Do you think that your headstand or Downward Dog was handed down from yogi to yogi for centuries, or when you're doing the Sun Salutation, you've joined the ranks of yogis who were practicing those same motions thousands of years ago?
Then think again.
When I tell people that I'm the founder of Core Strength Vinyasa Yoga, a style I created to draw students back to the powerful experience of their center in every pose--I commonly get two types of reactions.
The first is, "Sounds great! I'd love to try it." The second, though a minority, tends to be quite vocal. They sputter, "How dare you tinker with the classical postures of this sacred, ancient practice? Who do you think you are? Krishna?"
It's a good question, and one I'll answer, finally, here.
But first, a little about my perspective on the poses, and why I think it's perfectly fine to do with them as I wish:
In my teacher trainings and classes, I not only give instructions about the classical poses like Triangle or Revolved Half Moon...in some cases I improve upon them. I do this by showing students who might not be flexible or strong enough to look like a Yoga Journal cover model some effective modifications like bending the front knee in Half Moon Pose so the student can reach the ground and the core can be properly activated.
I don't use a block like some instructors would and allow the straight front leg to potentially override the all-important pelvic and spinal placement. I work from the ground up. Some yogis growl when I take away their block, and their flexibility-first mentality...but most of them get the point when they are fully, finally immersed in their fantastic alignment and energetic flow.
Now, this aspect of my teaching is pretty tame, and usually isn't a problem for the Posture Police among us: yogis who think that any deviation from the poses set forth in books like BKS Iyengar's Light on Yoga is tantamount to heresy. They might grumble, but they'll settle down.
It's when I do any one of the next three things that gets them all up in arms. In any given class, I might, and usually do:
1. Add dancelike, wavelike or martial-arts-based movements to (and between) poses in order to unlock stuck places and reconnect the student to their optimal energy and alignment.
2. Teach poses and sequences that I created and named, ranging from Charlie's Angel's Mudra to Fists of Fire Lunges, Shakti Kicks to Fierce Lion--and many more. These poses add benefits I deem to be missing from simply repeating the same poses over and over. Plus, they're fun to do.
I even teach a turbosharged Sun Salutation I call the Core Salutations, which heats students up much faster, burns more calories on average and builds greater upper body and core strength than the traditional sequence.
Try if tor yourself:
Here's a video of my Core Sun Salutations!
3. Either encourage students to remove postures from their practice that might not be healthy for them or don't personally teach asanas that may be classical, but also have a high injury potential like headstand, shoulderstand, and (gods forbid!) the lotus.
As a general rule, I've developed a rather punk rock approach to yoga practice: I question everything, my teachers, your teachers...even myself.
Assuming that something (say, the way many of us yank our feet forward in Pigeon Pose, getting the shin parallel like we see in books, but sacrificing the knee into a potentially terrible twist) is the gospel truth because you were taught it, even by someone most people have heard of, is unfortunate.
Letting anyone tell you something is right for you when your knee is screaming and your inner teacher is saying "um, actually, for me...this is very, very wrong" is simply not empowering, nor even safe.
Yet so many students allow themselves to give their power and innate body knowledge over to their teachers, because they must know best. And some do. But many teachers have tunnel vision when it comes to the poses themselves, neglecting to instruct towards joint, muscle, and tissue health and instead just repeat the words their teachers gave them
Under the illusion of an "ancient" practice, they have forgotten to question, to re-create...or maybe they just aren't encouraged to.
Read a great article on knee health from Yoga Journal
So it's important to me to have a realistic view of where these poses actually originated, in order to break through their mystique enough to ask those questions.
If I ever wish to add a new pose or variation to my repertoire, before I offer it to my students, I immediately look at it from a clinical point of view. I allow my knowledge of anatomy to trump the classical poses--which, surprising for many people originated not 3,500-5,000 years ago as did many yoga philosophies, but were established much more recently in the early 1800s and were recreated again in the early 1900s.
