It is Time for Teachings to Change
In the past two years alone, I personally know of eight instructors who have had injuries requiring surgical intervention. One of those was me.
Others are discovering that what was appropriate in our 20s, does not necessarily make sense in our mid-30s, 40s, or 60s. Teachers are learning firsthand the dangers of going beyond the body’s limitations.
First and foremost, teachers are students. Just as practitioners grow on their mat, teachers must continue to grow on theirs. To be willing to evolve. As our bodies change, it is also time for our teachings to change.
With this in mind, I’m observing a powerful shift happening in our yoga community. A shift that recognizes that safe is the new flexible.
Shifting from Instagram Bait to Self-Inquiry
This is a shift in which seasoned yoga teachers are forgoing the “more is more” approach so many took when they first started teaching in exchange for classes that promote prudence and inquiry. Yogis are setting aside flexibility-laden postures of shock and awe in favor of shapes that promote stability and space. People are learning to honor their body as it is in the moment and as it changes with time.
While poses that emphasize strength and steadiness may not always create astonishingly beautiful photographs like the twisting of one’s body into some advanced shape (see Instagram), they will keep yogis safe and practicing for a lifetime. It is better to work smarter not harder.
As teachers, we must both remember and remind students that the first tenet of yoga is ahimsa, to do no harm. It is easy to lose sight of this tenet if the practice becomes pose-centric.
In 2012, New York Times writer William J. Broad published a controversial piece entitled “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.” It infuriated a lot of people in the yoga community because it seemed to be bashing the very thing that saved our lives. I know, because I was one of those people. Many have come to yoga (or are sent to yoga) to heal, either from physical or psychological pain. Yoga was my refuge from a high-stress job and from caring for a dying mother.
In a live interview I did for NBC News, I scoffed at the reporter questioning if yoga was unsafe. And while I stand by my statement that it is ultimately our ego which can “wreck our body” (as in people pushing themselves in a pose), what my nascent teaching self did not yet understand is that it is more than just a matter of people overdoing things.
Not all poses are suitable for all bodies!
I was not able to fully grasp this idea yet, because I myself was still toiling away at asanas I had no business doing. Like taking (er, shoving) my leg behind my head, ignoring my low back and front hip screaming with every attempt. How are teachers supposed to encourage students to make wise choices, when we are not doing that in our own personal practice?
My father would often joke that “the shoemaker’s children have no shoes,” when it came to my early teaching years. I would preach stillness but run around the city to make ends meet. I would talk nonviolence, then force my body through a grueling practice even on days when I needed rest. And I would encourage non-attachment, and then covet poses that looked fancy on the outside but caused me pain on the inside.
Fortunately, it is through our own experiences that we become the best guides! Not so fortunately, as with any growth, the path to get there may be uncomfortable or quick.
Teachers on Adjusting Practices to Cultivate Safety over Just Being Flexible
I had the privilege of speaking with various yoga teachers about the evolution of their practice, and ultimately their teachings.
Nicole Sciacca, Chief Yoga Officer at Playlist Yoga in Los Angeles, explains that her “first yoga class was nothing short of gymnastics and Cirque du Soleil style arm balances.” Like many, Sciacca came to yoga seeking healing. However, as a dancer with an “already flexible body,” she found herself looking to the bendy people at the front of the room for guidance, versus listening within. This worked for a time and while Sciacca credits yoga with healing her back (she had three ruptured discs), she also suspects that yoga led to other injuries, including two frozen shoulders.
Sciacca continues, “I think the past 10-12 years of personal practice have been a giant lesson in pulling back, squashing my ego, and asking better questions.”
SmartFLOW teacher trainer Tiffany Russo also practices “from a place of inquiry.” Explaining the evolution of her practice from one where she was more interested in “the end result of an asana” to now being more “curious about the experience within the journey.” Russo describes her current yoga practice as an ever-evolving continuum between ease and stability. “It’s always a sweet moment when I arrive on my mat to observe how much more ease of effort I might need, or on other days, how much more stability my body needs.”
Bay Area teacher and teacher trainer Laura Burkhart of Laura Burkhart Yoga, is no stranger to “advanced party poses,” as she calls them. Burkhart tore the labrums (cartilage lining the hip socket) in both hips, including suffering numerous other muscle tears and chronic tendonitis. She attributes the causes to “over-stretching and pushing too far.” Still recovering from her injuries Laura says that her “practice is much more simple than it use to be.” She says, “It is mostly low to floor poses, very few to no standing poses, no hip openers, no deep hamstring openers or poses where there is deep hip flexion.”
Matt Champoux, Director of San Francisco Ashtanga School (SFAYS) and Alignment-Vinyasa Teacher at Yoga Tree, had shoulder surgery just last month for “a chronically unstable shoulder with torn labrum.” While he suspects that the original injury happened in high school and then was later exacerbated on a rock-climbing wall, Matt also believes that “injuries from yoga are part of the process of a deepening inquiry into the relationships of awakening spiritually, range of motion exploration, and the psycho-emotional threads woven therein.” He says that his teaching has changed “tremendously” over the past 13 years as he becomes “increasingly enamored with subtly and less driven by more radical, contortionist pursuits.”
Growth Opportunities in a Changing Body
Injuries and physical changes are opportunities for growth. They ask us to get quiet and move more carefully. A changing body is also an invitation to try things another way. For many teachers, this has meant not only restructuring their current practice, but also integrating different modalities to support their asana. Just as athletes are encouraged to go to yoga to improve their flexibility, yogis can improve cardiovascular health and strength by including other forms of physical fitness.
