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 the goal of doing some twisting, inverting and side bending, and concluding with a yogic nap. There has been a general trend towards 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 too: people like extremes.
We also like hot bodies, and by hot I mean: fat-free, symetrical, and with genetically predisposed joint flexibility. Since Instagram photos of these hot bodies in various stages of contortion are all the rage these days, 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 preys 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.
One of my favorite recent discoveries has been the writing of Carol Horton PhD, a former professor of Political Science turned true yoga badass. Referring to recent "scandals" within some popular yoga brands she says this, "...while we should honor and learn from Indian tradition, we need to recognize and guard against our longstanding tendency to romanticize the “mystic East” and glom onto pseudo-traditional philosophies that promise to deliver us from the challenge of living in 21st century America...we need to stay grounded in the here and now, not sailing off into fantasies about joining some medieval Indian lineage and having “the Universe” smile on us just as we’d like, all the time."
There's something insidious about how different yoga brands and lineages work: they indirectly ask their trainees to give up critical thinking. The frightening thing is that most people who stay give it up freely, even joyfully and without coercion, because interwoven in the dogma of yoga asana is the idea of yoga lineage being a direct line to the divine. Questioning the practice becomes about as sensical as questioning the life force energy itself or questioning your guru. Who are you, in your tiny bud of limited consciousness to question the process of unfolding to a thousand petaled lotus? Well, first of all, you're not a flower.
Thankfully there are a growing number of pioneers in the field of critical yoga theory. One of the most 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.”
And 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.
Yoga isn’t the only Indian discipline to suffer from this “true believer” syndrome, its sister science Ayurveda is chalk full of regional and cultural knowledge that is interpreted as having holy and unquestionable origins. For example, there is one esteemed Indian Vaidya (doctor) who likes to talk about how bananas clog circulatory channels, and another that tells her followers never to eat watermelon. (I’d like to set up a date between the Vaidya and the raw foodie girl who eats 30 bananas a day; they should garner equal incredulity.) While there may be specific historical, cultural, meteorological, or epidemiological reasons for the Vaidya coming to that conclusion and thus dissuading his followers from eating bananas, most critical Ayurvedic practitioners are going to dance a bit when you bring it up. It makes Ayurvedic methodology, which can actually be a very sophisticated way to approach bioindividuality, look pretty kooky in light of the fact that a large portion of the worlds population gets their caloric needs met by eating bananas.
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.
Modern yoga visionary Paul Grilley is a teacher’s teacher. While I hear that term thrown around quite a lot these days, in Grilley’s case it seems wholly apropo. That’s because in many ways Paul Grilley is a member of a vanguard of teachers who are revolutionizing yoga through evidence-based practice. His yoga trainings in anatomy provide students with incontrovertible visual evidence of anatomical diversity, specifically as it relates to joints. (Though I don't think that he uses his understanding of anatomical diversity very well in the context of marketing his Yin Yoga brand...naturally flexible people can do themselves a great deal of long-term harm by focusing on expanding their connective tissue.)
Joints are perhaps the most vulnerable parts of our structural human anatomy, and joints are protected by ligaments. Ligaments are dense connective tissue structures that connect bone to bone. When muscle has released itself to the point of relying on ligaments for support, we risk damaging our joints and the connective tissues that surround them. In engineering terms, ligaments are plastic, not elastic. When you take a piece of plastic bag between your fingers and stretch it apart, it warps - there is no going back. These are essential protective structures that support the health and longevity of our movement, and with luck and safe use will continue to do so into the golden years of our lives. We need to protect them.
In his popular DVD, 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 their asana look the way their teacher tells them 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 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 bone-on-bone at the edge of your ROM in the shoulder joint, you are likely “hanging from the ligaments”, an offense that Yogalign teacher Michaelle Edwards has critique for aplenty.
Edwards has been refining her yoga method for more than twenty years and compiled her findings in a tome that is worth its (very significant) weight in injury-prevention gold. As a bodywork practitioner and yogi she 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.” (source)
Her method integrates principles of deep core breathing, fascia lines, moving from center efficiently, and maintaining healthy spinal curvature. 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 also 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 for me 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, there are very few poses that I can think of that would effectively internally rotate the femur to create counterbalance. In fact, I can think of none.
Let’s get back to that rogue journalist William Broad. One of the beautiful 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.”
