For fifteen years, I have been working to make yoga accessible for people living with arthritis. Through my research and private practice, I’ve learned a lot from my students about the unique needs and limitations associated with life with arthritis. We’ve found new and interesting ways to modify yoga poses when dealing with arthritis flares, joint swelling, surgical fusions, and other such conditions.
In making this my life’s work, I’ve often been asked questions about whether what I offer my students is still yoga. Below, I share my own personal perspective on what makes a pose yoga, and also some things to consider in exploring this question more fully.
Yoga Is a State
Firstly, I like to remind everyone that the first mentions of yoga in the ancient texts do not include physical movements or practices of any kind. Yoga is first described as a state of union. Strategies for obtaining this state are later elucidated, eventually including physical postures. Because the practice of yoga is so heavily identified with physicality in the West, it can be easy to forget that yoga can be achieved or approached without any intentional physical movements. While there are postures that have long been associated with the practice of yoga and are an important aspect of yoga practice for many, physical postures are not required for the practice of yoga and weren’t even a part of the philosophy or tradition in its earliest history.
As colleagues and I have described in various research publications, the practices of yoga are all too often presented outside the context of yoga’s rich philosophy. I would suggest that this isn’t actually yoga, but rather the practice of physical postures that look like yoga. In particular, I’ll use the well-known concept of ahimsa, or non-harming. If a posture is creating harm in the physical body, it is out of alignment with yoga’s central tenets and therefore should not be considered yoga. How can an individual achieve a state of union through a process of self-harm?
The same could be said for any of the other yamas and niyamas. Yoga is not yoga if it is practiced in a state of grasping for the ability of others or for one’s former abilities (the yama aparigraha refers to non-grasping). It is not yoga if a posture is being executed by someone who is not honest with themselves about the current state of the body and what it can handle (the yama satya refers to truthfulness). While it is not easy to fulfill all of the ideals of yoga’s philosophy simultaneously, an awareness and attention to that philosophy helps to provide the foundation for all of yoga practice. While these are aspirational concepts, ignorance or disregard of them runs counter to the practice and attainment of yoga.
One of the primary considerations in the selection and combination of yoga practices is the flow of energy. Yoga professionals and practitioners consider the quality of energy and its flow, as well as where it might be stagnated or slowed. The practices of pranayama are often discussed as the most powerful practices for effecting change across all koshas (layers of being). Therefore, it is hard to imagine a physical yoga practice that does not attend to the breath. At the very least, breath fuels the muscles with the oxygen necessary to achieve and maintain a posture without harm to the body. While the union connoted by the term “yoga” can be understood in many ways, one application is the unification of breath and movement. If breath is held, it should be intentionally held. If breath is deep, it should be intentionally deep. I would suggest that a posture is not yoga without breath integration.
I would suggest as well that if you are practicing yoga without paying attention, it isn’t yoga either. I recall that when my research mentor tried her first yoga class, she remarked that it was the first time she could remember doing exercise without trying to distract herself and get it over with. Being fully present in the experience of the practice and the posture is a key element of yoga practice. This means avoiding ruminations over what happened previously, what is happening elsewhere, or what is yet to be. Yoga requires attending to the state of the mind with the curiosity and interest of a student, noticing distractions and returning to present-moment awareness. A disinterest in attending to current experience prevents the achievement of a unified state. If you are watching television, eating a snack, and talking on the phone while standing in a posture, it isn’t yoga.
Another important feature of a pose that determines whether it is aligned with yoga philosophy and practice is the intention with which it is executed. Why are you on the mat? Why are you practicing yoga? Why are you doing this particular pose, whatever it may look like and whatever it may be called? If we approach a pose with the intention of a firm and attractive body, with the intention of impressing our neighbor, or with the intention of being the best in the class, perhaps then it also fails to be yoga. Activities approached with such intentions are unlikely to move us toward a state of union with our higher selves, with divine energy, with the cosmos, with all humanity, or even with our own body-mind-spirit. If we approach a pose with the intention of curiosity, humility, self-development, steadfastness, and connection…then we are in alignment with the true essence of yoga.
