I occasionally geek out and can’t shut up about yoga. This is one of those posts, specifically about asana. If you’re into asana, you can geek out with me. If you’re less familiar with asana, you can become better informed, should you care to do so.
I started practicing asana over ten years ago. At that time, even though I lived in a big city, I rarely disclosed that fact to strangers. Only to those who seemed very, very liberal—meaning the grizzled hippies I encountered, employees at the few health food stores, other students and teachers at my studio. The standard assumption from anyone else under age 35 was that I must be a drugged-out, flaky, naïve twentysomething.
Fast forward a decade and some, and I’m now embarrassed for the opposite scenario—asana is now so mainstream that there is an abundance of shallow noise about it. Now the standard assumption is that I am a bendy, flaky thirtysomething obsessed with wearing stretch pants and taking selfies.
Generally, I divert my eyes and ears from the numerous Instagram and Twitter feeds, Facebook photos, YouTube channels, etc. I know there are useful references, but unfortunately they are far outnumbered by the shallow contributions.
Equally bad, if not worse, than all the 140-character drivel and fancy photos is the useless language on the websites of teachers and studios. The bulk of written content I encounter states only the most basic knowledge.
Yes, it’s important to state the obvious when common knowledge is not aware of the obvious—i.e., fundamental knowledge of asana is not widespread. It’s important not to assume to much.
However, it’s equally important to go beyond stating the obvious. Yes, overwhelming people with information is not productive. But generic, obvious information serves no one if it is the only information.
So not only does this information lack depth, but the content is shallow enough for teachers and studios constantly to present themselves as “unique.” But here’s the thing, y’all—being unique means having qualities which are actually different. If the only things worth mentioning are common to everyone, then people are misled into believing that the universal is somehow distinctive.
The responsibilities of teachers and studio owners include explaining themselves meaningfully—sharing important information without lying or dumbing it down.
For the sake of clarity, I created some lists: characteristics common to asana as it’s practiced in the west and a collection of examples, with my commentary. First, what I consider to be the obvious, obligatory information—the foundation on which teachers build what truly distinguishes them.
(Mind you, the following list is not precisely the ideas that I think are most essential to a meaningful, sustainable asana practice. However, the list addresses what’s most relevant to translating the BS language in the examples to follow. And though I normally despise reductionist generalizations, particularly about something as complex as asana, in this case they are the only way to convey my foundation.)
With a grimace and apologies to Patanjali, rather than eight limbs of yoga, I have eight generalizations of asana:
~ The bunnies and rainbows stereotype about asana has always been a myth. Asana is meant to be physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually CHALLENGING. (You’ll understand later why I used caps.) Always.
~ Asana by definition focuses on the physical, but there’s equal importance to things which are invisible. Commonly emphasized are internal focus, emotional awareness, and personal reactions, but there are endless options.
~ Strength and flexibility are the hallmarks of asana. Different styles of asana address them in different proportion, but they are always there. Like being CHALLENGING, asana always focuses on STRENGTH and FLEXIBILITY.
~ Like any other physical activity, asana practice has a warm up at the start and a cool down at the end. Classes end with savasana, a quiet rest period during which people usually lie quietly on the floor.
~ Asana is one of the most powerful tools to address not only physical health, but also the underlying mental and emotional connections to it. Most adults, especially westerners, have mildly to profoundly imbalanced health, due to many factors: poor diet, lack of physical activity/exertion, stress, etc. Asana is particularly useful because a skillful teacher can adapt the practice to any age person in any physical condition. This versatility, as well as people’s desire for better health and reduced stress is what motivates many people to explore asana.
As you practice asana, a few other common qualities become clear. Though I don’t consider these qualities as obvious to non-practitioners, I do think it reasonable for teachers to present this information as intrinsic to asana practice, rather than limited to certain types of practice.
~ There is an emphasis on breath and often breath-synchronized movement. Different asana practices use different types of pranayama (breathing techniques). Some of the most prevalent types of pranayama are ujjayi, kabalabati, bastrika, and kumbhaka, though there are many others.
