Last night a dear friend of mine sent a few words my way.
After a brief chat about my latest blog essay he finished with,
“Your love of yoga almost inspires me to get on the mat…almost.”
I immediately wondered what he thought my practice looked like, because I don’t think we had ever discussed it. I also empathized because I understand why people who love yoga also avoid yoga, and I’m fairly certain it has nothing to do with being lazy.
As diverse as the multi-brand yoga community likes to think it is, the general conception of yoga practice is still pretty homogenous.
It’s based on the idea of the hour/hour-and-a-half long practice of stretching and strengthening your body as it goes through various complementary poses with some twisting, inverting and side bending, concluding with a yogic nap.
There has been a general trend toward sweaty Vinyasa and Bikram-style classes, I suspect, both because of the amount of endorphins released (natural high) and because of the street-cred that these yang-type classes tend to garner. (The Lilias Folan style Hatha yoga of yore just doesn’t have that same edge.)
While there is definitely an increasing market for restorative and yin classes these days, that’s a part of the point: people like extremes.
We also like hot bodies, and by hot I mean: fat-free, symmetrical and with genetically predisposed joint flexibility.
Since Instagram photos of these hot bodies in various stages of contortion are all the rage, I often have a hard time identifying with the yoga culture of our times, and I know I’m not the only one.
Yoga teacher training is an industry that seems to prey on young people who don’t know what to do with their lives but want to do something meaningful.
In the world that we live in, it would be hard to blame anyone for trying to find their meaningful niche, yet the devotion of trainees often becomes something deeper than that.
Unfortunately, in the process of becoming yoga teachers, many get indoctrinated into the belief system of a “lineage.” They begin to speak about aspects of their yoga as if they were speaking truth from heaven, with the full authority given to them by being a card carrying member of that lineage.
They find yoga salvation.
Thankfully, there are a growing number of pioneers in the field of critical yoga theory who act as an antidote.
One of the more maligned dispellers of yoga myth is journalist William Broad, who in his book, “The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards,” manages to piss off a right handful of powerful yogafolk.
In a quote from an online interview Broad says,
“Yoga is surrounded by this certain mystique. Even though people know that it’s not that, they still love the existence of the mystique. The idea of perfection. Spiritual perfection, physical perfection, and anything that shakes that mystique is bad. Right? But to me, that’s like the Roman Catholic church sweeping the bad priests under the rug. There’s just going to be more victims.”
Though he’s not the first to tackle yoga history, he does outline the history of the practice of American yoga asana, which he explains finds its inception not in the ancient temples of India, but in the 19th century as a derivation of calisthenics taught by the British Military mixed with Hindu religious philosophy, and used as a contortionist showpiece of Indian nationalism.
This is the origin story of Iyengar, Ashtanga and all of their yoga lineage babies.
What this really conveys to me is that modern yoga tradition is created by real people.
Does that make it any less useful? Absolutely not. Not if we are willing to discard the dogma and keep what is supportive.
Another problem with making something sacred or believing in its ancient spiritual origin (without potential of fallibility) is that we feel personally responsible when it isn’t working for us, and instead of changing the yoga to fit our needs, we feel like we are lazy or wrong for not doing it.
In fact, your reason for abstaining from the practice could actually be that it’s not good for your body.
Paul Grilley is one of the teachers stoking the flames of the yoga anatomy movement. His evidence-based anatomy trainings provide students with visual demonstrations of anatomical diversity, specifically as it relates to joint movement in yoga practice.
In his trainings, Grilley presents viewers with a diverse assemblage of volunteer yogis, and he shows how each of them have a unique joint structure that often prevents their yoga asana from looking “correct.”
He also shows that a person trying to make her asana look the way her teacher tells her it should look can actually cause significant joint and ligament damage over time.
For those who might still be unconvinced, or attribute the participants limitations to “inflexibility,” he provides something that an ex-anthropology club member like me just eats up: bones.
It is hard to argue with someone who can show you with bones that the difference in available and healthy range of motion (ROM) between one person’s shoulder joint and another’s can be more than 45 degrees.
If you hate downward dog, this could be part of the reason. It could also be because if you aren’t engaging your arm muscles you are likely “hanging from the ligaments,” a type of offense that Yogalign teacher Michaelle Edwards has critique for aplenty.