Matt Champoux agrees that “cross-training is supremely important for the physical wellbeing of a yoga student” and that “no one practice can include everything!” He continues to climb and run.
While there is some research that confirms that Sun Salutations do improve heart health, yoga is nowhere near as effective for raising our heart rate as cardiovascular-specific activities such as running, cycling, or swimming. I now incorporate cardio by going to Soul Cycle spinning classes, and it has greatly improved my breath on the mat.
Tiffany Russo is a yogi first, but she is also an athlete. Having run cross country and track in high school, Russo continues to run, box, and do circuit training for cardiovascular endurance. Russo also credits these activities as helping with the “quality of the control of (her) breath during times of high stress.”
Laura Burkhart swims and walks, however even walking can become too much for her hip injury. Burkhart also lifts weights a couple of times a week and believes that strengthening is crucial for preventing injury.
Nicole Sciacca is studying Functional Range Conditioning (FRC), a system of training which applies scientific methods to the acquisition and maintenance of functional mobility, articular joint health, resilience, and longevity. “In other words,” she explains, “Do you have the prerequisite range of motion to do the poses/movements you’re being asked to do?” Sciacca says that since studying FRC she frequently leaves out some of the poses many of us are used to seeing in power vinyasa practices, such as chaturanga, upward facing dog, and warrior 1.
Restructuring our Practice Beyond Flexibility
Sciacca gives another example, saying that yoga binds (clasping hands behind the body around another body part, usually a thigh or bent leg) are not a healthy way to go past your end range. “They compromise the joints and eventually breed more dysfunction.” She encourages yogis to consider “for what purpose and cost?” Sciacca appreciates all of the current discussions around reconstructing our concept of asana.
Alexandria Crow, founder of the Yoga Physics school is on a mission to “deconstruct and rebuild current system from the inside out.” A proponent of the viewpoint that yoga poses are manmade constructs, Crow focuses on teaching people how to deconstruct postures, helping students identify the parts that support a person’s body/ability and teaching them how to let go of the parts that do not.
Alexandria Crow warns that many poses as they are today exploit hyper-mobility and that trying to “stabilizing the current paradigm of shapes may make the postures even more dangerous.” Crow emphasizes separating “the quality of the experience” of the pose from the shape. Alex sees people’s self-worth getting tied up in their ability to do postures and she challenges practitioners and teachers alike to look at, “who they are without the poses.”
I, too, have had to set aside certain postures due to injuries, aging, anatomy, and life. Like Sciacca, I no longer hold deep binds. As an former Ashtanga practitioner, my practice was once riddled with binds, but since my shoulder reconstruction, whenever I practice them for more than a few breaths I feel pain. I also now lift weights daily. Hyper-mobile bodies tend to sit in their joints versus muscularly engaging.
Finding Solutions for Safe Practice
Adrian M. Carvalho, MPT and owner of Golden Gate Physical Therapy in San Francisco, regularly encourages yogis to weight train to help with stabilization. He also advises against “prolonged stretching at end ranges” for risk of over-loading the joints.
As every teacher goes through their own personal experience, their teachings evolve uniquely.
For Russo, her practice and teaching are “about finding integrity and stability.” She advises her students “to become more aware of how and why they move, rather than leading up to a pose.”
Matt Champoux’s teaching has always had a strong emphasis on alignment, however since his surgery, he plans to simplify his sequences even more and avoid demonstration.
Laura Burkhart now makes safety a priority in her classes, by sequencing “in a way that minimizes repetitive stress wear and tear and over stretching.” She also includes “more alignment and verbal cues that have been updated to help make certain postures safer for the body.”
Nicole Sciacca is currently looking “to blend the science of FRC with the conceptual practice of western yoga asana.” She is studying the movement modality of Kinstretch, which is the FRS (Functional Range Systems) solution to optimizing a group class scenario. Sciacca notes, “Although there remains a strong push for assessing people individually, FRS recognizes the fitness industry needs a group class format.”
Practice as a Lesson in Self-Compassion
The way we practice yoga in the West as public group classes is still an incredibly young approach to the discipline. We are told that yoga was traditionally taught one-on-one, under the astute eye of one teacher who tailored the practice for the student’s specific needs. Teaching large classes is a newer concept.
It is challenging to keep everyone safe when there are that many different bodies/genetics/anatomies/needs/energies in the room. Alexandria Crow also points out that in group classes there is great “pressure for people to keep up with the pack.”
While it is ultimately the student’s responsibility to make wise choices, it is a teacher’s duty to provide a road map of safe alternatives. Furthermore, instructors must also emphasize the importance of taking those smarter pathways. Paying careful attention to not make students feel like they are missing out or being sent to “detention,” because some manmade idealized shape does not suit their anatomy.
Beyond teaching alternative poses, teachers who have been through their own injury and/or physical transformations can guide people how to take care of themselves. The practice becoming a lesson in self-compassion versus how to do asana.
Tiffany Russo puts it beautifully, “I hope to offer up students a greater awareness of how they are in relationship with themselves and others.” The kinder we learn to be with ourselves, the kinder we are in the world.
If we look at Patanjali’s translation of yoga from The Yoga Sutras, yoga is explained as the stilling of the movements of the mind. If we are hurting, lying to, or suffocating ourselves (challenging our breath) for the sake of a shape, is the mind really still?
Instead of defining our practices (bodies, jobs, relationships, lives) by what they look like on the outside, let us instead seek how we want to feel on the inside. Safe. Loved. And ever-evolving.