’re taking you’re, feeding yourself well and all that.

But this is one of the great things that Yoga Alliance offers is you can go online to yogaalliance.org and look up, put in your zip code and find the yoga studios around you. And you can also look at ratings for the studio. You can go to their website and find out who their teachers are and see what folks say about them.

And I’m not saying that, you know, reviews are everything, but they’re helpful. And in particular, what we want is we really wanna start in a beginner’s class. Even if you are really fit and bendy and strong, you still want to start in a level one beginner’s, gentle, class because yoga is going to ask you to make movements that you’ve likely not done before with any frequency.

And so that’s particularly important, and especially for folks that are older, they wanna stick to classes that are unheated. Don’t go to a hot Vinyasa class. I mean, I could talk about… That’s its own conversation.

Natalie Garland: I don’t like them.

Mary Richards: Yeah. Well, here’s the thing, you know, folks, you don’t detox when you’re sweating, you’re just dehydrated, you know. I hear so many, “Oh, I went to this class and it was 105 degrees and I totally detoxed.” I’m like, “No, you just, you know, you need electrolytes for god’s sake, you know, that’s not how sweat works. That’s what your liver and your kidneys do,” you know? So is detoxification.

So don’t go to the hardest class. Go to the easiest one for you, and especially for older folks, and if they’ve had any sort of joint intervention like an ACL reconstruction or you know, Tommy John surgery, you know? Something like that, talk to a physical therapist. Talk to a physical therapist and find out what’s contraindicated for you specifically and what it is you should look for in a yoga class.

Because the reality is yoga is really becoming commonplace, and we hear about it in professional journals from specific medical journals to, you know, pop culture to Time Magazine or Yoga Journal, so people know about it. And healthcare providers, especially those that are involved in physical medicine, are gonna have some opinions about it. Get those opinions. And be realistic.

If you have difficulty putting on your socks and shoes in the morning, maybe you wanna look at a chair yoga class. This is the thing. Let’s be, you know, compassionate toward ourselves. Because the reality is, you know, we start where we are and we go from there. So let’s be reasonable in our assessment of where we are today and where we want to go, let that evolve as you gain familiarity with a movement system like yoga.

[00:54:49] Natalie Garland: That’s wonderful. I’m wondering also, and I love the website that you mentioned, to go and look for studios. As we’re, as people are looking for yoga instructors within these studios, are there any specific classifications or designations or credentials that they should look out for when taking classes?

Could you tell us what are, you know, cuz I’m sure there’s probably private credentials you can get or whatever. So what is kind of the golden ticket to know, okay, this instructor really knows their stuff.

[00:55:20] Mary Richards: Yeah, you really wanna look for someone who has all the initials after their name, you know? The E-RYT 500, for instance. That’s someone that has a higher level of training. You wanna look for someone, in my opinion, that’s got at least 10 years of teaching experience. Because one of the things that I particularly focus on is I like to share with my colleagues how to work with beginners because teaching beginners is the hardest thing.

You know, cuz you’re often dealing with folks who have stuff going on in their bodies, in their psycho-emotional space, and they may or may not be able to get up and down the stairs with ease. And so you really want a more experienced teacher. So you know, let’s say you find your local studio, and the studio is gonna have a list of “meet our teachers.”

Look up those teachers on Yoga Alliance, okay? And see what are their credentials? Where did they do their training? How many hours have they been teaching? Because all of that is included at Yoga Alliance’s site. Now, I’ll tell you some of us who are long in the tooth, we aren’t so great about updating our hours.

I mean, I think I’ve got over 20,000 listed, you know. But that’s good. You know, you want someone who at least has that E, that experienced RYT after their name, and ideally 500 hours or more, and, as a bonus, you’d like to see someone who’s also a member of IAYT, the International Association of Yoga Therapists.

Cause again, they’re gonna have a different layer of training. Now, not everyone is gonna be a structural yoga person like me. You’re gonna have some folks who really focus on restorative practices, or specifically something called restorative yoga, where you, you know, set yourself up in supported positions of comfort and ease, and you do progressive relaxation, for instance.

You know, so look people up, read their bios, and then go observe a class and just be straight with the, you know. You can go in and say, “Hey, you know, I’m new to yoga. I’d like to, is it okay? I’m happy to play the class fee,” and sit in the back corner, and see if you dig it, because you may be like, “This isn’t for me.”

Or you may be, “Oh yes, I wanna try this.” So, you know, take a yoga mat and sit in the corner and see if it’s, you know, something you wanna experience for yourself, but do your due diligence.

Natalie Garland: Good advice.

Derek Berkey: Awesome. Well, hey, Mary, this has been a wonderful conversation. Where can people find you? And I know you mentioned at the beginning of your podcast that there’s, at the beginning of the podcast, that there’s a book coming out, when is that coming out and where can people go to find that?

Mary Richards: Awesome, thank you. Yeah. August 29th. Teach People, not Poses, and it’s on amazon.com and bookshop.org, my publisher, Shambala and I have a website, yogawithmaryrichards.com. I also do a podcast myself with my partner in crime, Lizzie Lasater, called Somatic Self-Care, and you can find that on iTunes.

And, you can find me on Instagram. Yoga with Mary Richards, and you’ll see pictures of my dog and cat there. I’m not gonna lie.

[00:58:57] Natalie Garland: Mary, this has been so wonderful. I feel like I even learned so much and I feel inspired to get back into yoga more than I have been, and there was just so much useful information, especially for me to think about.

Cuz I tend to get into like, “Let’s do the big poses,” and you’re just like, really beautiful reminder of how basic movements can still be really impactful. So thank you so much for taking the time to sit with us this evening.

[00:59:24] Mary Richards: Thank you all so much, Natalie and Derek. I’ve really enjoyed this immensely.

Derek and Natalie: All right. Awesome. Bye-bye. Bye-bye. Thank you so much.

For more information on the show, go to Invigormedical.com

Podcast Guests

Mary Richards
E-RYT 500, YACEP

Podcast Guests

Natalie Garland
Host
Derek Berkey
Host
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