Do You Want a Workout or More? You Choose.
Everything is timing. This September marks my 30th year anniversary of teaching yoga. I recently had the good fortune of celebrating this milestone by taking yoga classes with several different teachers in a trendy studio in Venice, California. Armed with years of devotion and practise, I attended class daily and couldn’t help but reflect on the changes in the yoga scene in the same studio that I have gone to for many years when visiting family in L.A. When I first began teaching back in 1986, yoga was not a mainstream practice in North America and most people were not familiar with it but it has since become an integral part of our culture.
Wishing for my practice to be freshly inspired, I happily toted my yoga mat over my shoulder and open-mindedly went to different kinds of yoga classes from the system that I study and teach. Three of the classes I attended were filled to capacity with almost ninety students strong. And strong and fit they were. There was a very high demand; classes were crowded even on an early Sunday morning. In India at the Iyengar Yoga Institute where I have studied several times, well over a hundred students are in attendance. The hall is an open-air pavilion and there are many operational ceiling fans which helps with the intense natural heat; in this studio, the door to the outside remained closed and the fans were not on. Although I found this to be unpleasant, I was still very appreciative of the opportunity to practice and did thoroughly enjoy my classes. However, the discovery of how diluted this popular practice has become from the rich and multilayered practice of traditional yoga was troubling.
As one receptionist said to me, “It’s all about feeling everyone’s sweat and all breathing together.” Is this really what yoga has been reduced to? Indeed, sweat was everywhere (mine as well) and I had great fitness workouts because in most of the classes that I attended the demanding physical practice was the primary focus. Moving swiftly through the vinyasa, the sequential movement that interlinks postures to form a continuous flow, I noticed that many students were able to sustain poses or asanasfor fairly long holdings, including balancing poses. Yet in spite of physical strength, I also witnessed a lot of shaking in postures and realized that stability was lacking for many. It appeared that for some students endurance was strength-based without any softness of breath, quietness in the facial expression or quality of mindfulness or ease of any sort. Occasionally, a teacher would instill good messaging but I was skeptical if the valuable ideas offered were truly integrated. For example, stillness was a concept mentioned by many of the teachers but with the constant movement or flow of the practice, time for reflection or resting poses were not given in order to actually taste or access the stillness within. Nor was there an opportunity to feel the sensations of the body in a pose which is such a fine part of the practice.
As much as I personally enjoyed these practices for the physical benefits, some of what I observed triggered concern if this practice was the only kind of exposure to yoga that these students experienced. I was somewhat perturbed because of what I perceived to be the absence of conscious attention or intention as well as some of the missing essential teaching skills that are so much a part of the Iyengar methodology (including its vigorous teacher training and certification process) which ensures a safe practice. Ultimately, I fear that the combination of the sheer volume of students practicing without safe guidance may result in some students being at risk for injury, and also that their overall health may become compromised over time.
Some teachers had a really wonderful teaching presence and offered great ideas and even played great music but during the practice I couldn’t help but notice that there seemed to be a lack of deeper understanding to ensure the safe execution of a posture or asana, or a smooth and safe transition between postures because of some of the sequencing. In some classes, the teacher rarely left the platform from which he or she taught and there were no demonstrations given of any pose. Alignment is very important to me but the information provided was more about moving through the flow of postures rather than knowledgeable instructions for creating correct alignment in a posture or asana. On one or two occasions, I even heard a teacher downplay the importance of alignment. The instructions were generally very clean and simple but more often than not, it seemed that the teacher was not really observing the students’ bodies in the poses to see how the poses were and as such, mistakes were not addressed.
In part because of my training in yoga therapeutics and psychotherapy combined with my intuitive responses, providing individualized modifications for my students and especially those with special conditions or needs is very important to me. Interestingly, there were a few pregnant students and likely many others with unique requirements but suggested modifications were rarely given. When students were left to their own discretion to choose between various options for the advanced inversions and backbends without even one word of guidance from the teacher, I was surprised. The final resting pose in class, Corpse or Savasana, is an integral part of yoga for it is when relaxation and stillness are experienced and when the entire practice and its many benefits are assimilated into one’s being. I really enjoy guiding students into this place of quietude and stillness but verbal guidance into Savasana was not a part of the teaching in most of the classes that I attended.
