December 24, 2014

How Important is Modern Asana to Everyday Mindfulness?


Yoga can hurt as well as heal: it’s the dirty little secret of the yoga world.

In 2012, with the publication of The Science of Yoga, William Broad kicked-off a highly publicized discussion of yoga’s dangers as well as its benefits. Some practitioners found his examples of yoga injury to be exaggerated and sensational, but others said that Broad’s findings echoed their own experience.

In January 2014, Matthew Remski, an Ayurvedic counselor, yoga practitioner and writer based in Toronto, asked the yogis of Facebook contact him with their stories of injuries sustained through yoga. He was inundated with stories and eventually created a blog, “What are We Actually Doing in Asana?” (WAWADIA).

Remski has decided to use the blog as the basis for a book, and recently raised over $30,000 in crowdfunding to cover the publication costs. His aim is “to elevate the discourse around yoga injury, and to do so with an open-source spirit.”

In asking this question, Remski is doing an important service for the yoga community.

At the same time, I believe there is an even more fundamental question that isn’t being asked: “What are we actually trying to do in yoga?”

My own training as a practitioner and teacher has always focused on yoga as a way to calm the nervous system and integrate body and mind. As Scott Anderson, the Wisconsin-based founder of Alignment Yoga has pointed out, “If we watch, we see a strong relationship between how we are in our bodies and in our states of mind.”

In other words, any practice that damages the body will also have repercussions for the mind and spirit.

I enjoy practicing asana, and I do some form of it nearly everyday. Asana practice can be a powerful tool for calming mind and body. But as someone who began studying yoga in her mid-50s—and who is now on the cusp of 70—I know that many poses will remain forever out of my reach. In fact, as I age, it’s possible that I may one day no longer be able to practice anything that resembles asana.

Which brings me to a second question: Are the poses of modern postural yoga essential? Or can we substitute other forms of “mindful movement”?

This is an important question to consider as more people are drawn to yoga and teachers find themselves working with students who have arthritis, joint replacements or chronic diseases like MS, or who are simply old and frail.

Every Wednesday I teach a yoga class at a local nursing home. It’s an older facility with few of the amenities found in newer, more upscale retirement communities. Each floor is bisected by a long hallway with hospital-like rooms on either side. All rooms are doubles, which means that residents have little privacy. Many are on Medicaid, and most are physically disabled and have either dementia or mental illness.

It’s a stressful setting for both residents and the staff who care for them.

Our class meets in the day room of the locked behavioral health unit. Attendance varies from week to week. A few residents look forward to the class. Others sit across the room watching, but not participating. Some are wheeled in by the recreational aide who coaxes, “Give it a try. Just do what you can.”

Once the television is turned off and participants have gathered in a circle, we begin by stretching and yawning several times. Then we spend a minute or two focusing on the breath.

I encourage the students to do “pursed lip” breathing, which involves inhaling through the nose and exhaling slowly through puckered lips. It’s a technique often used by people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma or other breathing conditions to ease shortness of breath by lengthening the exhalation.

Because the students have difficulty focusing, I ask them to hold an index finger in front of their lips so they can feel their exhalation. Usually after a minute or two of pursed lip breathing, the students relax.

Some participants can’t do asana, so I use movements adapted from the Arthritis Foundation Exercise Program. Even these simple, range-of-motion exercises can prove challenging for students. In between movements, we return to pursed lip breathing—and I suggest that they breathe out any anger, anxiety or sadness.

The question remains: Is this practice really yoga?

I believe it is. According to Patanjali, “Yoga is to still the patterning of consciousness” (Sutra, 1.2). And that is the goal of these exercises, even if participants only experience this stillness for a moment or two before loosing focus and drifting off into confusion or falling asleep.

The recreation director recently told me that the staff members say that the unit feels calmer after yoga class. One participant, in particular, a middle-aged man who has periodic “spells” during which he yells, runs through the unit and frightens both residents and staff alike, is usually easier to work with after class.

In fact, the nurse’s aides have seen him trying to calm himself by blowing on his finger.

Yoga teacher and scholar Chip Hartranft notes that “most of the yoga practiced worldwide today would be unrecognizable to earlier yogis like Patanjali…” In fact, as Mark Singleton has pointed out in Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, today’s asana is based on a complex brew of modern Indian nationalism, European bodybuilding, and early 20th century women’s gymnastic movements.

Modern postural yoga was created out of that brew by teachers like Krishnamacharya, B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois. Since they were essentially making it up as they went along, it seems entirely appropriate that we might create new forms of mindful movement for students who cannot benefit from asana.

I applaud Matthew Remsky’s inquiry into the circumstances and causes of yoga injuries. At the same time, we need to broaden the inquiry to include new understandings about the purpose and methods of yoga.

When we insist on equating physical practice with asana, we deny the benefits of yoga to those who desperately need to find peace through a reawakened connection between mind and body. If we do not make it accessible to them, yoga becomes an elitist practice that serves only the young, the fit and the athletic.


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Author: Nancy Giguere

Editor: Emma Ruffin

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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