I once attended an advanced yoga class in which the peak pose was vrksasana (tree pose). In this high-level class, a fancy, upside-down, contortionist circus trick is more often the marquee item. Even more surprising was the fact that the pose was taught with the knee of the lifted bent leg firmly attached to the wall, making it easy to balance. Yet no one asked for their money back.
That day vrksasana felt interesting in new ways. We had built toward the pose by focusing on the placement of the pelvis and the rotation of the legs, and on finding space in the shoulders so that the palms of the hands could meet serenely overhead. The familiar combination of alignment details became surprisingly fresh, as they were no longer overshadowed by the difficulty of standing on one leg. Rather than gripping my jaw or worrying about the embarrassment of falling, I became more deeply aware of my subtle body, and I felt the powerful stabilizing force of samana vayu (the inward movement of prana). My mind quieted way down. It felt like the most advanced yoga ever!
After that memorable class, I more frequently noticed my preconceptions about familiar poses and their purposes and became more open to unexpected experiences and benefits. “Off-label drug use” is a term that denotes the use of a pharmaceutical drug in a different way, or for a different condition, than originally approved by the FDA. Lately I’ve been thinking about “off-label asana use,” i.e., exploring poses for purposes other than which they are most commonly taught. Opening to these new possibilities has enriched both my practice and my teaching.
After that memorable class, I more frequently noticed my preconceptions about familiar poses and their purpose.
Yet some of the unexpected benefits I’ve experienced in particular asanas might not be exactly off-label; we just don’t hear about them so much any more. In textbooks such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and (much later) B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga, the great masters of yoga laid out a wide range of benefits for individual asanas. With each pose there is often an almost bewildering, even eyebrow-raising number of claims. In fact, in some cases I can’t help but wonder how such amazing claims came to be made. But I appreciate the optimism—the potential—and I believe that, above all, we must see for ourselves what is true.
Too often in asana class this invitation to come and see for yourself—what Buddhists call ehipassiko—is lost. A pose is described as having one or two inherent benefits which are presented as certain and as if that is all there is to it. The benefit(s) might have been parroted from something the teacher heard another teacher say or from something the teacher read (rather than from his/her own direct experience). That might be okay if the benefits were presented as possibilities, but too often they are presented as fact. Worse, in my opinion, are the psycho-physical assertions beamingly handed out like kool–aid—poses described, for example, as heart-openers, grounding poses, or mental or physical detoxifiers.
Whether any given pose will have a specific emotional, energetic, or physical benefit is way more open-ended than some teachers claim. The specific experience of the pose has a lot to do with how a teacher sets up and sequences the practice, and even more to do with who the student is. Here is a simplified example: paschimottanasana. This seated forward fold is commonly presented as a hamstring opener. But if a student’s hamstrings are so tight that the student has to bend her/his knees in order to safely hinge forward, then the pose will do very little for the hamstrings—although it may help open (among other things) some of the long muscles of the back. Pashimottanasana is also often presented as quieting for the nervous system, simply because it is a seated forward bend. Yet if students become goal-oriented or aggravated in seated forward folds, their nervous systems may not become quiet at all. As teachers, we should consider how we have guided our students toward the pose. What instructions are we offering to help them meet our intention for it, and perhaps most importantly, what options for modifications can we offer? If our specific goal is to stretch the hamstrings, some students may (in this case) need to come onto their backs and stretch one leg at a time using a strap.
Another common example is a teacher’s assertion that doing twists will help students to detoxify. This has become such a yogic alt-fact that I can set my calendar by the twist requests that will arise after Thanksgiving and Christmas. Despite its prevalence, there is simply no scientific backup for this claim. While yoga, in general, can certainly improve our breathing patterns and our circulatory system (which have a natural role in our body’s detoxification process), if a seated spinal twist actually massaged the liver (the main organ of detoxification) as is sometimes claimed, then I’d want an EMT standing by my classroom.
I’ve heard, and found it to be true, that the body craves movement and the mind craves stillness—and for a lot of people, yoga can help with both. After a thorough and balanced class, twist-heavy or not, I feel wrung out, clear—even purified. If it seems like the twists themselves help you to feel that way, who am I to argue? What I do object to, however, is a reductionist approach to teaching the miraculous art and science of asana, in which we simply claim: This pose does thus and so. Because, for you, maybe it doesn’t; or it does, but it does a whole bunch of other things too.
Yoga is best passed down from body to body. My own teaching is based on study, but the most important study is my own practice and experience. Can I tune deeply into that and offer each pose as an opportunity for the student’s own svadhyaya (self-study)? Sometimes, of course, I may be excited to share what I have discovered. At other times, it feels valuable to hold back and let my students explore the uncharted territories of their own infinite being.
What are some of the unexpected benefits you’ve discovered for some of your favorite poses?