“One of my goals in life is to do the slowest Primary Series anywhere… rather than the quickest”. Richard Freeman

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Thursday, 28 February 2013

GUEST POST: Yoga Gypsy - How I Help Perpetuate The Modern Yoga Narrative

Not exactly a guest post but reading this frank and honest post from La Gitane, a practicing yoga Teacher herself, over at YOGA GYPSY http://yogagypsy.blogspot.co.uk, gave me pause and has left me wondering all week to what extent I too perpetuate(ed) an asana fixation and how one goes about teaching/encouraging an integrated AND BALANCED practice in the present climate.

After experiencing a transformation of sorts, physically at least as well as an opening to ideas I wouldn't perhaps have considered, I began to question the asana focus of my own practice. I would practice less asana so I could practice more slowly and with longer fuller breaths leaving time for pranayama and mediation but I would often feel at the end that, I kinda hadn't really had a proper practice.

It's taken a long while to get over that and accept that perhaps less is more (and I expect a relapse any day). It's not just Ashtanga of course, Iyengar too is fixated on asana, Bikram, Power yoga, Vinyasa flow, Gym Yoga in general, no doubt. And Ramaswami's Vinyasa Krama too, more balanced perhaps with it's stress on an integrated practice, on including pranayama and meditation as well as pratyahara, chanting and the study of the texts of yoga Philosophy, but with so many sequences and subroutines, a whole book devoted (The Complete Book of Vinyasa Yoga ) to them, it's been hard to cut back and settle on just a handful of postures and only one or two subroutines at most.

Ramaswami's first book, Yoga for the Three Stages of Life has a much better balance in this sense and is one of the best book on Yoga I've read (series of posts to come on each chapter). Ramaswami writes that in a daily, one hour class/lesson/session with his teacher of over thirty years, Krishnamacharya, they would perhaps spend half an hour on asana.

See also this newsletter from Ramaswami
Asana and Vinyasa : Ramaswami's June 2012 Newsletter

and this one which includes my TT course essay 'Asana madness'

August 2010 Newsletter from Srivatsa Ramaswami—2010 VK-TT Program Feedback

This is not intended as a criticism of any one style but is more concerned with the raising of a questions concerning our fixation on postural yoga.

Anyway, I asked La Gitane if it was OK to repost from her blog here.

Click on the title below to go to the actual post and read comments.

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 22, 2013

How I Help Perpetuate The Modern Yoga Narrative


Someone marvellous shared this funny little graphic on Facebook, and it made me laugh out loud. Which is it's own form of yoga, by the way.  It also made me think, on a deeper level, about that question of why we go to yoga, and how what was once an exclusive and sacred (not necessarily good things) discipline of spiritual seeking has become boiled down in our minds to one word: "flexible".  Whence this post....


~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Now that yoga is fantastically popularised and pretty much mainstream, the average modern yoga student probably isn't familiar with the roots of yoga, beyond knowing that it originated in India a long time ago (like, when movies where still in black and white? ;) ). Many probably remember from their parents' generation of yoga that it had some kind of a spiritual component, but our generation doesn't like having "foreign" spiritual ideas thrown at us when we go to a public space. We prefer billboards, commercials and glossy magazines telling us what the world is all about, thanks, telling us what to value, and what we are worth. We fervently defend our right to not to learn about alternative philosophies unless we deliberately choose to (it's such a chore), as opposed to considering it our right (duty) to deeply examine the many facets of an issue before making a decision. No, we prefer to make decisions first, generally in the time it takes to "like" something on facebook, and our world rewards us for having the strength of character to simplify life into clear-cut dichotomies upon which we can make snap decisions and express strong opinions. (Is it any wonder politics is f$^@#*ed??)

In any case, I won't be the first or the last writer to comment on the disconnect between the roots of yoga as an integrated practice (mind - body - breath) and the narrative of modern postural yoga. Nor will I be the first or last to conclude that hey, to each their own, and if more people are doing yoga, then great, and there's nothing wrong with just doing asana to stay healthy (or bend yourself into a pretzel, or just feel good) and that being the end of it.

And to be honest with myself, and you, as a yoga teacher I play my own part in perpetuating the dominant narratives about yoga. In my classes, I teach 95% asana and only 5% pranayama. Sometimes I teach "fancy" postures. My cues and explanations focus mainly on the physical body, peppered with frequent reminders to breathe, and smile, and "be present". Most of my students, even my long-term ones, don't know about the koshas, or thedoshas, or prakriti and purusha, or moksha, or any of the other fundamental building blocks that shape the yogic worldview.

