I was recently fortunate to have a new experience which shook up some deep held beliefs. I tried a form of yoga I have been quite skeptical of. I wanted to test some ideas that I had formulated based on hearing from intelligent yoga practitioners who had extreme experiences with this particular form, with it’s founder and main teachers, as well as in many studios around the world.
I went outside of my usual yoga box of alignment based vinyasa and tried what all the cool kids are doing. Hot Yoga. I am in no way trying to invalidate a form of yoga which is very popular and seems to be effective for many people. But I also question things that don’t seem to be questioned. Especially extreme (and vague) instructions in yoga like, “lock your knees” or “push yourself, more more!” What about cranking yourself into a seated twist by an instructor who barks, “pull yourself harder into it by pushing your extended arm into your bent leg” ? This being a known cause of significant S.I. joint irritation. Also to be asked to pull and bounce into forward bends without establishing spinal length, a cause of over loading discs which can lead to major back injuries.
This was a valuable compassion practice for me. Compassion for myself for being different, for being slower, more careful and for not doing poses or actions that I questioned. Compassion for the teacher who followed a prescribed script and a way of imposing it in order to not risk getting sued by a founder that has copyright and patent restrictions on his yoga.
Perhaps sliding around on a carpet would also raise some question. We have sticky mats, why do we need to quickly slide in and out of a pose with sweaty bare feet on a synthetic rug?
In class, I noticed a large demographic; 20’s something very flexible women. A few athletic men and one or two older, less flexible or over weight folks were smattered around. This style of yoga does tend to draw those who can do it easily and without question. An already open, supple body that can repair and recover quickly from aches and pains from doing a pose incorrectly. A body that is so open and limitless that it can perform poses easily and quickly over and over again, becoming more sensation driven and less attuned to subtlety and warning signs. I know this body well, as I have one.
There was an overall competitiveness in the room, people pushing themselves hard and falling in and out of poses in a disgruntled fashion. This was aided by the instructor who stood up on a pedestal and yelled instruction like a drill sergeant, calling out people by name who were not following along. We were constantly told to look ahead at ourselves in the mirror. I do see some benefits of seeing the form of our poses, but if this is not balanced by internal awareness, an inner eye, or development of how a pose feels, what lasting benefit does it have? Are we training our bodies and drawing on their intelligence by relying so much on external cues from generalized instruction and from mirrors? It felt to me that this mirror was used as much for narcissism and distraction as for a visual tool.
In the change room I took note of conversations about class. When asked if she liked the classes a young woman said, “I can’t say I like them. I get through them,” another replied, “I don’t even pay attention any more, I just zone out and it just happens.”
This seems like a recipe for injury to me.
We have a tendency in our culture to follow along with what the teacher says. We aren’t taught to question. In our early schooling, we listen passively and reiterate what is taught. This is rewarded with good grades and fitting in socially. When we take this into our yoga practice, we allow teachers to push us and impose an external agenda on us in a quickly orchestrated way. We look at the other students and use them as a guide, rather than tuning into our own inner experience. How can we fit in socially, not look different, and keep up with everyone else? It’s a deeply imbedded survival mechanism conditioned into us from an early age.
Because class sizes are usually large and teachers are trained in general instructions meant to serve a general public, the specificity is lost. Traditionally, yoga was taught one on one or in small groups. The teacher would have committed students, consistently over many years. The modern yoga class is a far cry from this. It is challenging for teachers to focus on one person and for students to find the specific instructions right for their own unique bodies. In this format, as teachers we can only give general instructions and do our best to keep people safe and to go around briefly to adjust one on one without disrupting the flow of the class. As students, can we go to a class and zone out, not questioning or keeping focused if we want to prevent injury? We miss out completely on the huge positive effects of keeping present and engaged when we blindly just let things happen.
When asked about locking knees Richard Rosen, a very well respected teacher in anatomy and therapeutics replied:
“Assuming that you’re talking about the knee joints, I took your question to Charles Holman, a Bikram teacher here in Berkeley, California. He speculated that your Bikram teacher probably wanted you to “lock the knees straight,”not back into hyperextension.
There are also teachers who want students to keep their knees bent. Larry Payne, Ph.D., coauthor of Yoga for Dummies, says that what he calls “forgiving limbs” (both knees and elbows) help lengthen the spine and protect the knees and lower back, particularly important if you’re tight in the hips and hamstrings or if you have a touchy lower back.
Paradoxically, it may be more helpful not to think about “straightening the knees” at all. Instead, focus on working with the two “ends” of the legs: the “heads” of the thigh bones and the heels.
Stand in Tadasana (Mountain Pose), knees slightly bent. Purposely (and carefully) lock the knees back. How does that feel in the knees? Then, bend the knees again and imagine someone is pushing on your calves. Slowly pressing your top thighs back, resist the pressure on your calves and drive your heels into the floor, keeping the tailbone down and in, and the “eyes” of your kneecaps looking straight ahead. How do your knees feel now?”
How does it feel? Education and questioning are necessary if we want to stay practicing. There are many differing viewpoints out there from many teachers. Why do we practice what we do? Why are we told to do something, what is it suppossed to do anatomically and energetically? How does this translate to my body? Often we can only answer these questions with an educated professional, an outside eye that will show us areas that we often can’t see or overlook for various reasons. One on one sessions with a yoga instructor versed in anatomy or with a physical therapist is key to this understanding.
Another article on protecting one’s self from injury:
The Buddha taught that we must question everything. He encouraged his students to question his teachings and bring them into their own experience to test it before it was brought into the level of belief. Even then, students were encouraged to keep questioning.
A funny blog entry from a great English teacher I sat with many years ago in India talking about the Buddha’s humaness:
As a now 31 year old, uber flexible practitioner who pushed through many different styles of yoga worldwide throughout my twenties, I am beginning to feel the detrimental effects of “hanging out” in my yoga practice. I could, and still can, flop in and out of poses that look “correct” but that generally ignore my weaknesses and further strengthen my bad habits. Ultimately this has become unchallenging. I have two choices here; I can push further into poses to feel more sensation, repeating and holding poses for longer to feel the challenge. Or I can become more subtle, focusing more on breath, alignment and energetics, not to mention direct experience and testing what I’ve been told to do against how it feels and what it actually does. The first road has been a dangerous one which has led me to injury at worst and mindless, mechanical “getting the job done” at best. The second road has led me to challenge my set ways and to ride an edge of bliss and discomfort, a discomfort that ultimately causes me to grow. On this second road I may be slower, less acrobatic and goal oriented in my practice. I may look on the outside to not be doing the poses fully. But on the inside there is more of a sensitivity to my experience, using asana to approach and integrate the other limbs of yoga (see below post for definitions on the 8 limbs).
“May you live in interesting times” is thought to be a Chinese proverb or even a curse. “Interesting” could indeed go either way here. Perhaps it depends on how much interest we do pay, how much attentiveness we bring to any experience life has to offer, seeing its lessons as well as its potential for leading us astray. These are interesting times, we are bombarded by a barrage of information from various sources. Can we meet this with our own discerning intellect, becoming aware of our own blind spots as well as the conditioning and blind spots of others? We are all learning together, some of the most valuable discourse we can offer each other is respectful and compassionate questioning.
Should we be able to patent something like yoga? Where is the line drawn, can this then extend to traditional medicine practices and herbs?