Why I Still Suck at Yoga.

Via Michelle Marchildon
on Jul 31, 2012
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Photo: Heather Morton

After practicing for 15 years, I am not any better at yoga than the day I first rolled out my mat.

I didn’t know anything then, and apparently, I’m no closer to enlightenment now.

In fact, everything I thought to be true has been turned upside down this year. That 2012 is called “The Year of Transformation,” doesn’t even begin to describe it. I think I’ll call it “The Year of WTF.”

Next up to be shown as a myth are the UPA’s, aka the Universal Principals of Alignment ™.  Until now, I believed along with 300,000 people who practiced Anusara Yoga that the UPAs were the right way, and possibly the only way to do yoga. I believed what Anusara was selling, that it was a precise and orderly methodology and had guaranteed results.

It turns out there are no guarantees! This is funny because I actually teach that all the time. I probably should have listened better.

Earlier this year when Anusara imploded, I pleaded that we not throw out the method with the school. In other words, let’s keep teaching the UPA’s and just get rid of the sex and drugs and freaky shit around the solstice, because—surprise—howling at the moon really has nothing to do with yoga. N-O-T-H-I-N-G. (Same with hula hoops and frilly yoga pants.)

My thought was that if you wanted to get better at yoga, then the UPA’s, were proven. As my teacher used to say, “You can bank on the UPA’s.” It turns out, the UPA’s are like a lot of the banks today—not so perfect!

The past six months have shown me that the UPA’s may not work all the time. Or, they may work, but they don’t suffice. Or, maybe they work, but not for all of the people. And maybe, just maybe, they have been holding some of us back on the mat. In fact, the most compelling thing about the UPA’s was the way their charismatic creator, John Friend, sold them. You wanted to believe that this was the panacea to a deeper, pain-free practice. Where do I sign up?

My education around this began when I took a workshop where former Anusara teachers taught poses that required rounded shoulders, sickled feet, and flattened hands—formerly taboo. Under their guidance I went deeper into my practice by breaking all the rules. And believe me, I felt schooled.

Then I took a class with Rodney Yee where he taught the breath, masterfully, as well as a softer core. And I went deeper than I had gone before in a twist. A soft core—who knew? And remember the breath from Yoga 101?

This is how some Anusara teachers taught the breath: “Inhale,” then they’d give 10 instructions on the UPAs and a story about their mother before we could exhale. That is not breathing. That is thinking. I used to have a six-count breath in my practice. Today I breathe like a rabbit.

Even the Anusara principle of “Inner Spiral,” which I used to believe could cure everything from a sore back to the common cold, has been shown to be fallible. In fact, too much is performed against a hard surface, like the floor, can tear the tender ligaments that surround the sacroiliac joint.

“Outer Spiral” also has its issues. In September’s Yoga Journal, Doug Keller gives an excellent description of how “scooping” the tailbone (often the first step in outer rotating the leg or in initiating Pelvic Loop) can over compensate the proper alignment of the sacroiliac joint and jeopardize not only stability but the piriformis as well.

These days it’s hard for a yogi to know what to do or who to trust. Widen or scoop? Flat hands or spider fingers? Melted heart or broadened back? OMG! I am never going to get better at yoga.

The promise that any kind of yoga can guarantee a better practice is probably false. As a result, I have decided to trade in the dogma for downward facing dog. The only thing I know for sure that we can count on is practice, and practice only. Also, I have become quite fond of thinking for myself and leaving the group-think scene.

The bad news is I will probably suck just as much in the next 15 years as I do now.  On the other hand, I am feeling a tad more enlightened by realizing it.