Yet not only do I know a bit about these concepts, but I relate to them, enjoy thinking and talking about them, and believe they offer a valuable perspective, one that is much needed in the modern world. So why do I help perpetuate the modern yoga narrative in all its bland, asana-focused-ness?

The truth is, I'm lazy. There is only so much time in a yoga class, and I have a cleverly designed sequence to get through, and still leave time for a long savasana.

The truth is, I'm concerned what my students will think. I believe they come to yoga expecting a work-out, and generally a tough one, at that, and I'm afraid that if I don't give it to them, they won't come back, they won't like me.

The truth is, my students paid for an asana class, not a philosophy class, and that's what I feel like I need to give them.

The truth is, I had to sign a contract agreeing not to preach my own personal philosophiesduring yoga class. Really. I did.  Edited to add: this is fair enough! It would be wrong to use my privileged position as a yoga teacher to tell others what to think or believe. But, where is the line between discussing yoga philosophy and "preaching a personal belief"? Some people are offended at even the use of sanskrit in a yoga class - in any case, it makes me nervous.

The truth is, my own practice is pretty much asana dominated, my meditation and pranayama having somehow slipped out and not quite been put back in.

And so I go, and I teach, and I practice, and I perpetuate the modern yoga narrative, all the whileknowing that it doesn't satisfy me.

*It doesn't satisfy me.*

But I smile and stand in front of a class, and perpetuate the narrative, because that is what's expected (obligated?) of me and because that's what I know how to do.

Yet I believe that there is a space in a yoga studio for honest conversation. A space for education that goes beyond the physical. For the exchange of points of view, the discussion of complex concepts that can't be resolved in the time-it-takes-to-click-like-on-facebook.

A space where people are willing, have the courage, are thirsty to go beyond the physical and examine, re-examine, their relationships with themselves and the world. 

I believe in that space - and that I can play a part in creating it. That I must help to create it, each time I step onto the mat.

--------------------------

A big thank You to La Gitane for allowing me to repost this.

See also my collegue in exploring Krishnamacharya's Yoga Makaranda practice dtw on his blog Krishnamacharya Yoga Journal

This blog post in particular


19 comments:

  1. I must admit that sometimes I feel the urge to tell you 'stop worrying about whether the knee was at a 30 degree angle or at a 45 one, yoga is not there' and then I refrain from doing so because when I think more deeply about it, your blogs are about asanas but are not about asanas.

    To me, it appears that it comes out loud and clear that these aspects of your 'modern yoga narrative perpetuation' are in fact only the frame for a long and discriminating journey into self discovery and into the discovery of the roots of your knowledge.

    And then of course there are practical observations, but there is a huge difference between blogging about how to get your nose to your big toe in paschimottanasana and blogging about the quality of breath when approaching the same asana. And I do not think I have seen much of the first, here. At least since I have been starting to follow you.

    Plus... this is your blog, right?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. ahhh, the 30 degree thing was to do with maha mudra, one of the key asana that ramaswami suggests we practice each day as well as one of the few postures mentioned in all the old texts. As a mudra it's pretty much designed for bandhas no? So was a surprise to come across Krishnamacharya's description of taking the leading leg out 30 degrees, where did he get that from? an old text or his own experimentation?

      but I take your point.

      I'm not really interested in asana dogmatics, the posture should be like this or that but I am quite taken with the idea of experimentation within postures, what happens when we try it like this, where do we feel the sensation, what about like this, is the sensation different. if I have a narrower stance in downward dog does it affect the bandhas, does it make them more obvious and what about in a wider stance is it more subtle.... You can get lost in this stuff of course ( as perhaps Iyengar did thankfully for us) but I think it can have it's place, it's just not the be all and end all.


      How many iyengars were there down trough the centuries who had the tempermant for that kind of experimentation and analysis who nobody ever heard about, and how many Krishnamacharya's too, rediscovering and reinventing, off on their own somewhere.

      re "And I do not think I have seen much of the first, here"
      Lots of that in the early days of the blog Chiara, my 14 day Karandavasana challenge series of posts comes to mind.

      Interestingly I now tend to think that the quality of the breath is probably what will take your nose to your knee, deep and full expressions of postures a pleasing byproduct of the quality of the breath.

