In a major memorabilia purge, my husband found some old yoga-class promotional pictures that I had completely forgotten. I’m in dramatic poses, wearing a navy leotard with foot straps and a flowing gold scarf around my waist. They were dated 1978, and I would definitely not recommend doing poses the way I demonstrated in those pictures—the days of mellow-pretzel yoga, when a curved spine in twists and rounded, extreme forward folds were the norm. Why I thought I—an unschooled kid—could teach yoga at that time is unfathomable now. I was fortunate though, and soon after encountered some great teachers who resoundingly put me in my place. And honestly, they still do! But even with formal study, I've found that much of my evolution as a teacher came out of the simple joy of teaching for a long time. Learning more about the people who came to my classes, and their bodies and abilities, became more and more important to me, while teaching the poses for their own sake lost its luster.
Why I thought this unschooled kid could teach yoga at that time is unfathomable now.
Though I go back time and again to principles I learned from the many fine senior Iyengar teachers with whom I've been privileged to study, there are some instructions that keep being offered to students from this, and many other postural hatha traditions, that don’t work well for everyone. And here is one reason: the bodies that I'm teaching today aren’t the same as the bodies to which Krishnamacharya and Iyengar and Patabhi Jois taught the skills of hatha.
For instance, the average pelvis of someone of European descent (which comprises a large percentage of yoga patrons) is somewhat wider than that of people whose ancestors were from Asian countries. Also, a female pelvis is usually broader in proportion. Various leg contours of both sexes can affect standing positions as well (think “bowing” of legs or “knock knees”). Which means that, because of anatomical differences, some practitioners need a wider stance in standing poses than the “traditional” tightwire positions of heel-to-arch or heel-to-heel. No warrior of merit would choose to fight on a tightwire and torque the knee to align with the foot. Same goes for tadasana (mountain pose). No mountain rests on a pebble. Standing with feet hip-width apart is, for most bodies, a smarter choice when it comes to balance and knee safety. So, why is feet-together considered "more advanced?" And why does "more advanced" often imply "more correct"? Could it be that the narrow leg practices were devised for the teenage boys in the yoga ashrams of yore, and the practice just hasn’t been rethought?
Teaching in a Stressed-Out, Sedentary World
Living in a modern world presents issues that affect what may or may not be beneficial in yogasana. Several writers have addressed the repercussions of forcing the hips to "open," or exploiting already hypermobile hips (consider William J. Broad's "Puzzled by a Contradiction"). While pelvic structure varies from practitioner to practitioner and can certainly affect a person's experience of a pose, the fact that so many yoga teachers and students are needing hip replacements likely has less to do with the shapes of their acetabulums (the cup-shaped socket of the hip joint) and more to do with chair-sitting work habits and lifestyles. Perhaps, instead of continuing to teach always-done-it-that-way alignment, yoga teachers need to reevaluate their audiences. Ever had a teacher push your pelvis to a wall in triangle? Yep, I saw my teachers do it and thought it was requisite. Ever had a teacher tell you to roll open from warrior III to half moon? Even when you felt that pinching bone-on-bone pain in your hip socket? When even senior instructors are lining up for hip prosthetics, it makes you think again.
Ever had a teacher push your pelvis to a wall in triangle? Yep, I saw my teachers do it and thought it was requisite.
Part of that hip issue, as instructor Shari Friedrichsen points out, might have to do with the fact that many asana practitioners are also meditators. Sitting in padmasana (lotus pose), siddhasana (accomplished pose), or sukhasana (easy pose) requires external hip rotation. If you're sitting this way for a long period of time every day, it can cause adductors to weaken and alignment failures, like an imbalance of vastus medialis and vastus lateralis (both quad muscles located just above the knee), causing destabilization to occur in the knee or pelvis. Any movement we do too frequently creates imbalance. Yes, even sitting for meditation. So, can we cross-train our seated postures? How about alternating with a different meditation pose, like sitting in a chair or a supported kneeling posture? These may not be classic in appearance, but staying comfortable in our bodies for as long as possible gives us a better shot at maintaining our practices for the long haul. I know I don’t want to blow my hips for the sake of sitting in a classic pose.