As a bodywork practitioner and yoga teacher, Edwards asks a lot of very valuable questions about why we practice yoga and whether the yoga practice we do is supporting pain-free movement in the rest of our lives.
She also contextualizes the needs of modern western bodies, explaining that in a society where we spend much of our time in chairs and with our bodies at right angles, we tend to suffer from overuse issues stemming from these positions, and many popular yoga poses create these very same tension patterns. Edwards says,
“Because of high injury rates and the fact that these poses are not ancient and time-tested, I came to the conclusion that we all must take a look at yoga asana (positions) and assess their biomechanical value…it is vitally important that the essence of yoga—know yourself—is not lost in a physically-based practice that makes no biomechanical sense.”
Thus, her method focuses on maintaining healthy spinal curvature and posture.
She also challenges one of the core unspoken tenets of asana practice: that relaxed stretching of a muscle leads to flexibility.
“Muscles need to be tightened in order to become flexible, and to stay safe we need to tighten them when we stretch; we also need to keep the body comfortable so that we do not invoke the stretch reflex.”
Edwards uses resistance stretching or proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF), a technique that re-calibrates the nervous system’s set point for muscular flexibility.
If all of that relaxing, breathing and stretching in yoga class wasn’t bringing you much closer to the flexible ideal you were seeking, this may be why.
In his book “Stretching Scientifically,” Thomaz Kurz makes me question why flexibility outside of the range of what we need for healthy everyday movement is even desirable.
“Great flexibility alone will not prevent injuries. Actually, excessive development of flexibility leads to irreversible deformation of the joints, which distorts posture…in choosing your stretches you should examine the needs and requirements of your activity.”
He expands on this by talking about athletes in different sports and the importance of specific flexibility training.
One quote that hit home had to do with external rotation of the hip joint, which is most easily seen in Baddha Konasana, or butterfly pose, something that is easy as pie for my naturally open hip joints.
“Unbalanced flexibility…may contribute to injuries. In classical ballet, where dancers have an extraordinary range of external rotation and abduction of the hip combined with less than normal internal rotation and adduction, 30% of dancers complain of lateral knee pain and 33% of anterior (front) hip pain. In nonathletic people, a range of external rotation in the hips greater by more than 10 degrees than the range of internal rotation is associated with low back pain.”
While we often focus on opening the hips in yoga, how often to do we consciously think to internally rotate the femur to create counterbalance? How many of us know that our hips are already so open that focusing on internal rotation might be more structurally balancing?
Let’s get back to that rogue journalist William Broad.
One of the challenging things that Broad pointed out is what I want to call the Original Sin of yoga: it tried to use scientific language to legitimize its practices without the research to back it up.
Easily one of the biggest yoga fibs that came out of this postulating relates to what is happening when we breathe. Broad explains,
“No matter how fast or slow you breathe, you can’t change the amount of oxygen that you take into your body. That’s contrary to many yoga teachings.”
In the more vigorous pranayama techniques, the exact opposite is happening: we are increasing our levels of CO2.
I’m sure this misinformation is contrary to many basic physiology and kinesiology teachings as well, yet why the truth of it has eluded yoga teachers for so long seems to be another instance of it’s just the information that was passed down the line.
We were all playing parrot.
This is not to say that pranayama isn’t useful for other reasons such as elongating and slowing the breath which has clear benefits and you can find plenty of great research supporting it.
The point I am making is that the teaching, like many others, was just something that was created by an ordinary person. A conjecture at a mechanism of action that was passed off as a truth.
There are a growing number of yoga teachers and organizations that are paving the way for a more anatomy-informed yoga practice.
Each of these teachers has their own unique take on how to create a safe practice. But for every leaf flowing down the anatomically-curious river, there is a stick in the mud who still wants to push you into positions that are going to overstretch your sacroiliac joint.
I recommend that we all exercise great discrimination when choosing a teacher.
If we are going to inspire a revolution in safe yoga transmission, teachers are going to have to realize that students are demanding more from them.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Author: Satatma Powell
Apprentice Editor: Brandie Smith/Editor: Emily Bartran