      Yes it's mine mine mine! : )

      Actually I'm not sure I do think it's totally mine, once thought about deleting the whole thing but kind of felt that I didn't have the right, that it partly belonged to everybody who had commented over the years, their helping to shape it and my practice too somewhat.

      Delete
  2. That was a very honest, nice post. I can relate to every one of the "to be honest..." points. I have a feeling eventually we will start to see more integrative classes, even in gyms, maybe with more pranayama. These types of post open the conversation.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Dear Claudia, I think you are right! I think more and more people will start to demand it, and hopefully we will see a shift, especially as modern science continues to explore the benefits of meditation, pranayama, and relaxation. I also think that when you find a really *great* teacher, the deeper teachings are integrated so beautifully, that anything less just seems empty!

      Delete
    2. Ramaswami said something in a radio interview once. When he started teaching in the US people tended to be turned off by the pranayama and chanting but recently he's noticed they seem to be more open to it. In the time I've been writing this blog I've sensed a change in attitudes. As you say La Gitane, lots of 'science' coming out on the benefits of pranayama and mediation on stress etc. And of course meditation in the west is well established now, just have to join up the two communities perhaps. In some ways the 'pop yoga' can be seen as a good thing, it takes 'yoga' out of the new age/hippie corners or subcultures that many are turned off by and would tend to run a mile from and more into the mainstream. Some of what we might consider pop yoga are more comfortable about including a few breathing exercises and a little meditation than some hardcore 'traditional' Ashtangi's we can think of. It might only scratch the surface at times depending on the teacher but perhaps it breaks down resistance and eventually more serious treatments of those elements of practice can come through. It can lead one perhaps to seek out more ...knowledgable teachers which in turn may lead everyone to raise their game.

      Delete
  3. But isn't there a big difference between yoga and yoga classes/studios/etc, because the first is a religion or a philosophical system and the second is a business, a service provided in exchange for money. I'm not saying one or the other is bad, just that they are a very different things. Students in a yoga class are customers who are there to buy a specific product they believe they will get based on the class description on the website and their ideas about what yoga is, etc, and it would be bad business (and annoying, who likes a bait and switch?) to give them something else. Soft-selling hints about the rest of yoga seems allowable but ultimately a yoga teacher in a studio is being paid to provide what the customer wants or go out of business. Nothing wrong with that. But a religion/philosophy (what to call it, people don't like the "religion" word, but isn't it, kind of, that?) is something you do inside yourself, your practice happens inside yourself, even if you do it in a class, it's personal, it's something completely different from a a business transaction. I don't know, maybe I'm making a hash of this thought. I guess I'm trying to say that what is for sale in a yoga studio (unless purposely described otherwise) IS the modern postural yoga narrative, and it would be dishonest to your customers to fill your class with kriyas and gitas and mudras or whatever. Seems like you can sell that if you want, too (and some do), you'll just have much smaller classes, probably, because ancient Indian philosophical systems are a niche taste in this country. I guess what I'm STILL TRYING to say is, that maybe feeling guilty over being paid to help people feel good with postural yoga isn't ahimsa to yourself. On the other hand, think how weird it would be if, say, there were exercise classes you go pay for where you walked the stations of the cross while the priest soft-sold the benefits of the greater Catholic system....

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Maya, thanks for the comment. I think you make an interesting point about the separation between the "business" of yoga, and yoga as a personal spiritual or philosophical journey. Of course the latter can and should not be commoditised, nor can it be transmitted in a group setting, especially one where people only come to class sporadically and often with multiple teachers!

      However, I DO think that the non-physical aspects of yoga are part of what attracts people to a yoga studio - otherwise they would just go to the gym, or do aerobics. I don't know many people who go to yoga "to get ripped". Most of them go because their friends report feeling good, sleeping better, having more energy and less anxiety, etc. Which is a result of how yogic postures, breathing, and relaxation work on the mind and body. And so I think that while people coming to an asana class should get an asana class, I also think that we owe it to our students to contextualise these experiences, and to give them a framework in which to understand that yoga is a practice that works on many levels. In addition, basic breath-work and concentration techniques are likely to enhance people's experiences dramatically, and hopefully keep them coming back for more - which is good for business! So I think there is room for an integrated practice, and for discussions like these. There may always be "niche" classes that are purely physical or purely philosophical, but I think the mainstream can handle more than the watered down version that so many people get.

