“We know our way around our cities better than we know our way around our own bodies,” says Jill Miller, author of The Roll Model and creator of the corrective exercise format Yoga Tune Up®.
by Susan Currie
In the prelude to class, before the first encouragement to inhale has even been uttered, I can already sense a distinctive vibe in Jill Miller’s Yoga Tune Up® class. For years I have grown accustomed to students lounging in balasana (child’s pose) or swaying in a forward fold before the instructor opens class; in this setting, however, folks are employing small high grip balls in a jolly shade of blue, rolling them forward and back behind different parts of the body. The energy I feel is similar to when the orchestra fills the pit just before they strike up the overture — the musicians plucking their strings, following their scales… tuning and taking stock before the curtain lifts. I later discover that my neighbors on their mats were making good use of those moments and their props to engage in a form of self-massage, soothing trigger points, collecting information, and tapping into their bodies. This probing will prove integral to the “aha” moments to follow.
“We know our way around our cities better than we know our way around our own bodies,” says Jill Miller, author of The Roll Model and creator of the corrective exercise format Yoga Tune Up®. When Ms. Miller set out to build her signature program, she tapped into not only her twenty-plus years of practicing and teaching yoga, but also her deep exploration of anatomy and the human body. Drawing from both, she uses a fundamental navigation of the body, or a term she earnestly refers to as “body sense,” as the core tenet of her Yoga Tune Up® model.
It all began far from the grid. Growing up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in a neighborhood that relied on the sun for all of its power, Miller never imagined she would one day be connecting with others in the global lane she currently travels. Her pioneering spirit, coupled with a quest to help folks heal their body and their mental “blind spots,” has deposited her at the hub of a worldwide network of students and several hundred trained teachers passionate about Yoga Tune Up®, her unique blend of corrective exercise, self-massage, and yoga.
What led Miller to revisit our beloved eight-limbed practice of yoga and place a wider lens on its anatomical components? She says that the seeds were planted early on. Inactive as a child, she quickly learned the tough lessons brought on by a sedentary life. Weighing 100 pounds at just 11 years old caused a sense of feeling helpless. Plagued by these weight issues as a ‘tween,’ she found solace in the Jane Fonda and Raquel Welch fitness videos that her mom was practicing at home, became hooked on physical fitness or “obsessed” as she puts it.
As her passion for the ritual and repetitive movements presented in the sequencing of these workout programs exploded, she also found herself turning more and more towards her physician father’s anatomy and medical books. The combination of exercise and investigation proved effective for Miller, but she pushed herself to extremes and within a year her weight dropped by 35 pounds, she had become anorexic. Yet, her battle was far from over. As Miller describes it, her teenage years were marked with rebellion around food. “By the time I went to college, bulimia was a weekend ritual for me.” Her pivot toward recovery happened in her freshman year at Northwestern University when she found an unexpected solace in the form of a shiatsu massage session. For the first time she sensed the possibility for real healing. “Nothing in my life had touched me so deeply, and I needed to learn this art inside and out.”
Despite her subsequent shiatsu studies and pockets of clarity, Miller’s fitness infatuation heightened, segueing into a rigorous yogic lifestyle. Her overuse was undeniable. “I was the poster child yogini, and I overstretched every single joint in my body. At 19, I was old before my time.” That overuse blunted her ability to sense the workings of her body. In the depths of these conditions she experienced another dawning. Certain that something had to give, she took refuge in her early fascination with the human body and years of body work study, along with fresh insights she experienced from Glenn Black, who would become her lifelong teacher.
Ms. Miller and Mr. Black (whom she refers to as a “wizard body worker”) crossed paths at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York, during a summer internship after Miller’s junior year in college. Eternally grateful for his wisdom, she attributes his four-limbed practice approach of “human embodiment: yoga, movement, massage, and meditation” to changing the trajectory of her life. As a result of his movement-based training, she approached standing, walking, and breathing with a newfound curiosity. She directed her critical thinking to the repetitive movements of yoga and other fitness regimens, considering their impact on the body’s skeletal structure and fascial tissue. She became less interested in the execution of the asana and more interested in human movement, from which Yoga Tune Up’s conscious fitness format (built around pain, posture, and performance) was born. This logic ushered in the whole “body sense” component of Miller’s signature programming.
In her mid-twenties, Miller moved to Los Angeles and experimented with various forms of self-treatment in an effort to replicate the hands-on work of Black in which she had found tremendous relief. The corners of sofas, countertops, foam and wood rollers, even dog toys — no gadget was off limits. These experiments also included the use of an array of the famed rubber balls which she favored for their grippy rubber, pliable density, and “just enough squish to tumble into tissue and over/around bony prominences.” Eventually she began to bring the Roll Model balls into her classes. Blending her personal healing techniques with embodied anatomy and conscious corrective exercise gave her yoga classes a laboratory-like feel. “People bring years of body wear and tear into the classroom. They can become disappointed in their structure and souls because their bodies do not conform to the frame of a pose or asana. They have personal body blind spots. Rather than just calling out poses, we, as teachers, need to meet the problems our students are bringing into class,” says Miller. “My classroom became a sanctuary for students and teachers to get honest about their bodies’ limitations. Students learned a new paradigm to reframe their potential.”