There is a common misconception that stubbornly remains, which is that the yoga poses are thousands of years old, and that they have existed as one static teaching since the beginning of yoga time.
This could not be farther from the truth. Though a very few poses have been recorded in the ancient texts, they were all variations on seated or supine meditation postures. There was no Triangle, no Downward-Dog. Nope...not even a headstand. In fact, there is no evidence of a traditional practice of yoga postures handed down intact over millennia.
Yoga philosophy and directives about how to embark on a personal path of self-realization have been here for thousands of years. But a specific, holistic, yoga practice of physical and spiritual fitness simply didn't exist before about 200 years ago. And no, I didn't forget another zero on the end of that number.
That's right: most of the poses we do in our yoga classes, whether our teacher is an Indian master or an American one, come from a much shorter lineage than we imagine.
The first workout-like practice of asanas, or poses, stem from the Sritattvanidhi, a book written in the early 1800's by Mummadi Krishnaraja, a patron of Indian culture and arts.
The manual showcased 122 postures, like backbends and handstands, many of which we still practice today. However, some of the poses were clearly drawn from Indian gymnastics, such as what we know today as Chaturanga Dandasana. Shockingly to some, it wasn't a sacred move handed down from, ancient yoga sages to enlighten the masses. It was a pushup gymnasts used to get stronger.
In the early 1900s, a yoga teacher named Krishnamacharya and later, his world-famous students, B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois, began to formulate their own takes on the Sritattvanidhi poses, and then some. Krishnamacharya pulled some moves straight from British gymnastics, which one of his main students Pattabhi Jois took forward, like the Pendant Pose jumpback of Ashtanga. BKS Iyengar, another famous student of Krishnamacharya's, created his own, very different take on those poses, and he also added his own variations.
Iyengar and the others drew inspiration from the Astanga, or 8-limbed path set forth in the Yoga Sutras, but also from (often contradictory to the Sutras) sources like the Baghavad Gita and Upanisads. Though an inner spiritual tradition may be gleaned from these historic texts, as opaque and esoteric as they can be in their simplicity, the fact remains that the poses themselves were not set forth until much later.
So, a few Indian men basically made up the yoga poses, men who practiced for hours a day and had Cirque Du Soleil-like bodies and aspirations. They travelled around showing their yoga prowess to audiences. Along with their spiritual expression--it was their way to attract more students. They were the yoga celebrities of their day--and still are.
Today, some classically-bound yogis sometimes send modern teachers the message that it's not OK nor "pure" to take a page from our elder's books, and create our own styles from the inspirations of our time, the anatomical information we have and other modalities we can draw from. This, for me, would be like wearing my grandfather's clothes every day and never being allowed to buy my own or dress the way I want.
Even Iyengar modified his original practice to include props, a slower pace, and more involved alignment instruction.
Yet still, with all the beautiful expressions of the inner life of the yoga path, there is quite a large sect of yogis, die-hard believers in their teachers' styles, who actually become judgmental and angry when they are questioned if what was right for a few people in 1930s India may need (or want) to be modified for our 21st century practice. They cannot see the potential for self-realization or validity in something that doesn't look like what they have been taught is yoga.
The issue I take with this attitude is that if no one could ever create anew within yoga, it would not be here for us at all. And then there's the my-way-or-the-highway perspective that if you've been reading my posts, you know I abhor.
Evangelical yogis are strangling the life out of what should be a shared, and beloved practice. And this needs to stop.
Today, we usually don't do yoga for hours a day--hours a week or month...maybe. We are more aware of human anatomy, and the toll some of the poses can take on our knees, hips and spine. Plus, it's human as well as divine to strive for self-expression, and bringing forth new yoga poses is as natural to us now as when the founding fathers did it themselves.
Like us, they drew from assorted existing sources, as well as their own inspiration. For any teacher to do that as well is only to pay homage to the creative process in which any yoga practice has been brought forth.
