November 6, 2013

Is Flexibility a Liability? Or is Commercialism & Desire Doing the Damage?

Is flexibility a liability? Or is the problem our approach?

I am not a big fan of what I feel can be scare mongering over the dangers of yoga practice. Any practice if not done properly with care can be dangerous.

But I must admit over the years, I have experienced classes and heard tales of woefully misinformed yoga teaching and as William Broad recently outlined in his article in the New York Times “Women’s Flexibility is a Liability” the stats do show people are getting injured.

In Michelle Edwards recent piece, “When Flexibility Becomes a Liability” she identifies some great observations about the biomechanics of intelligent yoga practice.

It is undeniable that there is an arrogance that comes through certain yoga schools, where the teacher is elevated to an untouchable level and where teaching is rote rather than an interaction.

Good yoga teaching should involve adjustments which are appropriate to the individual and verbal dialogue to guide and direct the student.

This is surely what we go to teachers for?

With classes that cram in upwards of 30 people, many of whom will spend the majority of their time in office jobs, sitting on chairs in front of computers for the majority of the week and attend a yoga session for one hour of that week, is it a surprise that injuries are occurring?

In the climate of yoga celebrity, mass market, ten-a-penny yoga teacher qualifications and a new studio on every corner, I know I am not alone in suggesting that something must be getting lost. There is a case to suggest that we as a wider community still do not understand the true nature of yoga practice.

Is mass market yoga and desire causing damage?

Desire to make the perfect shape

When we first come to a physical yoga practice, what we see is shape and we hold that shape up as an ideal or perfection. Asana are heavily photographed and held up as the route to health and vitality. We think the shape will make us healthier and more mobile so we prioritize the external perception of the shape over the substance of the posture.

“Our body is like a pot that contains our subtle self. The (asana) practices are intended for the subtle self and should not be limited to the body.”

~ Yogi Manmoyanand

True yoga practice concerns five bodies, not one. And yet we still focus on the physical independently of the other four aspects. To access subtler aspects we must learn when our ego is driving us and not proceed beyond our edge. This is mindful practice and is much easier said than done.

A good teacher will help to guide you on your course.

But still people in classes try to push beyond their limit, why?

Desire for liberation.

The image of beautifully performed asana be it a deep backbend or handstand show a sense of freedom which is attractive to many people. But, if our tissue and our joints are not ready to go deeper what we cause is damage.

Opening, be it in the hips or other parts of the body, happen spontaneously during practice, the body which is more intelligent than we can possibly imagine teaches us. Forced opening is a contradiction in terms.

“You don’t do yoga, yoga does you.”

~ Jonathan Monks

You cannot willfully force something open without causing damage. If you crow bar the lid off a box, you may open it but you cause damage in the process. Only through softening, observing and yielding over time will opening without damage occur. This is the practice of ahimsa.

“There is a way of doing yoga poses that we call asanas without the slightest effort. Movement is the song of the body.”

~ Vanda Scaravelli

It is not a mistake that ahimsa is the first of the Yamas. Non-violence is key to any practice. In the context of injury, this principle is clearly not understood or emphasized enough in modern day yoga.

Instead it is overshadowed by…the desire for a quick fix.

This type of practice, I outline above takes time and commitment, which is not really what our culture is based upon.

We want the quick fix.

There is no quick fix only long term investment will see true change.

“The work….required as much patience, as much humility as gardening. It would be as vain to try to accelerate the rhythm of the seasons, to hasten the ripening of fruit as to force a body to realise its potential.”

~ Therese Berherat

The Desire for the Golden Guru

We all have those days where we want someone else to be in the driving seat. How lovely to have a golden guru, the perfect surrogate parent to lead us to freedom and bliss.

It doesn’t exist.

Teachers are on their own journey of learning and good teachers are worth their weight in gold. But the power and the decisions as to what you do with your body have to lie with you—no one else. Questions are invaluable and a good teacher will encourage them.

If we pedestal other people in class or our teacher who we see as having the ideal body or yoga practice and undermine ourselves how is that yoga. I am sure we have all idolized our teachers—I have done it….but it didn’t get me very far. We must take responsibility for ourselves; this is the key to injury prevention.

And a path to self-practice which is key to any real understanding of yoga.

The Desire for Money at the Loss of Integrity

These days yoga is big business, from clothing to accessories to teacher training. When I first started teaching yoga there were only two large yoga centres in London. Now, they are everywhere and you cannot shift for a new teacher training course.

What I often notice in teacher training is that many people come to it through injury that they have recovered from through yoga. This then leads them to wish to change their lifestyle and so after practicing yoga for only a year perhaps two, they train to be a yoga teacher. Some of these people may make phenomenal yoga teachers, but it is inevitable that many won’t.

Yoga used to be passed down through apprenticeship over an extended period of time and devotion to long term practice. I have to question what damage is caused by turning yoga into a commercial enterprise that churns out teachers by the dozen.

Ultimately, yoga poses are not dangerous per se—it is our abuse of them, misinformation and negligent teaching that is the problem. I notice that of my contemporaries who commented on Broads article, many were very keen to point out that they had never entered a yoga class where they were told “to push through the pain.” Nor have I.

However, there is an aspect of practice which involves finding your edge, which I have found both as a student and teacher yields some great break throughs. But it takes a lot of experience and guidance of a great teacher to navigate walking your edge effectively.

Desire is a powerful thing in both student and teacher. The climate of each class is lead by the teacher and as teachers we must not be afraid to show our imperfections. Truth is what we should aim to show. If what we wish to convey is perfection, this is what we will cultivate in our students. There is a fine line between refining attention, detail and union in practice and the rigidity of the search for perfection.

Show your edge, talk honestly about practice, encourage people to empower themselves.

Those teachers whose goal is to raise themselves up may be cultivating just this type of ego in their students, to me is the antithesis of yoga. Yoga has taught me to be more compassionate to myself—and only through cultivating that in our own practice can we offer it out to our students.

Self-practice is key to this as well as open dialogue in class.

And as students we should take responsibility for ourselves through listening, trust and ahimsa.

Money and quick fixes never lead to anything resembling yoga. Yoga is an investment larger than the monetary kind.

Lets work to keep it that way.


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Ed: Bryonie Wise

Photo: courtesy of the author


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