jules mitchell: the structure & function of yoga (interview)

Jules Mitchell in action - photo by Paul R. Giunta

Jules Mitchell has a no-nonsense, pragmatic and investigative approach to yoga. The Yaapana Yoga mentor has a background in engineering and mathematics, and she’s currently working on a Master’s Degree in Exercise Science, with a focus on yoga and injuries. She spends her weekends leading anatomy courses for yoga teachers and she wrote the Leeann Carey Yoga advanced teacher training Anatomy program.

A long-time student of Leeann Carey (the founder of Yaapana Yoga), Jules describes her approach as “a teaching style rooted in therapeutics that blends compassion and discipline.” In this email interview, the Los Angeles based teacher tells us why she prefers teaching private yoga classes over large-scale group classes, her fascination with the function of yoga poses and complexities of the human body, and her work as director of the South Bay Yoga Conference.

I understand that you’re doing your master’s thesis on the subject of yoga and injuries. Could you tell me how you became interested in this?

Because I suffered some overused injuries, of course!  After about 5 years of a vigorous flow practice with dangerous but creative transitions and sequences designed to exhaust the body, I noticed that my left knee, my right shoulder and my right hamstring attachment were aggravated during and after class.  I powered through it, thinking that they yoga would heal it.  I never considered that perhaps the yoga was the source of it.

Eventually, the pain became chronic and I had to take a serious look at what I was doing.  In all those years, yoga was my everyday form of fitness.  But because yoga exists in the context that it is good for you, we look over the fact that it is movement and in any movement there lies the potential for injury.  I had a sports injury from my yoga practice.  Naturally, as soon as I recognized this and verbalized it to students and other teachers, I started hearing similar stories.  Clearly, I wasn’t alone in this experience and it was time to take a look at what was happening in the yoga community.

You choose to teach small classes and private lessons, rather than filling a room with as many students as possible. Why have you chosen this approach? What gets lost in large-scale classes? 

Oh, those large-scale classes.  I love them too.  They energy is incredible – sharing the space with so many great yogis is exhilarating.  But I find I am much more useful to my students when there are fewer.   After about 20 or so students, some of the students get away with hiding out (unless there are effective assistants).

If I can’t connect with each student in my class at least a few times in each class, I feel I have done them a disservice.  Private lessons are my favorite since I can really work with a students unique body and get feedback. In a one on one session, we communicate verbally as well as visually and kinesthetically and I love to hear what a student really has to say about a pose.

How many times have you been to a class and it’s time to do a pose that pains you, but you do it anyway, just to do what the group is going and not disrupt the class?  It’s amazing what regular verbal feedback does for you as a teacher.  You have to operate at the highest level.

Your background is in engineering and mathematics – how does this inform your approach to anatomy and biomechanics? What are the common elements?

Biomechanics is no different than mechanics, mathematically speaking.  Engineers use the same formulas as we do.  But humans have an ability that buildings do not  – we can adjust microscopically with the breath and mind.  So while they are similar, they are not at all similar.  It is the unique quality of life that makes it much more interesting, and more complicated than engineering.  These complexities of human movement are central to my teaching.

In a recent interview on The Healer’s Way, you said that you “teach the individual student rather than the pose.” How do you do this?

This is one of the mottos over at Leeann Carey Yoga.  Those are Leeann’s words.  We can all agree that no two bodies are the same and no two bodies look the same in any asana.  This means that while one person might benefit from a block, another might not.  When you teach the poses, you teach the aesthetics of the pose – like where to place limbs, what joints actions are involved, how to set up the props, etc. – all of which are an important aspect of teaching.

But when you teach the individual student, you become much more interested in the function of the pose and so your teaching becomes an infinite expression of variations and options.  Leeann always says in her trainings, “Let’s figure it out.” To me, this means each time someone does a pose, it is a new experience.

Your body is unique at any given time, due to all the moments in life leading up to that particular moment.  Your forward bends today are not yesterday’s forward bends.  Therefore, how you set up the pose should begin with function in mind, so that it can best serve you in that moment.

What is it about Leeann Carey’s Yaapana method that appeals to you?

Yaapana Yoga is smart yoga.  It allows time for the body to warm up with short holds and a large range of movements. Then you explore the powerful poses with support. This can be a standing pose, a backbend, an inversion, anything really.  But with support (the wall, a chair, ropes, anything really) you can hold the pose longer and get feedback.

If you’re in a hurry, you will miss the beautiful intricacies of each pose.  So we set up the props and the poses smartly, and then go in and watch, feel, see what happens as the moments pass.  You are always surprised what fatigues first or what takes over.  Never a dull moment.  Then, the final segment of the class is restorative.  Aaaahh…..enough said.

You’re the founder and director of the South Bay Yoga Conference? What is the mission and purpose of this event?

The mission is twofold.  First, we are bringing the yoga community together.  We are creating a conversation among yoga teachers who might otherwise never know each other.  We can only serve our community well, if we work together. So all styles of yoga will be represented and we are selecting presenters all aspects of the wellness community, including Alexander Technique, Reiki, Acupuncture, Feldenkrais Method and more.  We must know each other in order to support each other.

Secondly, we are bringing yoga to the community at large.  We support local and regional for-profit and not-for-profit organizations in the form of ticket donations that they can raffle or auction to raise money for their goals.  In many cases, the supporters of the organizations are new to yoga and they will have an opportunity to attend a large scale yoga event with such a variety of talented healing arts professionals, surely something will speak to them.

The August 2012 event will be our first. Our stand is health, wellness, yoga, and love for everyone.

  1. What a great interview! I had never heard of Yaapana Yoga! I teach gentle yoga and I think there are several videos on LeeAnn Carey’s site that would be very informative! I’m so glad that no matter how long I teach I’ll always be a “student” of yoga and I can tell that Jules Mitchell practices studentship as well! Thanks for sharing this : )

  2. I love this interview! I teach mostly small classes and totally agree with what Jules says.

  3. Thanks for the comments and the the support. I’m happy to hear there are others out there that think like we do at Leeann Carey Yoga.

  4. Amazing. Exactly the reflection I’m going through… large class vs small group or private teaching. Thanks for this light on yoga!

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