      Delete
    2. Yoga a religion/philosophy? I can never decide if that's Yoga if if it's the Samkhya aspect of Yoga. I like to think of Yoga as a methodology based on samkhya philosophy. The problem is perhaps that only a small part of that methodology is getting taught/presented ( and even less perhaps of the philosophy) even though the teachers are often perhaps aware ( I would hope) of the other aspects of the methodology but choose not to present them out of fear of losing custom or lack of confidence coming from perhaps a lack of study or practice. Which perhaps raises questions of pedagogical integrity or could just meant they themselves feel it's really all about the health and fitness benefits of the asana.

      I think it does come down to the how you describe what it is your teaching, call it yoga breathing, posture, thought and focus (working title of my new book ) or something along those lines so there's no misunderstanding. If nobody turns up practice yoga eating ( one small meal a day, I swear by it) or teach part time and get a day job. Or teach your asana class and find the right balance for making the other limbs available, free or donation workshops, provide handouts etc.
      Thinking out loud here.

      Delete
    3. Hi Grim! Well, I hesitate to say more, it's such a touchy topic and there are people, including yourself!, who know a heck of a lot more about the whole religion/philosophy thing than I do, people way more qualified to make such distinctions than me. It has just seemed to me that if Buddhism is a religion, then yoga is too, they are so similar. I think of religion as being a set of beliefs about life and the world and a methodology based on those beliefs that should help the believer choose how to live a better life (better as defined by those beliefs). Yoga fills that bill. Although so does atheism, so maybe it is too broad a definition.

      On the other hand, I'm not sure it is really a valuable question to spend much time on, is it this or is it that. Get on with the practice, maybe, is the best response.

      I don't know. Yoga is big, it would be impossible to portray it all, plus we love what we love and we talk about what we love, and sometimes what we love is asana. The 1% comes slowly, slowly, in it's own time, right? I guess I just react to the feeling of guilt I sense in some of what is in this post. Guilt for not sharing/teaching the breadth of yoga, guilt for focusing on one (popular) part of yoga because it sells better. Guilt for liking asana. I probably just chafe at guilt in general.

      Delete
    4. i still can't decide whether Buddhism is or isn't a religion Maya, I think it both is and isn't depending on how you look at it and what aspects, these things are so big as you say and the word religion so small, makes me think of the Marx brothers sketch where they try to squeeze everyone into the smallest room. As you say Yoga is big and everything (smakhya) intermingled, hard ( I'd say impossible) to separate one thing out, we can try with asana but then i wonder if we manage it what we're really left with. It seems it's not so much a question of teaching just asana but how much of the other stuff to bring in or make available, where to stop.

      Perhaps rather than force feeding it you just have make other aspects available for if and when somebodies interest moves in that direction for a while. As teachers we should know this stuff perhaps for when a student does have that interest, if not and if we aren't interested then perhaps we shouldn't be teaching in the first place. Same as somebody with a good background in the philosophical aspects of yoga, perhaps they shouldn't be teaching asana if they don't have a fair understanding of anatomy.

      Really don't think there's any call for asana gult, Krishnamacharya LOVED asana and would supposedly send his students out to temples to look for sculptures and paintings. So fascinating to me recently exploring what he was doing with asana, how he went about exploring the breath the kumbhakas, the long stays, the marma point focus, the different combinations... what if you practice this one followed by this and we find that in Iyengar too of course and especially his son Prashant. I think when I wrote about asana madness in the post I link to it's not that I think we shouldn't practice asana, Ramaswami uses perhaps more than anyone ( has his own case of asana madness) but that we're perhaps not savouring them enough, making more of them and that's perhaps a good response to the problem Yoga Gypsy raises.

      Delete
    5. Paul harvey just posted this on fb on interest.

      “According to Patañjali (Yoga Sūtra C4 v17),
      comprehension is dependent opon two things:
      1. Your interest
      and
      2. The proximity of the object.
      Upekṣa is the interest of the Puruṣa for the object.
      The success of Dhyāna depends on the force (Śakti) of the Puruṣa that pushes the mind to direct itself towards an object.
      Without interest, there is no question and no answer.
      If you have the interest, you will discover the proximity.”
      - TKV Desikachar Madras December 19th 1998 on ‘Models for Meditation According to Indian Tradition’

      Delete
  4. This is something I've been thinking a lot about over the past several months, especially living, studying and practicing here in the U.S., a culture that's blatantly obsessed with the body and physical practices, not to mention with always wanting "more" (e.g., advanced/challenging/impressive) and "better" (e.g., postures, sequences, workouts).

