A few years ago I tried yoga at a local gym but didn’t enjoy it as much as my other fitness classes I was taking. At the time, I found it to be slow and boring but I realized I needed to find the right fit of both the particular yoga class and teacher. This brings me to my interview with Michael Perkola. He finds a way to take the stuffiness and seriousness of yoga by making it fun and playful. Every time he teaches I leave feeling more confident as well a little more comfortable with my practice. I have to be careful not to compare myself to others as I have my own physical restraints from my scoliosis surgery. Instead I focus on how I feel at the end of each class which is stronger mentally and physically.
Hi Michael! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me about all things yoga and the gut. Can you give a little bit of an introduction about yourself?
I’m from Houston, Texas. I’m the son of a geologist and social worker. When I was thirteen years old, we moved to Japan for a year for my father’s job. This experience saved me from being a typical white, suburban kid and set me off in a direction of inquiry in spirituality and martial arts. Also, I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder when I was eleven years old. My struggle to overcome it led me to try mastering my mind with meditation.
I have worked various jobs, including graphic designer, marketer, and investigation. I became a yoga teacher in 2012 and have been a full-time fitness professional since 2013. I have worked at various studios, at Life Time Athletic City Centre, and, now, at Equinox River Oaks. This year, I leveraged my study of anatomy and exercise into becoming a personal trainer, which gives me the opportunity to work with people one-on-one and to be better educated about fitness.
I finally got my husband to take a yoga class when we were on vacation after years of asking him to join me. He wouldn’t admit to it but I think he was intimidated more than anything. What would you say to someone like him who’s intimidated to take a class?
In the contemporary United States of America, men are terrified of failure and being humiliated. And they are also afraid of admitting to being afraid for fear of appearing weak. Unfortunately, having a woman, especially his wife, call him out on this would be his worst fears come true. I suggest that you ask a male who enjoys yoga to speak to him about it or to give him articles describing how male professional athletes are benefiting from yoga practice.
One of my favorite classes of yours to take at Equinox is “Yoga Fundamentals.” I feel like after each class, I take with me something new that I’ve learned. Why do you think this class is so popular?
I have been teaching a Saturday morning introduction class for 5 years. I think it is popular because I am very directly and simply teaching you how to perform yoga poses. Unfortunately, this is not the case in most yoga classes that I have attended at studios. There are commercial reasons for this which I can describe if asked. In summary, the central problem is this: A student must be taught how and this requires focused attention from the instructor and dedicated practice from the student. The former is costly and the student may not wish to pay for private lessons. The latter requires discipline and facing your short-comings.
It is easier to go with the “flow” in a group yoga class.
I spent many years of my life studying martial arts. In martial arts, there is a correct way to throw a punch and an incorrect way. The teacher walks around and corrects his students as they perform drills. If the student does not progress in the acquisition of skills, then they are not taught more advanced techniques, like a combination punch. I structure the Yoga Fundamentals class in a similar way. I try to examine and correct every student. At the minimum, I want each of my students to leave with an improved understanding of Sun Salutation A, Chaturanga Dandasana (Low Plank), and Adho Mukha Svasana (Downward-Facing Dog).
This approach gives the student certainty about their practice and I think it is this confidence that they enjoy.
I love seeing all different shapes, sizes and age ranges practicing yoga. What are the reasons for that you think? Have you seen this change over the years?
Yoga is mainstream now and it is relatively easy to find some sort of instruction in it, even if its on YouTube. The history of yoga in the United States is very interesting. It was brought in and popularized by Americans in the fitness and beauty (cosmetics) industries. American practice yoga primarily for fitness and beauty, but there are the other effects of the practice which soothe our troubled souls. For this reason, I think it will endure.
Are there yoga poses that can help ease stomach discomfort like for gas or bloating pains? If so, which ones would you recommend? And why?
I think that meditation for heightened awareness of the body can help identify symptoms early on and mitigate the psychological effect of the physical discomfort. I am not a licensed medical professional, but I believe that these yoga practices can help:
Moola Bandha, which is an intention contraction of the abdominal muscles, can help strengthen them and improve motility.
Marichyasana A and C, which are seated twists that can help eliminate gas.
Seated Leg Lifts. I have observed that simulating the quadriceps has the effect of improving your “digestive fire.”
Ayurveda is Indian folk medicine and has complex theories and solutions for digestive issues. I have only a superficial knowledge of it, but it might be worth investigating.
The FODMAP diet is recommended for people diagnosed with IBS or IBD. Anxiety is commonly associated with IBS. Are there specific poses you recommend for anxiety?
Yoga practice performed with rhythmic breathing is soothing for people. In my experience though, it will calm the symptoms of anxiety with out addressing the cause. The causes of anxiety are many, but there are two major problems. The first is that is living in modern America is very stressful and you are surrounded on all sides by people who are angry and afraid. The second is that you do not possess the psychic skills to protect yourself from and resolve this stress. These skills may only be acquired through meditation practice and/or psychotherapy.
This might be a bit of TMI but I’ve noticed if I take a yoga class later in the evening, I get really bad stomach pains. Does this happen to everyone? Any tips?
That is interesting to hear, but I have not heard similar reports. I would need more information to answer your question accurately, such as where exactly these pains occur in your body.
What do you recommend a person eats/drinks before and after taking a yoga class?
I recommend that a person eat carbohydrates (without too much oil) an hour or more prior to yoga, such as sweet potatoes. Of course, there will be certain restrictions under the FODMAP diet! After yoga, I recommend water and fresh or lightly cooked vegetables.
I know how important meditating is but I find it extremely difficult to quiet the mind especially in a group setting. What tips do you have?
Your destination is a certain state of mind, such as quiet stillness. You must explore many different techniques, teachers, philosophies, and settings in order to find that which best serves your goals. This is why I present a variety of techniques in my meditation classes.
In your case, you might try sensory deprivation “float” tanks. Example. In that setting, you will be alone, secluded, and external stimuli will be at a minimum. If you can find the state of mind in those optimal circumstances, then you can try meditating in other ones, such as alone in a room or in a sacred building while using ear plugs.
You are the first instructor I’ve had who uses myofascial release during class. Why do you think this is so important to incorporate in a fitness routine?
People have limited time and self-myofascial release (SMR) works within one-minute to create a relaxation response in the muscle and a mechanical loosening of the fascia. Once the muscle and fascia are primed, then movement or stretching are easier and more effective. I want to serve the needs of the people in front of me and I have found through experience that SMR combined with yoga is the best way to do so within an hour.
You went on an awesome honeymoon a few months ago. What tips would you give for someone who is traveling and wants to make sure to stay active?
Oh, I was terrible about being active on my honeymoon, except a little bit of yoga and calisthenics. We mostly walked around a lot. Our favorite moments were hikes in natural areas and in archaeological sites. We can’t easily walk in Houston, whether be the lack of passable sidewalks, the smothering heat, or the aggressive drivers.
So if you are vacationing some place where you can walk and hike and bike and swim, do as much of it as you can.
You now offer personal training at Equinox. What’s the best way for someone to reach you who wants to learn more about your classes and training?