Anyone who has been coming to my classes over the past 6 months has probably noticed a change. Gone is the strict alignment, holding poses for a long time, and rules – and instead a more exploratory, flowing style, with moments of stillness, and much more about getting students to feel what is right for them, rather than conforming to any outside strictures about what a pose should be.
So why the change?
Yoga has for a long time injured me. Not at first, not when I went to one class a week. But when I started to increase my practice, and particularly when I got into more dynamic practices, I noticed that something always hurt. I thought that this was my fault, or the fault of my body. I never once stopped to consider whether what the practice was asking of me was right.
I practice at home almost everyday; sometimes an hour or more, other times ten minutes. Occasionally I use a video, but mostly it’s just me moving my body. In the mornings, when I usually practice, I found myself doing more mindful movement, rather than any particular yoga poses. I would just move and breathe in a way that opened up my body and felt good, and if I arrived in a pose then great, and if I didn’t, no bother. I was much more in tune with what my body needed and what it needed in that moment.
The problem came when I had to practice my teaching sequence. All good teachers will practice their lesson plan to make sure it feels right and makes sense. Unfortunately, my lesson sequence increasingly did NOT feel particularly great in my body. So I started to add some small changes. Rather than hold low lunge/ anjeneyasana, how about we moved the spine in a cat/cow wave, rolling up and down? Lovely on the back, requires much greater activation through the legs and core, and all kind of interesting things going on in the hips.
As well as teaching and practicing yoga, I also work out at the gym, doing functional movement and lifting weights. I started to actually prefer this to doing yoga sometimes! I felt much more at home in my body and it didn’t hurt (whereas a lot of yoga especially ashtanga vinyasa is agony for me). This was clearly becoming a slight problem!
I really wanted to teach more of what I was practicing. But how to translate what I was doing organically into a lesson plan, and in a way that didn’t hurt others? I went to some workshops with other teachers: Naomi Absalom, Gary Carter, John Stirk, and incorporated some of this in my classes. The feedback was good! Then someone recommended a lady called Julie Martin from Brahmani Yoga. I checked out her website, and whilst I wasn’t sure about all of it, suddenly here was someone teaching more of what I was practicing.
So what is it?
I attended one of Julie’s immersions over the summer where were learned how to teach this embodied style. Firstly, it is all about being in the body and what works for your body. Many yoga instructions are not fit for all, for example, to stand with your feet together. If you have a wider pelvis this doesn’t feel so great, you can lack stability. Instead, students are encouraged to adjust their feet and shift weight until their feet are in a position that is comfortable and supportive for their whole body. Of course, as a teacher, I can see where someone still needs to take the feet wider or narrower, so I might ask: “what happens if…?” and encourage them to explore that.
Secondly, some poses have gone and others have been invented. If you ever wanted to know what a surfer, a horse, a cowboy, Usain Bolt or a crouching puppy have to do with yoga, then you need to come to class! I am incorporating my knowledge of how our bodies actually move, in a functional way, and finding poses and transitions that build on that. As Norman Blair says, rather than contorting our bodies to fit the idealised image of a pose, why not change the pose to fit our bodies?
Thirdly, at the heart of yoga is why we are doing this at all? If we want to move and breathe, calm the nervous system and relax, there are many ways to do this. Yoga specifically is about coming home to ourselves, and this is done by developing awareness and then integrating that. Any form of movement that puts external rules on other’s bodies rather than encouraging a burgeoning sense of self awareness and responsibility isn’t especially yogic.
How did we get here?
It’s helpful to understand some yoga history, how we got here, and also what is happening in the wider yoga world outside Tunbridge Wells. In the 1920s, the King of Mysore in India asked T. Krishnamacharya to develop a system of strengthening body and mind that had a particular Indian flavour. His system was an amalgamation of some 80-100 postures from Hatha Yoga (c.1500 – 1900, scholars are still translating texts and investigating!), Swedish gymnastics, calisthenics and body building.
Krishnamacharya had four now famous students: K Pattabhi Jois of Astanga Yoga, BKS Iyengar, TKV Desikachar and Indra Devi. Each took what they had learned and developed their own schools of yoga. Two of the most influential are Ashtanga and Iyengar yoga. These teachers designed a physical culture system for young Indian men. Many of the poses and also the instructions for how to do the pose ‘properly’ came from working on these young Indian men, and Iyengar in particular worked on his own body (as seen in his book, ‘Light on Yoga’).
None of this is a problem. Until you try and take what was designed for young Indian men into a room in Tunbridge Wells. Older people, mostly women, exhausted mums, exhausted commuters, people who mostly sit all day, injuries, surgeries, illnesses – and very different body shapes. Suddenly, what worked back then might not necessarily work now. It’s not to say that it’s wrong, more that maybe some adjustments, tweaks and changes are needed to make it work in a new population.
What else is going on?
Not all teacher training programmes are created equal. How many have anatomy taught by a movement specialist? Trainee teachers are taught all these cues and ‘alignment’ instructions, and in some styles are taught how to ‘adjust’ someone else’s body into the ‘right’ shape, but often with limited explanation about what’s happening in the body.
My training course had anatomy taught by a lady with a PhD in Physiotherapy who was also a qualified yoga therapist. Much of what she said directly contradicted what our teachers were saying – and this was the start of my questioning! When I started to take further training and qualifications, such as the Applied Anatomy course at Flow Tunbridge Wells (led by an osteopath!), more questions started to come up. Why are we doing that pose? For what benefit? What could you do instead to open/strengthen that part of the body?
In a wider context, more and more questions are being asked about what we’re actually doing with yoga poses. For the regular yoga student, you might not be aware of a series of claims of physical and sexual assault against several yoga teachers, including the aforementioned Pattabhi Jois. It is in this context that a teacher adjusting a student into a ‘deeper’ version of a pose without consent starts to look like assault, especially if the student feels pain or is hurt. I know I have hurt students making adjustments, and for that I apologise profusely. I no longer make adjustments but I might touch a student to encourage them to move for themselves. As a student if you do not want to be adjusted or touched, please tell your teacher, as many do not ask for consent up front.
In the broader yoga history, even a cursory glance over the past 2500 years shows that each group was building on practices that had come before, and then creating and adapting new things for themselves. So the Sramanas from 300-600BC can be seen in Patanjali 500 CE, both can be seen in Tantra 500-1200CE, all can be seen in Hatha Yoga 1500- 1900, and Krishnamacharya used some Hatha Yoga in his system. Chakras, nadis, mudras are all old practices going back to the Tantras that we still use to day.
For me as a yogi, taking what came before, seeing if it is effective, changing it, bringing in other systems, is all part of following the yogic tradition. Nothing ever stayed the same! And maybe it’s time we applied that spirit of yoga evolution and exploration to our modern physical practice.
Questions or comments? Let me know