~ All asana is hip-opening and helps restore natural curves in the spine (because it was designed, in part, to prepare the body for long periods of seated meditation). People who spend much of their time sedentary, especially sitting in chairs, tend to have tight hips and backs—thus the relevance of asana, in which all postures release the hips and change the alignment of the spine. Asana also develops core strength.
(This is perhaps the greatest misconception, that somehow only certain types of asana or certain poses work on the hips and back or develop core strength. Of course, not all poses work those areas equally. But teachers claiming that their style of asana is unique because it helps the back, hips, or core are LYING.)
~ Asana is one of yoga’s many approaches to connecting to love, the divine, source, etc—open-heartedness has always been essential.
Got it? CHALLENGING, STRENGTH & FLEXIBILITY, HEALTH, HIP-OPENING, SPINE ALIGNMENT, BREATH, LOVE
Now the examples. There are a lot—for the sake of supporting my stance that there is a lot of useless content online. All of the following are direct quotations from websites of teachers and studios, with two edits by me. I chose to replace “yoga” with “asana,” given that this post focuses on asana. (Using “yoga” when speaking specifically about asana is another way that this content fails to inform the public accurately.) Also, all underlines are my emphasis.
“Class begins with warm-up poses before moving into a sequence of asanas
that flow through strength, stretch and range of motion,
moving from standing poses into seated postures and finally breathing and relaxation.”
» Standard procedure. Unclear about “stretch” vs “range of motion.” But good to know that people will breathe before the end of class.
This class “will utilize breath and movement to focus on
internal awareness and physical alignment.”
» Standard points of focus. All human activity requires breath. All asana requires movement.
This class is “designed to realign the body and calm the mind…
integrates a sequence of breath-synchronized movements to transition between sustained postures…will bring you home to to your body to
release what is tight and expand what has become contracted.”
One studio’s “original” class “focus[es] on building
strength and flexibility in the low back and hips.”
Another class has “postures with breath and dynamic movement
to access the deep core muscles.”
At another studio, class will “stretch and open the hips, groins and pelvic region to
decrease tightness and release energy.”
» Sounding familiar by now, surely. All postures have breath, right? Because all human activity does. Everyone is here to decrease tightness. Isn’t all movement, by definition, dynamic? Doesn’t it release energy? And doesn’t a lot of movement access the core muscles? (Also, “groins”?)
Class incorporates “alignment principles that deepen postures powerfully and safely,
along with breath-attuned movement and progressive sequencing.”
» I hope powerfully and safely. Don’t they teach that in teacher certification? Also, aren’t all sequences progressive?
This class uses “therapeutic principles of alignment to open the body in a balanced way, to help alleviate imbalances…and to realign the healthy curves of the low back and neck to get one’s energy moving in optimal flow and healthy pulsation….to create an overall improvement of postural alignment on and off the mat.”
» Whew, that’s a lot. Of mostly useless descriptors. “Open the body in a balanced way”: well, yes, balanced is the intention here. “Alleviate imbalances”: yes, that’s what I just said. Imbalanced won’t garner any students. Nor will energy moving poorly. Regain natural curves in the spine to have better posture—yep, that too, pretty much the intention. (Tangent: does “healthy pulsation” seem like it can be a euphemism to anyone else?)
Another class is a “well rounded flowing asana practice integrating mental practices that enhance everday living.”
Its companion class has “deep stretches that open the body, while challenging the mind.”
» Generic copy 101.
These descriptions illustrate many ways to explain foundational concepts of asana. Great. But I can’t discern how these classes are unique.
One “unique” style has a website with a list of distinguishing characteristics, half of which are relevant to this post:
“Movements and actions within every pose are coordinated with the breath”
» MANY styles of asana use this approach, most of which derived from Ashtanga as taught by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois.
As needed, “poses are modified or supported with props
to help each student achieve the general form of pose.”