I’m sure it is contrary to many basic physiology and kinesiology teachings as well, yet why the truth of it eluded yoga teachers for so long seems to be another instance of: that its just the information that was passed down the line. We were all playing parrot.
In the all of the pranayama training I have ever done, this increased oxygen fallacy has been used to explain the relaxation response that comes from deep breathing, and the reason for doing full abdominal or three-part breathing. In fact, I am somewhat sad to admit that its what I taught to students myself for many years. In the more vigorous pranayama techniques, the exact opposite is happening, we are increasing our levels of CO2.
This is not to say that pranayama isn’t useful; elongating and slowing the breath 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 made up by an ordinary person. A conjecture at a mechanism of action that was passed off as a truth.
There are a growing handful of yoga teachers and organizations that are paving the way for a more anatomy-informed yoga practice. Leslie Kaminoff, Sadie Nardini and Jill Miller are the first to come to mind after Paul Grilley and Michaelle Edwards. 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 the ligaments in your spine. I recommend that we all exercize great discrimination when choosing a teacher. Don’t be afraid to insult people by asking them about their anatomy background. 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.
If you are a teacher yourself, this doesn't necessarily mean that you should stop teaching. But it means that it's time to get more curious about the unquestioned maxims in your practice. A 200 hour Yoga Alliance certification is hardly worth the paper its printed on: it doesn't verify that you have the knowledge to keep your students safe, I know this because they gave me one long before I did. The most important thing is to stay honest about what you do and what you are trained in. We cross the ethical threshold when we lose our humility and pretend to be something we are not. Keep learning and keep challenging. If your lineage doesn't have in-depth evidence-based anatomical training in the curriculum or you have the feeling that you don't quite know enough but are teaching from the grace of the masters, find someone you can learn from.
My own journey into practice has been roundabout, and sometimes my best yoga teachers didn't even teach me "yoga"... In my early twenties I was spending a weekend with one of my dearest friends in Topanga Canyon outside of Los Angeles. She lived on a gorgeous piece of land with a few other people, and one of those people was Olaf Hartmann. Olaf was an interesting guy to me. For all I could tell, he lived in what seemed a lot like a cave. He had a big open space where he did various movement forms like Chi Gong and cultivated his life force. Olaf radiated life. I still remember a conversation that I had with him one night in passing because he said something that no one before that moment had ever told me.
Very impressed with Olaf’s physical prowess, I lamented that I wished I had the discipline that he so clearly had. I told him that I often chose to sleep in rather than practice in the early morning hours like a good yogini. He asked me if I found my practice pleasurable. I was stunned. I told him something to the effect of: Um…kinda, I mean, I feel better after I practice, and I thought that yoga was about fighting against our lazy unconscious impulses anyway… He gave me his million dollar smile and simply said “Try moving into pleasure. When you wake up in the morning you don’t even need to get out of bed, just move your body in ways that feel pleasurable…luxuriously like a cat, and just see how long you want to continue.”
I have remembered that encounter for all of these years for one reason: it was a game changer for me. Suddenly I looked at my practice with new eyes: how could I make this practice about moving into pleasure? It instantly dropped me into myself, my breath, and that moment in my body. This was not about hedonic pleasure but about expansive healthy movement. I think that Olaf’s gem of wisdom probably saved me from experiencing more yoga related injury than I have. It also helped to keep me honest about what feels good in my body, which is more often that not what is truly healthy for me.
My practice these days maintains the spirit of yoga, but only some of the form. I find myself dropping into my needs in the moment a lot more, getting curious and playing with life. I do self-massage with tennis balls and I “roll out” my body with foam rollers. I do a full practice if I’m in the mood, but more often I take time here and there to pause and expand. I treat my joints gingerly because I have injured nearly all of them. I let the energy roll through my body and up my spine as I wake it up through the movement of my hips. I meditate at any time of day, in the shower, and while drinking tea. I do alternate nostril breathing on occasion, but more often I “breathe into” my floating ribs- thats where I tend to find a little tightness. I move in silly ways, awakening my “kid body”, I walk on the floor on my hands and knees to rebalance my hips and spine, I handstand, I laugh… and I often spend a chunk of my morning moving into pleasure from the cozy comfort of my bed.
My life is about moving into yoga much more than “doing” it.