In my work as a yoga therapist in hospital and clinical settings, I am surprised at the number of people I see who have been diagnosed with degenerative or herniated disc issues. (Those damn chairs again. Oh, and cars…and planes). If about 30% of the people who come to me for yoga therapy have such a diagnosis, how many are undiagnosed? And in a public yoga class, how many more? Yet, teachers still repeat the “roll up one vertebra at a time” adage. In this transition, we are basically putting all of our upper body weight on passive spinal muscle, while locking the knees, using little core strength, and squeezing the "jelly doughnut" of a disc as though it’s a great idea. "Roll up one vertebra at a time" is something that I once taught, assuming it was gentler than coming up with a flat back! Wow, am I sorry.
I also gave up twists initiated from the lower back a long time ago. You know, “Lie on your back and simply roll your knees to one side.” Pop-pop go the lumbar sacral joints. One time, or a couple, it might be okay. Doing it over and over destabilizes those joints. How about stacking the spine in an alignment that arranges the crown of the head over the center of the pelvis, stabilizing the lower back and twisting from the waist up? Then most of the movement comes from the shoulder blades and stretches those needy pectorals.
And then there's the neck!! Oh, forgive me. I’ll admit, neck problems are worse now than they were 25, even 10 years ago. Forward-head issues were probably rare in the days when Krishnamacharya barked at his young protégés to leap into headstands and unsupported shoulderstands, but I see chronically strained necks everywhere now—the chin jutting well in front of the chest and the upper back rounded even in the young. (Check: Is your head forward right now?) The act of hurling the head back in camel, upward dog, cobra, urdhva hastasana (upward salutes) and the like is, for most people, a structurally and energetically lousy thing to do to those fragile cervical vertebrae. But many teachers, especially young ones who have not yet felt the effects of practicing this way long-term, love the ascent of the chin and the dramatic visual effect it provides. Yet, while it takes some time to get acquainted with a contained, regal, level chin and upward-moving eyes, this can be very pretty too.
A woman with a long-standing practice came to me to address problems she was having with her back and neck, and proceeded to show me how well she could do plow pose—no props, hands clasped, feet to the floor. No wonder it was her favorite pose. It was easy for her and she thought she was “good at it.” She (as many of us do) lived in that position! Head jutting forward, rounded spine, shoulders collapsed. But she hated to give it up because some past teacher had praised her as a natural at halasana. As teachers, we often reinforce a person’s over-flexibility, or encourage them to stay in a pose too long so that they can help demonstrate a pose they probably don’t even need to be doing. If we just take the time as teachers to look at who is attending, we can help them strengthen or mobilize what is needed. But time…who has that?
Less Is More
The need for speed has no place in yoga asana. I hear it all the time: “I tried yoga, but the teacher goes so fast that I can’t keep up! I can't even remember what we did or what they said.” I can remember how irritated I used to feel when people left my class saying “Good workout!” I’d think, “But this is supposed to be a work-in!” Looking back, it was often my fast pace that prevented the assimilation of the underlying practice. I presented too much information and too many poses in one class. While my intention was to present my students with the best class I could, rather than allowing them time to assimilate and digest the experience of each pose, I was giving them too much to swallow. Timing. What a subtle, yet important thing.
Looking back, it was often my fast pace that prevented the assimilation of the underlying practice.