» Again, MANY styles of asana use this approach, most of which derive from Iyengar as taught by B. K. S. Iyengar. If you’ve been to a yoga studio, you’ve probably seen a stack of props: often straps, blocks, or blankets. Gyms often stock props as well.
As needed, teachers offer “postural demonstrations…to clarify alignment instructions, show actions or show what the pose should look like.”
» Um, have you ever been to an asana class? This is what all teachers do at least some of the time.
This style is meant for “students of any level or experience, age, gender, race or religion…students with special therapeutic needs may find relief and healing.”
» Remember HEALTH?
Classes are “concluded with savasana.”
» Just like every other asana class.
Teachers want “every student to leave the class feeling better about him or herself, uplifted and empowered by a revelation of his or her Divine nature.”
» Clearly, proponents of this style have a lot of cynicism about all other teachers. If wanting students to feel good is a sign of uniqueness, all those other teachers must be bullies.
In fairness, some characteristics on the website’s list are unique. But on the whole, I find this presentation awfully deceiving. If this information were presented as what makes this practice asana (as opposed to some other physical activity), then the studio would be doing a great job educating the public. Instead, this information as presented as what makes this studio’s offerings distinctive.
Highlights from another “unique” style:
This asana style “is like traditional [asana] taken to the next level. It’s challenging, it’s sweaty, its [sic] empowering and it’s really fun.”
It emphasizes “strength and flexibility.”
The unique style “incorporates functional movement based [asana] postures with repetition, unique sequencing, yogic breathing and heat” and “unlike traditional yoga techniques, link[s] postures together to cultivate stamina and core balance.”
» What’s unique here exactly?
Its teachers “focus on the Functional Movement aspect….functional fitness exercises train your muscles to work together, creating joint stability [sic] muscle strength and overall physical power.
This unique style “is a functional fitness technique because it uses various muscles in the upper and lower body at the same time…[which] burns more calories than traditional exercise techniques because it uses so many muscle groups at once.”
» Wow, I wonder if all those asana practitioners thousands of years ago knew that they were using “functional fitness techniques”! Training muscles to work together, using muscles in different parts of the body at the same time—f’kin brilliant, I tell you.
Oh, and “breath is everything.”
Closing point: “all [asana] increases flexibility.”
» No kidding.
Again, UNIQUE: I do not think it means what you think it means. If I were Southern, I would call this misleading. But since I’m southern, I can call it lying.
Now that you’re more informed, you can better understand my restaurant metaphor. Which is to say, the below is the restaurant equivalent of how all those asana descriptions read to me:
Welcome to the Food Restaurant! We are a unique destination for fine dining,
serving both food and beverages.
The food menu includes appetizers, soups, salads, main dishes, side dishes, and desserts.
The drink menu has still water, sparkling water,
sodas, juices, various types of milk, coffee, and tea.
The alcohol menu has various types of
wine, draft beer, bottle beer, liquors, and cocktails.
The food here is excellent. We focus on the food being both edible and tasty.
The staff here is also excellent; everyone is both polite and efficient.
The chefs all wash their hands, and
the dishes are always clean when we bring them to your table.
In addition to dishes, patrons are provided with both napkins and utensils.
Atmosphere is very important. The restaurant is both pleasant and clean.
We clean the restrooms multiple times a day.
Most importantly, we care about quality and value.
For the cost, everything is of the highest possible quality.
So, do you want to eat at the Food Restaurant? Is it unique? I mean, it’s good for a restaurant to do all those things, but don’t all restaurants intend to do those things?
Likewise, if the only information about an asana class is the same as what everyone else intends to do, doesn’t that indicate something about the class (or the teacher or the studio)?
Being an authority, such as a teacher or a studio owner, is not the end of accountability; it’s the start of accountability. In my past years of teaching, I continue to refine my own content, with the objective of sharing what is definitive of asana as well as what is unique to what I teach. I don’t wish to write from a glass house—my work can and should be held accountable.
SK © 2015