In Theresa Elliott’s modest and bright Crown Hill yoga studio, she demonstrates concepts with Barbie, Ken, and Gumby dolls. The skeleton in the corner is named Slim. In this interview she reflects on autism, the vestibular system, and what she fondly calls “the animal.”
In your teaching, you often refer to taking care of “the animal.” What is the animal, and why is it important?
The animal is the instinctual mover. It’s the primal part of us, and, for many people, it is not fully developed or listened to, because maybe they just didn’t move much as kids, or they watched a lot of T.V. Those are just a couple reasons why it might not be in place. So, maybe that instinctual part never got developed.
The animal is what would be considered healthy functional movement. It’s also sort of primal or instinctual movement. If you fall, you put your hands down. That’s a basic example.
I think the animal becomes more highly developed and you go toward greater athleticism. But, on a level, there is always a way that it saves us and keeps us from falling down.
What you see in yoga is that people have been trained in a way to ignore the animal. They go into patterns that ratchet them down into the joints, instead of using functional movement. This is what I see in my classes. I see people do things and they are clearly hurting, but they will continue to hurt themselves.
No animal would ever torture itself like humans torture themselves, and they’re better off for it.
You have never liked sun salutations. Why not?
I never liked the sun salutation. It’s the classic vinyasa. I learned it. I learned to do it well and teach it, but the bottom line is I never liked it. There are parts of it I find interesting, but as a whole, I did not find it compelling. One day I just said, what the hell, I don’t have to teach this, so I didn’t for a long time.
Then I finally thought to myself, stop bitching. I decided to start playing around with it. I went into my animal, and I started going through the sun salutation. I did it how I wanted to, rather than how I was taught. I said, this is it, and it changed in a day.
It was very clear to me how to create something I liked. I understood the parameters. There had to be repetition. Do one movement repeatedly until you are done. That part of it — until you are done — gives it a level of adaptability. You might do a movement once. You might do it 10 times. So it’s adaptable. It’s modular. You can do it slower or faster. You can go to a more aerobic place and get your ya yas out too.
There is also a lot of rhythmic swinging, to create suspension and engage the parasympathetic nervous system. You can see it in people as they move into their back brains. That rhythmic, suspensory movement is what creates for people a deep inward movement.
My version has a high level of repetition, suspension, and glide. It suits me and I think it suits a lot of my students.
You have a person with autism in your family. How has this influenced your focus as a yoga teacher?
That’s a good question. I think, for me, my awareness around autism certainly came sooner than if I didn’t have an autistic nephew. I see him on the Elliott continuum. In some ways, I can’t help but look at him and say he’s like a hyper-sensitive Theresa. He just can’t keep everything out, there’s too much coming in.
I say this without being an expert on autism, but watching him and other autistic children, I became more aware of the animal that tries to sooth itself. I had the jimmies in my legs as a kid. To a large degree, trying to understand my nephew validated what I was doing in my yoga practice and teaching.
Then there’s the book and movie about Temple Grandin that came out. As I looked at that, I started taking myself more seriously in terms of what I was sensing.
You and Noel Caraig have taught a master class working with balance and the vestibular system. In light of our chat here, how does vestibular work ultimately influence the animal?
I just love what happens with balance. For many people, not all, balance does tend to, through the vestibular system, influence the parasympathetic nervous system.
It made sense to do a workshop with Noel. The parasympathetic nervous system is his specialty. It was fascinating to understand all the components that go into balance. It’s not just muscular strength and flexibility. There’s more to it. There’s your balance through the vestibular system, and your proprioception, or your internal GPS. It’s all fascinating. That was one of my favorite workshops I have ever taught. There were so many “aha” moments and a very clear presentation about the components of balance and how that shows up.
Theresa Elliott has taught yoga in Seattle for 20+ years. She owns Taj Yoga in Crown Hill, and she is also co-director of Pacific Yoga Teacher Training and Advanced Studies.