By Michelle Marchildon


Editor: Brianna Bemel


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About Michelle Marchildon

Michelle Berman Marchildon is the Yogi Muse. She’s an award-winning journalist, and the author of Finding More on the Mat: How I Grew Better, Wiser and Stronger through Yoga. Her second book, Theme Weaver: Connect the Power of Inspiration to Teaching Yoga, is for yoga teachers who want to inspire their students. Michelle is a columnist for elephant journal and Origin Magazine and a contributor to Teachasana, My Yoga Online and Yoga Journal. She is an E-RYT 500 with Yoga Alliance and teaches in Denver, Co where she is busy raising two boys, two dogs and one husband. You can follow her on Facebook at Michelle Marchildon, The Yogi Muse. You can find her blog and website at www.YogiMuse.com. And you can take her classes on www.yogadownload.com.


17 Responses to “Why I Still Suck at Yoga.”

  1. Jean Marie says:


  2. atrelaun says:

    YES, Michelle, and Thank You. Though it's not the only reason, of course, I do think all that inner spiral led to the injury that led to the herniated disc that led to the six months off the mat while our beloved practice imploded… Only practice matters, and all is coming. XO

  3. Bonnie O'Neill says:

    Great article Michelle. After loads of hous on the mat I finally realised that I had to just enjoy the fact that my practice was not perfect and that the process was often very slow. It really is nice to let go and just enjoy where I'm at. No expectations, just love my Yoga 🙂

  4. Heather says:

    Hm, since you used a picture of me…..without asking….not sure how that one took place….I will comment on the technique of flat hands, which does protect your wrists rather than spider fingers….or cupped hands!

    When this posture is done correctly you squeeze your inner thighs around your upper shoulders….which draws the abdomen inward….and actually widens the sacrum.

    Nonetheless, I found out I am still learning…..and after 15 years that is just the way it is in yoga…as in life !

  5. Heather says:

    "The promise that any kind of yoga can guarantee a better practice is probably false."

    GREAT, great line, by the way…..

  6. Siri says:

    In my humble opinion I think we westeners like to equate yoga with asana. Personally I don't think that asanas alone, regardless of how we align our body, will bring us much closer to enlightenment. As one of the foremost scholars of yoga in the west, Georg Feuerstein says, Yoga was sold to the west by leaving out it's spiritual core to make it more palatable for us and won't lead to anything other than a healthy body (in the best case) as long as we disregard that core.

    My own practice led me from Hatha to Kundalini, then back to Hatha (Vinyasa Krama) and I was mostly taught by someone claiming "that's the best/only/authentic way to do asanas". I am now arriving comfortably at a place where I consider asanas as preparatory step on the path, of only one yoga, and not care too much about brands. I just enjoy the practice and try to find out what works for and by myself 🙂 with love,

  7. balgofar says:

    Great post, more enlightening than all the yoga i've practiced thus far 😉

  8. Heather says:

    Was just talking about GF…who I used a lot of in my thesis work several years ago.

    I could not agree more….! Having done many advanced postures….my own discovery is that it does not bring you further. I know it is extremely popular for Ashtanga teachers and students to claim the rest….but meditation (the heart and soul of yoga)…was never about moving from one posture to the next…etc….etc….etc…

    Further to this…I believe that the more you get 'into' postures sometimes the more you get obsessed with the body…..
    Ideally yoga was and is to break our attachment to the body. In other words…..one could have physical pains but you do not suffer mentally. If this is NOT applied during asana practice….yes, you can reach many delightful things…but in the end…it will not be much of the necessary internal work.

    Difficult, however, breaking thru all those samskaras….

    GF is the best….and unfortunately, I fear…a lost identity now in blogs, posts, commercialism, etc…of YOGA.
    He wrote a piece on The Lost teaching of yoga…..very good indeed

    Here is a link ~ http://www.learnoutloud.com/Downloads/Self-Develo

  9. K. M. says:

    Wow, your cluelessness about reflecting, learning about yourself and applying the teachings and principles to yourself, what your body needs, etc… is astounding. That's why you are no better at yoga, you have zero self reflection. The principles are principles (use a dictionary if you need), generalizations about the human body. For example Calf loop read: Knees are generally healthier and more powerful when they don't bend backwards. How that applies to you in your body and your poses is up to you. Principles are like that, that is their power – generalizations to get a foot in the door, for you to then explore the specifics of how they apply or do not apply to you. How you interpret them is your responsibility – no one can do it for you for no one else is in your body or in your brain, so take some responsibility for being clueless here. Taking responsibility and admitting mistakes is also a powerful principle. So many blamers actually end up continue doing what they are pointing fingers at. Just because Mr. Friend can't admit wrong and take responsibility, does that mean you will follow him doing that as well?