    "Oh, you practice yoga? You must be really flexible! Can you put your legs behind your head and do the splits?"

    I've been thinking of how "simple living" can be a part of my practice, both on and off the mat, and how to best simplify my own practice so that it doesn't become yet another physical obsession (even if it's a "healthy" one).

    Looking forward to your posts on Yoga for the Three Stages of Life.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Best,

    --Nick

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nick - I think that "simple living" is probably the most powerful practice there is. :) And really, that is what the practice is about - stripping away all the kleshas, the extra ego-driven thoughts and actions that we don't need, and living in a way that is lets us just be. No obsession is truly "healthy" - not for body, or the mind. Asana obsession is just another "mental modification", another attachment - it's important that we recognise that and try to move beyond it, to a place of acceptance. Thanks for sharing!

      Delete
    2. Thank you, and thank you for your blogpost "How I Help Perpetuate The Modern Yoga Narrative." Your reflection resonated with me; I've definitely been exploring these and similar questions in my own practice and it's so helpful to be able to explore them with teachers and fellow practitioners.

      Best,

      --Nick

      Delete
  5. In my opinion we need to make up our minds about what we want and not fool ourselves with the 'this is a business and we need to give customer what they want' narrative.
    If we are happy to teach only asanas, so be it. A certain population will attend our classes. We may - or may not - make money.
    If we truly want to include other limbs in our teachings, so be it. A certain - only partially overlapping - population will attend our classes. And of course this may mean - at least initially - making little money.
    Most of the people who come out of teacher trainings are full of ideals about sharing the large benefits yoga brought them. These benefits are also very much related to non-asana practice.
    So how does that get lost along the business plan?
    As in all things, we need to be clear about our intentions first, and only after look for outside influence on our actions. This latter is very often only minimal compared to decisions that we already, inside ourselves, have made.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Chiara, I am not so sure that yoga studios would "lose money" teaching a more integrated, a more whole, version of yoga. Yes, if you offer an asana class and then just have people sit in meditation for 75 minutes, you would probably not get that many returning customers!! But I think we can teach an integrated practice: a simple combination of breath and body awareness, mindful asana practice, relaxation, and some philosophical offerings to think about at home. I think the reason that more of us don't do it is simply because, as I said in my post, we are afraid. Most teacher trainings don't teach us how to TEACH these things - only how to teach asana. But for me, anyway, that's the next step in my own yoga practice - overcoming those fears and teaching the way that feels right, without fear or attachment to the results. :)

      Delete
    2. Hi La Gitane.
      I agree. That was the sense of my comment but perhaps it did not come across correctly. In my classes, 1/3 is pranayama/prathyahara/dharana/dhyana and 2/3 asana. Approximately. That's the way I started and the way I continue to teach. I lost some students along the way of course, interestingly typically the younges ones, but I gained others.
      When you said 'afraid', meaning of loosing students, I think there is one additional component of 'afraid' that is rarely mentioned. This component is being afraid of not being up to teach the philosophy part, or the higer limbs for that matter. Which makes perfect sense. If you think about it, teaching asanas really is the easiest part.
      Perhaps we all need to reach a much higher level of practice, as well as teaching experience before we venture confidently into that tougher part.

      Delete
  6. A long journey... I mean were you be able to write this post without having a half decade of really serious asana focused practice? I don't think so. And that's all right.

    ReplyDelete
  7. My teacher weaves the more traditional teachings throughout our our asana based classes. I don't think this turns any of the students off. She always provides an opportunity after class if we want to discuss the other limbs of yoga and how they relate to our practice. I think she has found a nice balance.

    ReplyDelete

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A Reminder

from Kalama sutra, translation from the Pali by Bhikkhu Bodhi This blog included.

"So, as I said, Kalamas: 'Don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, "This contemplative is our teacher." When you know for yourselves that, "These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm & to suffering" — then you should abandon them.' Thus was it said. And in reference to this was it said.

"Now, Kalamas, don't go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, 'This contemplative is our teacher.' When you know for yourselves that, 'These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness' — then you should enter & remain in them. Buddha - Kalama Sutta
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