Striking a chord across widening spectrums, that “laboratory” developed into Yoga Tune Up® (a term she coined in in 2004) as we now know it. From that curriculum, Miller’s teacher training programs were born. Beyond the use of such props as sensory balls and an enhanced savasana (corpse pose) in which students are instructed to “turn on their off switches”, the framework of a Yoga Tune Up® class has a logic which isn’t unlike traditional hatha yoga classes. When I asked Miller if her teachings required any special pre-requisites, she actually suggested the contrary, “The less trained you are, the less biased you are.”
Since October 2008, Jill Miller’s Yoga Tune Up® program has certified more than 400 teachers worldwide. From Dubai to Dublin, her self-care fitness programs have become staples at fitness centers such as Equinox and 24 Hour Fitness locations, spas, hospital-based gyms, CrossFit boxes, yoga studios, and corporate wellness classes at companies such as Cedars Sinai, Apple, Google, Nestle, and more. As of press time, YogaWorks is now programming Yoga Tune Up® classes throughout all of their regions including Los Angeles, Orange County, Northern California, New York and Boston. These techniques can also be accessed on any given day in the comfort of your own home with the Yoga Tune Up® At Home Program (a monthly video series that can be found at yogatuneup.com).
Delf Enriquez, Group Fitness Manager at the Equinox in Encino has witnessed the program’s appeal firsthand. “The vibe I experience from the students embracing the format? ENLIGHTENMENT. Members that take their first few classes and get this ‘light bulb’ aha moment, where they realize that there’s an aspect to their fitness/wellness that they didn’t realize existed. Yoga Tune Up® stands out in the fact that it addresses a growing need for self-care and physiotherapy. Whereas the trends always lean toward harder/faster/stronger, Yoga Tune Up® appears to buck that trend on the surface, when really, it complements it. You can’t keep working toward just harder/faster/stronger without first addressing imbalances, injuries, and the overall health of soft tissue.”
While Yoga Tune Up® makes generous use of the sensory balls for techniques such as skin rolling, cross fiber motion, and sustained compression, it is only one portion of the programming that also includes embodied anatomy, breath work, and conscious corrective exercise. Certified Yoga Tune Up® instructor Nancy Bellantone of Om Warrior in Boston’s financial district allows that Yoga Tune Up® is a new breed in her city. “Yoga Tune Up’s language of bones and muscles, that quantitative language we provide for mapping out the body… That’s what I see my students embracing in these classes.”
Circling back to my personal Yoga Tune Up® experience, which is now 40 minutes or so deep into a shoulder protraction-focused sequence, the dots begin to connect for me: inhaling and exhaling minus any grasping. I am able to experience garudasana (eagle pose) in a new light, especially through the upper body. I recall some of those trigger points I met at the opening of class and am certain that my shoulders will be speaking to me (in a good way) tomorrow. We wrap up with an invitation to lounge deeply back into our breath, and of course, the “little rubber pills” are always an option. Still curious, but with my “off switch” slowly turning “on.”
As someone who “came back from being an overstretched Gumby to teach on this issue of overuse and misuse of the body,” Miller seamlessly assumes this mantle. Her enthusiasm is at once infectious and empowering. In high demand, she currently leads more than 50 trainings, workshops, conferences, and retreats a year. She counts her blessings for the path that has led her to this point, for the personal healing, and for the platform she has found in sharing these practices.
What’s next for Jill Miller, a self-described life-long learner and author of The Roll Model, a book beloved by movement enthusiasts? “Almost every weekend somewhere on the planet one of our teacher trainings is occurring with one of our certified YTU Teacher Trainers. Seeing our conscious movement and recovery concepts reaching a mass market… It’s all very exciting! Right now my deep interest lies in my ongoing studies with the biomechanics of breathing. Along with our roots in the Yoga community, I’m working with the military Special Forces, professional sports teams, and bringing this work to the strength and conditioning community. It’s all about channeling best practices and teaching students to Live Better in Their Body.” It’s quite the distance from her days off the grid.
Learn more about Jill Miller and Yoga Tune Up® at yogatuneup.com
Nancy Bellatone and Om Warrior can be found at omwarrior.com
Discover Equinox gyms and their programming at equinox.com
Susan Currie is a Boston-based writer and photographer and the Managing Editor at Find Bliss Boston (findbliss.com). She met her muse when she discovered the ancient eight-limbed practice of yoga some 15 years ago and became an RYT 200 instructor in 2004. Her first collection of work Once Divided, a blend of visual and verse, will be published in 2016 by Shanti Arts. Susan is also the creator of the Daily Inhale which can be found every morning on her website: susancurriecreative.com.