What’s Wrong With Yoga?

The first time I sat down in front of Paul Grilley I thought, oh fuck, what the hell have I been teaching? The second time, I thought oh fuck, this industry has problems. I’m about to go for the third time. I wonder what the oh fuck moment will be this time.

Like anything spiritual that has a commercial aspect, there’s a lot of scope for things to go wrong and hey, guess what, that’s what has happened with Yoga. Which has become, at its worst, something of a sexualised physical practice and superficial bypass that does little to evolve the consciousness of those drawn to it.

One the biggest points Paul likes to drill home is that most teacher trainings are responsible for the lack of understanding that Yoga teachers have about how the body actually functions and what the true purpose of Yoga actually is. Quite ironic, that the industry is creating its own issues, but unfortunately true.

In my experience, my first yoga teacher training was pretty abysmal in terms of anatomy and any real discussion of the ‘why’ of Yoga. We did talk a bit about Self Enquiry but I wasn’t really observing the leaders of the training making much progress with their own demons. We certainly didn’t learn how and why the body moved the way it did. Rather we learned poses and their alignment. We did learn some anatomy terminology, which is helpful for studying anatomy but not so much for teaching general classes. Most students have no idea how to externally rotate their femur (what the hell is a femur?!). This is a really silly way to teach yoga. Because when you meet a body that doesn’t fit into those parameters, guess what you’re encouraged to do? Assist them into this ‘shape’ that is probs not ideal for them or help them ‘modify.’ Which means people feel forced into shapes their bodies can’t do, feel shit and that yoga isn’t for them and inevitably ditch the practice. No talk about the WHY and a platform for the physically gifted to excel (and often get trapped in the physical side of the practice seeking unattainable perfection). 

What you don’t learn is that some people’s shoulders will always round, because they have short collarbones. Some people can’t do headstand because their humerus bones are too short. Some people should not be putting their shin parallel to the front of the mat in pigeon because their femur bone literally does not rotate that way. Some people will always have a shitty backbend! (Hi!) We don’t teach these people that it doesn’t matter because asana is designed to clear ‘impurities’ that prevent the energy (prana, qi) from flowing, so the shapes you do don’t matter, just that you do them. Any terrible looking backbend that effectively compresses the spine and stretches the front of the body does the job to prepare the spine for higher states of meditation. For the increased energy that will soon be moving along the spine.

Some teachers would argue that it’s a) not necessary to understand anatomy to teach yoga and b) that 200 hr teacher trainings have a lot to fit in and the onus is on the teacher trainee to take responsibility for furthering their own education. I agree with both points, to some extent, but most modern folks come to yoga through asana and it’s sold as exercise and if you’re teaching exercise you need to know your shit. I personally prefer the Rod Stryker approach (as I’ve coined it), which is also what Paul and Suzee teach: get your exercise from elsewhere, let your Yoga be your medicine. Human bodies need to be challenged with strength work and walking, movements that are rarely found in most asana classes. 

While I understand both those points of view, I think it’s pretty naive to put a person who doesn’t understand the body in charge of what is effectively an exercise class. Not saying YOGA is solely an exercise system, I’m saying that a lot of graduates of YTTs are teaching asana pretty much exclusively and claiming to be experts in the body. Or at least, Yoga students assume these people are experts. Yoga has a PR problem, I heard someone say the other day, and Leslie Kaminoff makes a good point for delineating between yoga instructors and yoga teachers - a teacher necessitating more experience and history with the practice than an instructor. All interesting things to consider.

Yoga Alliance (which I’m probably going to ruin my career by saying) is not exactly proving to be the solution. It doesn’t go far enough in assessing trainings, but I’m also not sure putting trainings under the microscope is the right approach. A friend of mine mentioned that Yoga Australia is trying to develop a university level degree in yoga, applying critical thinking and research to the claims of yoga’s historical greats. Again, I’m not sure how I feel about that - prana/qi is definitely a thing though still unaccepted by modern science and many of the claims made in the ancient texts (e.g. a certain asana protecting the practitioner from poisoning) I think have to be taken in the context of someone practicing for a lifetime, not a few weeks, months or even years. From what I know about Oriental/Eastern medicine, enhancing our energy flow could very well have such an effect.

Funnily enough, the stuff most trainings spend the most time on (asana alignment) is actually where the problem lies. Alignment ‘rules’ performed repetitively over time in bodies that cannot do it causes injury. Each body has its own alignment. Not each pose. Poses have intentions, bodies have to find their own way to honour that intention.

In fact, the safest styles of yoga I’ve been exposed to have no alignment, per se. Just suggestions for students to move through a range of ‘shapes’ with a focus on specific areas of the body in order to stimulate the energy in the body. It’s safe that way because, unless the person really strains (which a good teacher will remind them not to do, and if they’re not copying a shape they’re less likely to do), they’re very unlikely to hurt themselves because the parameters keep them within their natural ROM.

Because, if we look at the earliest texts we have, that’s what asana is all about. Helping awaken and mobilise the dense energy stored in the lower chakras (shakti).

What I love about Paul and Suzee’s approach to functional anatomy is that it’s actually functional. So many times I have met ‘functionally trained’ coaches and trainers that still don’t understand skeletal variation and compression. I even attended a talk by an osteopath not that long ago that failed to address that these limitations are not going away; they are, essentially, permanent. (Yes, you can make some changes and obviously you should explore what your body can do!)

What this means is as a teacher you sometimes have to tell a student that a pose will be forever out of their realm of possibility. I dated a guy that couldn’t sit cross legged as a kid and certainly couldn’t as an adult - he had shitty external rotation and no amount of yoga would fix him.

What this means is as a student you need to accept the same in your own practice. Some poses will hurt you if you ignore this advice.

One of Paul’s favourite ‘sound bites’ is ‘every pose is bad for somebody.’ This makes logical sense when you read it, but in practice, when we’re in class, battling the ego, struggling with our competitive nature, we often ignore this wisdom.

What I’ve come to realise in examining my own belief systems and in talking to my peers here is that the aesthetic approach of yoga has penetrated deep, much like the aesthetic of what it is to be a woman or a man. The first step to unravelling it requires that we ask ourselves WHY we are doing these poses, why we are taking the shapes we are assuming, giving the cues we are giving, the assists we are offering.

What I’ve seen as a teacher is that yoga studios generally cater for people whose bodies are predisposed to being ‘good’ at yoga, in that they have reasonable to exceptional external rotation, reasonable to exceptional clavicular and humeral flexion, reasonable to exceptional spinal flexion and/or extension, etc.

The people who don’t fit into this category of body types don’t get to practice yoga. And that’s a shame. Because anyone who’s ever practiced yoga for a while will tell you, whatever reason you started doing yoga, in the end it’s just because you feel good and better at life and a better person and all the good things.

And everyone can do yoga. Honestly, everyone. I started Yoga for All because I wanted to break down some of the boundaries to Yoga practice - 1/ the gym-based pricing models and 2/ the intimidating sequences and practices.

I evolved as I taught and observed the students coming to that studio and I’m proud to say they were the most yogic and least Yoga-scene-y bunch of people I knew.

I’m still evolving. Hopefully will always be.

I’m more excited about yoga than I have been in a long time. I’m surrounded by teachers who aren’t famous on Instagram but who have been teaching for decades, caring for their students by ensuring they do understand the body and the purpose of the poses they teach - the WHY.

Anyone who knows me knows that why is probably my favourite question ever, so I’m pretty happy here, examining the whys are carving out my own place in this wonderful/crazy yoga world. 😝