Preach What You Practice
Bless Iyengar’s heart for introducing blankets to support the shoulders in salamba sarvangasana (supported shoulderstand). Shame on him for not demonstrating with them himself (at least not initially). The classic, Light on Yoga, shows him in countless difficult poses with no props. Yet, Iyengar himself—and teachers trained by him—would use lots of support in a classroom. But not everyone gets a chance to study with a senior teacher, and this is an immensely popular text. For many students, it might be the only asana book they ever see. Consequently, they might get the impression that they're "weak" or "bad" at a particular pose if they use support. I do remember a senior Iyengar teacher telling me that if I could lift my cervical spine away from the floor in plow by squeezing my shoulders together, then my neck would be fine without props. Well, that didn’t work for me. It resulted in forcing more weight into my neck to flatten the curve and put pressure on the back of my head. Years later, neck and head pain brought me back to practicing with two to three blankets and a preference for viparita karani (inverted action pose) over shoulderstand and plow. But not before I’d handed that advice on to some students. After all, a big league teacher said it, right? The crazy thing was that intuition told me not to trust his recommendation. (He also walked out of the workshop before shavasana, saying we didn’t deserve it—which shows that even jerks can get high-level certifications.) Wow again. I am so sorry!
Sorry again for teaching headstands to a group class. In the early days of hatha yoga in the U.S., we were honestly taught that everyone needed headstand. Now, I'd never teach a headstand without knowing about a person’s practice and core strength, or without watching their head and neck alignment, and being certain they had enough shoulder stability. Teaching headstand in a public class was foolish and risky, even though I was giving the “right” cues.
It's Okay to Say "Not Today"
There is so much good that can be found in the practice of yoga, so much healing, that I don’t want students to feel fearful of it. Yoga is movement—and it should be conscious movement, not rote or based on bodies of the past. We drive, work, sit, and walk about with rounded spines that are unhealthy and grip around our tailbones, and that is where yoga practice needs to begin. Start correcting the stuff that’s hurting your posture on and off the mat. If you're asked to do something in a yoga class that causes fear or safety worries, it’s not a time to "do as you are told" or “overcome your fears.” It’s okay to say, “I don’t have the arm or core strength to support that yet,” or “I’d better do some research to see if that pose is okay for my diagnosis.” Instructor or peer pressure to do the pose is never a good reason to take risks with your neck, knees, or back. However, human errors occur in the best of classes and none of us can expect to teach or attend a “perfect class.”
After years of practicing fantastic, crazy hip-openers, pigeon pose kind of hurts me now. My ego says “do it anyway,” but when I leave it out of my home practice and focus on strengthening my inner thighs and core instead, the world doesn't end. Maybe I’m learning, but it has taken difficulty in my own body to understand the importance of paying attention to each person's unique and individual anatomy. I don’t wish pain on any teacher, but one of my beloved teachers once told me that if we don’t learn compassion, karma will teach it to us in not-so-gentle ways. Broken ribs, coccyx, pelvis, and collarbones; multiple fractures; concussions; frozen shoulder; celiac disease; high-risk pregnancies; osteoporosis; anemia; and addictions were a blessed training ground for me—in retrospect. None of these problems were a direct result of my asana practice, but my work on the mat and in meditation helped me through each one, and I found a new piece of the healing puzzle. I must have needed a lot of karmic help. Time gives us opportunities to either lose ground or adapt and grow through injury, illness, or crisis. I’ve made wrong calls in teaching, but thankfully, no one in my class has been seriously hurt because of something I offered. (Well, someone did get kicked in the jaw once by another student. Also, an exhausted marathoner tore her hamstring in class once. And then a guy pulled off his toenail on a new sticky mat. Unintentional injury is a human experience. People get creative, and I’m being honest here).
Maybe I’m learning, but it has taken difficulty in my own body to understand the importance of paying attention to each person's unique and individual anatomy.
Looking back, we often wish that we had known better. No one is born a master at anything though, and as yoga teacher Rod Stryker said, “If a teacher claims to have the answers and the one true yoga, run like hell.”
See, yoga teachers are human, and the good ones continue to learn and study and grow in understanding. While your teachers may know a lot about yoga, they can’t know everything about you. To my students who stayed the long haul, I hope you gained from my continued reading, learning, practice, and study. To those who were there in the early days: no floor-length golden scarves in asana! Oh, and as for the less-than-wise alignment, cut that stuff out, okay? Understand your own challenges and limitations, keep your study alive, and ask lots of questions!