  10. Denise says:

    I understand that breathing and a softer core would help you a great deal Michelle as there isn’t any softenss refelcted in your writing.
    Just an FYI, I am working with the NY Jets injured players during their training camp. I had a long list of players yesterday with hamstring stains, pulls, adductor, and hip flexor issues. While I used all of the UPA’s I focused primarily on the widening aspect of inner spiral. We were 100% successful in relieving pain, and those guys were jazzed about it. They wanted to know how I knew that information. This is a daily phenomenon for me, the ability to help people feel better in their bodies is directly related to the UPA’s. I have been doing this kind of work for 30 years. Nothing has been as effective as the UPA’s. I think it’s brilliant!

  11. Signe says:

    If there were only one way to align, wouldn't we all have the same body type? Way to go Michelle, breaking out of the alignment box! Alignment to me means attention on breath, awareness on present moment…..but as with every other alignment cue in the universe I am sure sometimes it is useful and mabye sometimes not so much…we slow our growth when we are so sure we're right about anything…..asana is for exploration

  12. Michelle marchildon says:

    Hi Heather. Your photo is in the ELEPHANT archives. If it shouldn't be there, please let an editor know. Thanks.

  13. Sherry says:


  14. abhaya says:

    Sounds like you need a new teacher. So, does anyone get to write for elephant journal? This person obviously doesn't understand the Universal principles of alignment because if she did she would get that the breath is the first principle. Yes, yoga 101. Connecting to Spirit ( and yes, a soft core) is the very first principle that holds all the rest. If people dove deeper into the first principle they would be begin to understand the complexity to the method. Of course everyone's body is different and needs to be treated as such. And, if they took a broader perspective, step 1, that would make more sense. The other principles aren't meant to be done in a vacuum or without the first holding it all together. Honestly, I am annoyed that there is this whole movement of " Lets dispel the principles now that we know JF is a jerk and we have to justify our last 10 years". Give me a break. I am now a formerly Anusara Certified teacher and continue to the teach the UPA's in my own way. I am sorry, I find again and again they work. I just go back again and again to the opening principle and see where perhaps the imbalance is coming from and very often it is from the energetic / pranic/ inner body. The principles serve as an excellent map for students to create connection, proper foundation, balance in the pelvis and upper back, even tone and extension. If you can do all of that while remaining connected to Spirit- well…. I call that a practice. It offers a lifetime of study and depth.

  15. abhaya says:

    and, by the way, the UPA's weren't made up. They follow all the basic bio-mechanical rules you learn in all anatomy. So the beauty is the precision lead by grace

  16. abhaya says:

    why would you want to break all attachments with your body? your body is an expression of the divine. you should read tantric quest by odier. this perspective just sounds like the classical yoga regurgitated. haven't you ever had a divine experience through the body? the tantrikas believe that only by being embodied does one experience anything at all. so breaking all attachment w the body… what would that look like? and why would you want to do that?

  17. YogiBear says:

    Considering how much the UPA's have done for the health of my body and of my student's, I condemn this article and the way it portrays them. Of course if you apply too much inner spiral, outer spiral, or melting of the heart (without then expanding the upper back) it creates problems. That's one of the first things we learn as Anusara teachers. And of course if you trust in just one thing and expect it will magically fix the rest you're inexorably going to be let down. Just because that happens, do you write off all they've done? I would say you might suck at yoga not because you question principals of alignment, but maybe you trust too easily what you're told and when you're expectations let you down, you try and blame the person that convinced you. I most certainly do NOT miss the Colorado Kula.