The Power of Classical Asana
The principles I have laid out thus far—philosophical foundations, breath integration, mindfulness, and noble intention—can all be brought to bear in countless body positions. Therefore, you may deduce that any physical posture that does no harm and checks these other boxes could be called yoga. In that case, why isn’t every movement we make with the body all day long considered yoga?
I would suggest that if we are moving in accordance with these concepts all day long, we are not only doing yoga, but we are probably achieving yoga as well. But that doesn’t mean that the classical asanas are irrelevant. Just because infinite body positions can be part of a yoga practice doesn’t mean they are all the same.
Every position of the body impacts its function and its energy, the state of the mind and our state of being. There is power in the classical asana because in their development, attention was paid to the positioning of the bones, muscles, organs, energy centers and channels. And there is power in a full practice of yoga that includes classical asana. Beyond the science of yoga’s classic asanas, there is power in the history of these poses that have been practiced by countless people in various corners of the globe for thousands of years. There is energy in connecting to the intention of those who practiced these postures before, as well as those who will practice them after all of us are gone.
In choosing a physical practice, it is important to balance the power and history of classical poses with the accessibility of the postures for an individual body. Much can be said about the development of classical asana and its relationship to modern bodies, and I won’t belabor that here. But as physically, physiologically, and energetically powerful as classical asana postures may be, they are not safely accessible to many people who are no less capable of achieving a state of union. Additionally, it is important to remember that yoga asanas have been presented many ways by many teachers throughout history. While we may identify a particular presentation of a pose as being historically accurate, history is fluid. History is happening now. And there have been many revered teachers throughout yoga history who have taught somewhat different variations on yoga asanas.
In choosing a physical practice, it is important to balance the power and history of classical poses with the accessibility of the postures for an individual body.
In my work with arthritic students and clients, the focus is not on the external image of the pose, but on the internal experience. While someone with joint fusions or deformity may not be able to achieve textbook alignment of specific bony landmarks, there is something about a particular pose that I consider to be its essence, and it is this essence of the pose that I want them to experience.
In tree pose, for example, the lifted foot may not reach the opposite thigh where it creates a perfect buttress for stability. But the pose can still offer a sense of grounding through the floor, as if with roots, and mobilizing through the upper extremities like branches, even if the arms aren’t quite extended overhead. I want them to experience the “tree-ness” of the pose, whether it looks like a classical asana from the outside or not.
Sometimes this takes creativity. It may mean using the wall, a chair, or another prop in a new way. It can mean flipping the pose around and changing its relationship to gravity. It might mean moving dynamically in and out of a pose, rather than holding it for several breaths. It could even mean substituting one pose for another with similar biomechanics or energetics. In a Yoga for Arthritis class, every pose shows up in the room in half a dozen different variations. If we’re being granular, each individual’s pose is slightly different—their own unique expression of an idea, intention, concept, or essence. If they (or I) are hung up on textbook versions of how a pose should look, we stand to miss entirely how the pose should feel.
Because of that emphasis, I am much less likely than other teachers to make manual adjustments. I want my students and clients to find the pose from the inside. I tend to use verbal cues to guide their own discovery in the pose, and any hands-on work is usually to suggest subtle changes, such as moving a shoulder blade toward my hand, rather than my hand moving the shoulder blade. I also use questions to suss out whether students are safe and comfortable, and whether the pose resonates with them. This is how we foster union both internally for the client and in the relationship between us. Because of the work I do, I’ve seen more lives changed by seemingly imperfect poses than by perfect-looking ones.
In all of this discussion about what makes a particular pose yoga, I think it’s important to emphasize once again that yoga did not start with postures, nor should it end there. There is so much richness to yoga outside of the physical practice—including pranayama, meditation, chanting, mudra, lifestyle, and more. Yoga practiced on a mat for one hour can have profound effects on body and mind. But yoga practiced every waking hour of the day has even greater potential. I encourage my students to see their yoga practice as an approach to life that moves with them on their commute to work, while waiting in line at the store, when on hold for a phone call, and during each meal.
When yoga is not separate from daily life, it becomes the default state of being. That is not to encourage disregard for the physical practice and its myriad effects for health and well-being—but rather the recognition that yoga is more than a shape, and the shapes of yoga are infinite.