In the post-lineage void of the current yoga scene, conversations around safety and improving the quality of yoga teacher-training often turn to biomechanics for solutions. However, replacing one arbitrary imposition on our bodies with another does not address the real issues. Fostering safer spaces for practice, or creating any sort of positive change in our bodies, will likely require new understanding based on a broader range of possibilities and ideas.
When Yoga Journal magazine decides to put out an article entitled: “Why You Should Ditch Standard Cues,” it’s clear that the questioning and re-evaluating going on at the grassroots level have become prevalent enough that even the industrial yoga complex is feeling compelled to try and respond. In the search for new and better information, people are looking for answers. Earnest practitioners want to know if their practice is sound. Teachers want to feel that they can stand by what they teach. Consequently, there seems to be a rash of new offerings geared towards elevating the level of scientific knowledge from which yoga is being taught.
Is this pose hurting me?
One prevalent trope is that there is an increase in people getting hurt in yoga classes. To hear some people speak, it sounds like a rising epidemic. But I see no real evidence of this. In fact, I wish to proffer that folks were getting hurt in yoga classes in the past just as much as they are now. The difference is that nowadays more people are practicing than ever before and, because we are less deferential to the guidance of a guru, teachers, and students are being more honest about what is actually happening in their bodies.
What has changed significantly is the number of people who are questioning what they are doing, in ways that have not been entertained previously. Teachers are exploring new language and communication about poses and practice that are more rooted in ‘function’ rather than just making a form happen. In my view, this is a good thing. That YJ is picking up on this trend is also good. A more personalized inquiry into experiencing our anatomy is generally helpful in sorting out the practices that serve us, and those that don’t.
But my body cannot be reduced to parts.
Now that yoga teachers are no longer just taking cues from on high and are looking for other sources of expertise and legitimacy, it makes sense to want to understand the mechanics of how a body works and evaluate the practices through that lens. Western science and medicine purport to offer all kinds of definitive information on the degree to which one body part can function in a healthy way in relation to another. New imaging technologies allow us to have a look at our structures and reveal areas that appear to be the sources of our pain. Conventional protocols look to address issues at the specific point of measurable “abnormality.”
The problem is that many established ideas about the structure and function of our bodies are presented to us with a certainty that does not hold up to the reality of what actually happens in a person. For instance, MRI’s reveal that something like ninety percent of all people who undergo MRI’s show signs of herniations or bulging in their spines. Yet, a much lower percentage of those people are experiencing acute back pain. Fusing the discs, or implanting rods, has not proven to be any sort of definitive answer and, in many cases, has exacerbated the situation. Certainly, there are circumstances where intervention is warranted and effective, but the notion that back pain can be corrected with surgery, or a particular yoga exercise, does not usually bear itself out. In fact, an over-reliance on allopathic sensibilities reinforces a false and limiting premise that we are somehow broken beyond our ability to heal.
I do not need to be fixed.
Attempting to identify and name the physical workings that might govern yoga poses is perhaps interesting and potentially useful. But I don’t think that means biomechanics can tell me how to do a yoga pose right or hold the answers to addressing my pain and safety. As far as I can tell, biomechanics is based on an idea that, essentially, turns my body into a machine. And whatever healing and transformation that I have observed in myself and others through yoga has almost always had a direct correlation with a sense of ourselves and our bodies that is expressly not machine-like, but rather is predicated on the fact that we are entirely organic and whole.
As practitioners and teachers continue to parse out new approaches to utilizing yoga, deference to science must be weighed against a healthy amount of discernment. Frankly, doctors and researchers don't have definitive answers to the questions that arise out of our own experience any more than the gurus did. There is a reason why so many inconclusive test results end up becoming blind referrals to try yoga. The unspoken truth is that on some level what is happening in our bodies is magic. We are mystical beings existing on a planet surrounded by infinite space. When our understanding is capable of holding scientific knowledge with the humility of recognizing all that we do not know at the same time, then perhaps we will begin to better address our dysfunctions and more fully embody the wonder that defines us.
By J. Brown
J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, NY. His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy Today, the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, and across the yoga blogosphere. Visit his website at jbrownyoga.com
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