As long as the body is aligned to stay balanced, energetic and healthy, according to Patanjali, author of the formative yoga text, the Yoga Sutras, it's a yoga pose. He never gave us a list of asanas, perhaps to encourage us to forever create and re-create them according to our individual ideas of how to be within that universal flow.
Planting a garden, standing still in the ocean, dancing with a child, walking with a sassy sway of the hips, hugging your loved one, my Waterfall Warrior or Core Plank--all are asanas when they keep you open to the flow of life, and more importantly--of love. Love of others, love of yourself, love for what you're doing right this instant.
Some might still argue--because some always do--that the practice as set forth by the founding fathers, is complete in and of itself. The gurus have spoken, and we should need nothing more to keep the body fit, the mind calm and the heart centered.
I'm sorry, but I don't buy it, as a general rule.
For some people, like those who refuse to read modern books, insisting that the only "real" literature is found in the classics, taking this one-way attitude could hold them back from discovering other, equally valid forms of the living, breathing practice as today's teachers are offering it. For others, who have tried other forms and choose a classical form because it's what gets them to their bliss, then more power to them.
I would say that if for you, a more "classical", set practice feels fulfilling, then by all means, stick with it. After all, the point of yoga is to connect to your awareness of the unity of all things, and become fully immersed in the powerful vitality and wisdom of your present moment.
But for me, the classical moves are not enough. Of course, I could go to an Ashtanga class, and get to an inner place of unity with my true nature. I could get present and still my mind. However, my heart would not as happily be in it. It is not my preferred vehicle for self-knowledge, transformation and expression.
I could also meditate just fine inside a prison cell, though I would prefer to be in Central Park. Sometimes, the environment we each resonate the most with helps us more quickly reach that place we all seek. Who can say where that spiritual park is located ....except for themselves only?
Sitting in the park, surrounded by birds and lovers and trees would add a dimension of joy and aliveness that I would have to try to inorganically manufacture in a place that was not as inspiring to me. And I prefer not to waste my time getting where I need to go.
And believe me, though I fully respect any other style of yoga, and the master teachers who founded them (May Sri K. Pattabhi Jois rest in peace), as much as I do my own, and though I know that classical styles ARE that park for thousands of people--they do not appeal to me, for me.
My yoga is my innermost self manifested in a dance of spirit for the world to see. What I am on the inside--fierce, powerful, natural, flowing and free, comes out through the shapes I make with my body. The students who resonate with this dance come to me because that is who they are also, and my form of expression is in harmony with theirs. So it becomes them.
Many students are attracted to styles like mine, or those of Shiva Rea, Duncan Wong and other modern yoga pioneers who bring their own flavor and often, their own specific movements to yoga. Yet some people won't even try a form that is outside "the right way". There is as much inherent benefit, on a spiritual, mental, emotional and physical level from poses that your knowledgeable teachers created in 1930...or last week. Just because they are newer doesn't make them any less sacred, or effective.
Not being "allowed" to bring forth the practice as we feel compelled to is restrictive to our very spirits, and if we cannot move with the river of Shakti, our creative flow dwindles to a mere trickle. The practice of diving headfirst into one's potential and moving that inner strength and fire out to light the world takes many forms, and it will take many more as time marches on. It cannot be frozen in time.
In the end, it's not this or that pose that makes it yoga, as much as the quality with which you come into the form. We no longer need constrict the yogi's options to only what has been taught. We are released from seeing only the past forms as sacred when we remember that the asanas, no matter how old or young, are simply vessels for that which is already inside. And like a jar of fireflies, we are free to choose the containers that best captures our spark.
So when you approach your yoga practice, make it your own. Listen to your body, try new teachers, move outside the box--off the mat, even--and see where your energy needs to take you in this precious moment. You never know what you'll find when you dissolve any ideological walls and boundaries that are restricting you from uniting with your true nature of being totally, utterly present to your own love of life.
Only when we let go of the belief that yoga, or anything for that matter, must remain static in order to be pure, are we free to work together to create our most life-enhancing future, filled with community, integrity, individuality and grace.