Yoga as panacea: We’ve all
heard it, espoused by passionately devoted practitioners. Practiced as a whole
system in context—including meditation, pranayama, and the
ethical/philosophical principles—yoga is likely to be very effective in
fostering improved health and well-being. But let’s be honest. Most “modern
yoga” dispenses with the spiritual fluff, going straight for what Americans
(and an increasingly global population of practitioners) crave most: vigor, sweat,
and “yoga butt.”
Meeting this demand, most
current asana classes feature one-size-fits-all calisthentics linked to breath,
largely dispensing with more esoteric teachings. Modern
postural yoga originated among the highly fit and flexible (in this case,
primarily Indian males and European gymnasts), although today it is popular
among millions who lack the same cultural or genetic heritage. While yoga postures
indisputably have the potential to foster positive change, the current
free-for-all may not be optimal.
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For instance, a western
deskbound population with excruciatingly tight hips, hamstrings, low backs, and
shoulders may be better served by tailored practices than a standard yoga flow
class. Yet this choice is rarely given; “yoga” tends to be stereotyped as the
woman with her legs around her head, rather than the prop-supported,
middle-aged office worker unwinding in a restorative or gentle pose. This has
implications for who is drawn to the practice, what they think their options
are, and whether they’ll try a different class after being potentially turned
off by one inappropriate for their needs or level. It also has clear
implications for injury prevention.
modern postural yoga has spread from the west to the east, similar concerns
apply. Indigenous practices such as tai chi, qigong, and martial arts are
strongly integrated into Asian cultures, creating an inborn receptivity to
yoga. Yet modern yoga was not initially developed in Asia, and modifications
should be offered when teaching yoga in these cultural contexts.
Chinese-American yoga instructor Cora Wen has written on her experience leading
teacher trainings in Thailand where she observed that while her students
were hypermobile relative to westerners and could easily master “advanced”
asana poses, it was damaging to joints and ligaments, leading to a high injury
rate. This notion gains preliminary support with a recent study suggesting increased injury
in the menisci (knee joints) of Chinese women following yoga practice.
Like Wen, I don’t suggest
postural yoga is bad, but rather that bodies evolve out of specific cultural
contexts and thus have different needs. The globalization of modern postural
yoga, a relatively homogenous, rigid, and linear sequence of poses, should thus
be disseminated with care. Ayurveda, the
5,000 year-old system of Indian medicine, notes the importance of matching
lifestyle practices to constitution and environment.
Modern yoga—especially the
intense, fiery flow variant—reflects the driven, sometimes chaotic race to the
finish line that’s a hallmark of industrialization. Yet contextually tailored
mind-body practices may better support health and overall balance. For
instance, a white-collar workforce could be better served by practices that
reduce stress, correct sedentary- and sitting-related postural imbalances, and
Have you found that certain
types of yoga are better suited for you?
Editor’s Note: This is Part Two of a two-part series. Read Part One here.