January 6, 2013

The Homogenization of Yoga. ~ Erin Mathiason

The Modernization (and Demise?) of a Rich and Ancient Practice.

If the number of yoga poses are infinite, as yoga master Dharma Mittra says, why do I sometimes feel stuck in an endless loop of high plank—low plank—up dog—down dog? More than 15 years into my yoga practice, yoga had become as uninspiring to me as an organic graham cracker dunked in a glass of vanilla soy milk.

At the time, I was studying a style of yoga which dissects yoga poses into the most precise details for the maximum benefit, succeeding in my proper alignment—rendering me absolutely numb of the joys of exploration in the practice. Now, years after my in-depth studies of the basic poses and sequencing, I am all too aware that many yoga classes, including some of my own, have reduced the rich practice of yoga into all sun salutes, all the time.

The standard sun salute-based Vinyasa class sells and that’s why we keep repeating it.

There are advantages, of course, to this standard fare. All of those standing poses are great for warming up the body and building the large muscles. We have the ability to get really good at the poses, since there’s ample time to practice them over and over. We have the opportunity to move out of the mental chatter and fully into our bodies, since we know the sequencing so well. Depending on the class, we may be receiving some cardio benefit and have therefore created a complete workout from our yoga practice.

On the flip side, there’s the possibility of repeating poor alignment over and over, especially as we move quickly and begin to tire. There’s the greater possibility to let the monkey mind take over, since we know the poses and sequencing so well. With the heightened potential that we are not fully present, moving over and over with perhaps imperfect alignment, repetitive movement injuries become a very real possibility—especially for our shoulders and wrists.

I once knew a 20-something yoga practitioner with a chronic down dog injury. He looked puzzled when I suggested he take a break from the pose. Without down dog, how would he practice yoga at all? Despite the negative publicity received from William J. Broad in The Science of Yoga, we insist on presenting yoga in a way that can promote and prolong injuries.

In addition to our increased risk of repetitive injury, is the standard Vinyasa class really a good representation of the ancient practice of yoga? After reading Mark Singleton’s book Yoga Body, I am understanding that sun salutes are likely not ancient, instead a gymnastic practice Krishnamacharya, the grandfather of American yoga, integrated into yoga at the beginning of the previous century.

Sweaty, cardio yoga styles didn’t even make their debut until the 1970s, the era of aerobics and jogging. Yet many yoga students, and some yoga teachers (including myself for many years) believe they are practicing something thousands of years old.

By reducing most yoga classes to the sun salute based flow created by Krishnamacharya for athletic boys, we now have students in Vinyasa classes, including those new to exercise, the weekend warriors and the injured—for whom a different style might be better suited but with which they are unfamiliar. How many would-be yogis have we turned away from yoga entirely, because they are unaware there are options suitable for all bodies and sensibilities, including styles that don’t rely on sun salutes for their sequencing?

While Vinyasa yoga is profitable, why do we want yoga to be so homogeneous as to be interchangeable with Zumba, Nia or any other class at the gym? I am not advocating that we abandon Vinyasa yoga entirely, but isn’t it time that we break this cycle of one size fits all yoga and reclaim the richness of the ancient practice?

It’s time we mix up our practice.

Try variations of the poses, such as those suggested by Judith Lasater in 30 Essential Yoga Poses for Beginning Students and Their Teachers. Give your body and mind a new challenge by trying a different yoga style, like Kundalini, or Yin or even Restorative. If you insist on a consistent Vinyasa practice, at least give a different teacher or studio a try—or go to a heated class. Remember that there is no one right way to practice yoga, but don’t stay still at the rest stop when yoga can take you along some amazing paths.

May your yoga practice be so much, much more.


Erin Mathiason is a yoga teacher in Denver, approaching twenty years of yoga practice and study. Additionally, she is a Yoga Historian, Laughter Yoga Leader, a Holistic HealthPractitioner and spiritual seeker. She can be found at hathayogawitherin.com



Assist Ed: Lacy Rae Ramunno 

Ed: K.B.

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(photo credit: wikipedia and sciencedirect)

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