With the focus solely on the physical body and the trend being more about a workout, much of the inherent value and transformative potential of practicing the eight limbs of yoga and studying Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras is lost. The exciting and expansive reach of the traditional practice of yoga remains evasive as the opportunity for stillness, calming and stabilizing the nervous system, self-reflection and personal growth is not provided. Without the fullness of the practice including mindful awareness, I believe that the true essence of yoga is simply not experienced. Yet in fairness, the students that I practiced with were also very engaged, fit and focused on their routine. Although it is different from my belief system, perhaps it simply comes down to what one desires from one’s yoga: a physical workout or a more mindful and deep practice? It is like selecting what to eat. One can choose to go to a fast food restaurant and get one’s fill even with a diet empty of good nutrition, or one can select to make time for a balanced approach to eating and skillfully cook a nutritious meal with all the elements that combine together to ensure good health and support a balanced mind, body and spirit.
I experienced many positive outcomes from my L.A. yoga experience for I really enjoyed being a student without having any concurrent teaching responsibilities. I continued to feel my strong connection to and gratitude for the pure and organic yoga that I practice and teach. I was also very happy to observe the increasing popularity of yoga albeit my angst about the issue of safety and the lack of any spirituality or traditional and meaningful elements in most of the classes that I attended. But perhaps the most important consequence of my experience was to yet again have a heightened awareness and appreciation for the purity, clarity, richness and depth of the Iyengar methodology which is so very different from the current teachings so popular today. I believe that the brilliance and longevity of the traditional yoga practice and its potential for fostering personal transformation will continue to remain long after the current yoga “fitness faze” fizzles out.
In the final minutes of my final class in L.A., we settled into Corpse or Savasana pose and the teacher said to the class, “Find your stillness now.” He then proceeded to play very loudly “Message in a Bottle” by The Police. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry for in this land of sunshine, palm trees and very fit bodies, I believe that what is really needed is to somehow put the soul back into yoga. I realized that the message in the song had a double entendre for all I could think about during my time in Savasana and afterwards was that it is yoga that needs the SOS sent out to the world.
Yoga is transforming the fabric of our society and making an impact on the health and well-being of so many. It is a journey of authentic self-exploration and self-discovery that can truly have life-changing benefits. Initially, my intention was to take classes for the benefit of gleaning a fresh inspiration to my practice. Yet from my recent exposure to yoga in L.A., I am now even more motivated to evolve my teaching in order to share the true essence and soul of yoga with my students. It is my hope and aim to continue to share the vast, beautiful and authentic tradition of yoga, with all being well, over the next thirty years!
“Yoga is an art, a science and a philosophy. It touches the life of man at every level: physical, mental, spiritual. It is a practical method for making one’s life purposeful, useful and noble.” -B.K.S. Iyengar
Message In A Bottle by The Police
Just a castaway, an island lost at sea, oh Another lonely day, with no one here but me, oh More loneliness than any man could bear Rescue me before I fall into despair, oh
I’ll send an S.O.S. to the world I’ll send an S.O.S. to the world I hope that someone gets my I hope that someone gets my I hope that someone gets my Message in a bottle, yeah Message in a bottle, yeah
A year has passed since I wrote my note But I should have known this right from the start Only hope can keep me together Love can mend your life but Love can break your heart I’ll send an S.O.S. to the world I’ll send an S.O.S. to the world I hope that someone gets my I hope that someone gets my I hope that someone gets my Message in a bottle, yeah Message in a bottle, yeah Message in a bottle, yeah Message in a bottle, yeah
Walked out this morning, don’t believe what I saw Hundred billion bottles washed up on the shore Seems I’m not alone at being alone Hundred billion castaways, looking for a home I’ll send an S.O.S. to the world I’ll send an S.O.S. to the world I hope that someone gets my I hope that someone gets my I hope that someone gets my Message in a bottle, yeah Message in a bottle, yeah Message in a bottle, yeah Message in a bottle, yeah
Sending out at an S.O.S. Sending out at an S.O.S. Sending out at an S.O.S. Sending out at an S.O.S. Sending out at an S.O.S. Sending out at an S.O.S…