Yoga, a Perspective
“The story of modern Yoga is obviously the story of innovation, in which various Indian traditions; heavily influenced by western concepts of physical education, were shaped into something new.”
(“Hunting for Traces – the history of modern Asana practice” by: Imogen Dalmann and Martin Soder)
Short history of Yoga
literary and historical assistance: Lisbeth Bitto
The Sanskrit word Yoga is used in Indian culture to describe an ascetic
technique or method of meditation. The etymological root of Yoga is from the Sanskrit word “yuj”, which can be translated as “to bind together”, or “to yoke”.
The Learned Patanjali, who lived approximately two to three hundred years B.C., consolidated the first texts on Yoga, called the “Yoga Sutra”. Its important to point out here, that Patanjali did not invent the Yoga Darsana tradition, but he was the first to compile and organize the traditions into a pedagogical format. Before the Yoga Sutra was written, Yoga was practiced in a non-Brahmani forms in religiously influenced, secular contexts. After, countless Yogic styles, schools, and initiatives took inspiration and orientation from Patanjali´s effort. The Yoga Sutra still serves as a reference for new Yogic forms and interpretations to this day.
In the west, the teaching and study of yogic postures and exercises (Asanas), and breath control techniques (Pranayama) are rapidly becoming popular pursuits.
In the oldest Yogic tradition, the practice of the Asanas should allow the
student to develop a static stability, reduce general physical strain, while
each posture should serve as the medium to harness the entire awareness to a single focus, “on one single point”, or Ekāgratā.
Adopting the Asana, the adept yogi will be able to neutralize his or her senses through this disciplined focus, which should lead him or her to“enlightenment” and “one-ness”.
The various Yogic schools have different approaches or methods, and tend to concentrate more on an aspect of the yogic tradition. For example, Sivananda Yoga and Yoga Iyengar allot more practice time to static positions, while Astāńga and Tri-Flow Yoga offer more dynamic sequences. Whether more or less dynamic, the combination of conscious breath control and postural practice are expected to lead to a greater understanding and awareness of one´s own body.
This paper stems from observations I have compiled from experiences in the integration of bio-mechanical principles in my Yoga classes and personal practice. My resource for these principles is the Axis Syllabus human movement lexicon, and the assistance of several AS certified teachers and candidates for certification. I feel an imperative to share my impressions, because my manner of teaching Yoga has altered a great deal as a result of a long-term study of the Axis Syllabus. My studies made me aware of basic anatomical guidelines that indicate the risk of certain activities and positions, and as a result I have even been so bold as to slightly alter the postures themselves.
The Axis Syllabus can be described as an evolving archive of information, a collection of practical, medical, and anatomical knowledge that is relevant to training, preparing, protecting and rehabilitating the human body. The international community that reviews and revises the Axis Syllabus is made up of a wide spectrum of professionals: Body Mind Centering practitioners, Pilates, Gyro-tonics and Feldenkrais teachers, osteopaths, dance teachers and performing artists, physiotherapists, athletes and acrobats. This broad base of expertise assures that the content of the AS is kept up to date and also allows protocol to be cross-checked and developed for many different approaches to applying this
content. Subjective impressions, clinical tests and peer reviewed public
experiments are all considered for their potentially valid contribution.
In the first part of this article, I will write about teaching methodology, from my experience as a student and also as a teacher. In the second part, I will focus on some of the potential problems in the Asanas, and detail the modifications I currently suggest to my students.
This article is by no means to be taken as absolute truth, or considered as objective science, but as a selective rendering of my study and practical application process, and a testimony of my own perceptions.
I was 18 when I first stood on a Yoga mat. Over the four years of my education as a contemporary dancer, I continued to attend daily Yoga classes, and began to study and practice an extreme style of yoga immediately after graduating from the dance academy. Like many of the teachers on the commercial Yoga circuit, I earned my certificate to teach Yoga in a four-week teacher training. My teachers were experienced and internationally renowned. The focus of the teacher training was the review and practice of the Asanas (1). Anatomy and yogic philosophy were also part of the daily curriculum. For the last seven years, since receiving my certification, I've been holding regular classes for small and large groups, and for beginners and more advanced students.
Currently, I practice and teach the fluid Vinyasa Yoga (2), which in my case consists of a mix of influences from Asthanga and Power Yoga.
In 2010, I began the intensive study of the Axis Syllabus information resource, and since that year, I have been collecting a list of questions concerning my Yogic practice. Here are some of them:
What does teaching yoga to a group specifically offer and what is more generally the goal of teaching group classes?
Is it possible to alter the traditional yogic postures to conform to current understandings of human bio-mechanical parameters, as compiled in the Axis Syllabus? (4) Here, I will attempt an easy-to-understand format, with photos and literary support for the suggested modifications.
In order to understand the goals of group yoga classes, I have taught in a wide range of situations in Berlin: closed groups, or substitution classes, beginners or more advanced students, in the context of a well-known Yoga center, or as a part of general curriculum at a dance studio, and punctual workshops for a LGBTI* association.
I feel that these various experiences have helped me to get a fair idea of classroom dynamics and student motivations. As William J. Broad writes in his book “The Science of Yoga, what it promises, what it can do”(5), many of those who come to yoga classes are looking for an alternative to more aggressive types of sport. Yoga also enjoys the reputation of supporting health and well-being, therefore many people come because they are hoping for relief from chronic pain or injury, or because they expect to find calm and strength, things which seem difficult for them to find in their daily routines.
I often have the impression that unreasonably high student expectations are raised by yoga teachers through the use of highly charged words in their publicity campaigns, for example: power, energy, health, healing, flexibility, inner balance, fitness, etc. In my opinion, these promotional tactics lead to misunderstandings about what yoga actually is, and what it can potentially facilitate for those who practice.
In my experience, students who have such high expectations are more likely to place a blind and unquestioning confidence in their teachers in order to realize these generalized changes or abilities for them, and they are less likely to enter the class with an idea of what they need or how to adapt what they are taught to their needs.
Although I think I have a comparatively fair level of competence, and a reasonable amount of teaching experience, I do not think I would be capable of fulfilling blanket expectations that have no specific content. What I can do is to communicate my knowledge and my enthusiasm for the subject, and attempt to motivate my students to begin or deepen the study of their bodies, their states of mind, and their physical health. By doing this, I can also facilitate the independent modification or adaptation of the Asanas to their individual morphological or injury-related limitations. In an interview, T.K.V. Desikachar6 affirmed my own observations of this issue, when he stated that Yoga should be tailored to individual, cultural, personal and physical constitution.
I submit that in order to accomplish this adaptation, among the first things a student of Yoga would need to learn would be relevant aspects of their own anatomy.
The precondition for insuring the health and benefit of each student's practice creates a dilemma for me as their teacher:
How much anatomical information can I share before I start to interrupt or even destroy the fundamental aspects of the fluid sequences of Vinyasa Yoga?
This is my self-imposed challenge, my constant question, regardless of the my teaching situation, independent of the group I'm leading.
I assume, however, that the students can autonomously adapt the various poses with their increasing understanding of their own needs and physical conditions.
When I practice and teach yoga my intention is to create, in the context of the classroom, a value-free space, a noncompetitive environment.
But here the question arises: to what extent can a "value-free" space exist? What opportunities and possible constraints do I have as the teacher? By giving instructions don't I already determine a certain direction, and thus set the standards to be observed? A "value-free space" is defined in my opinion, by the freedom that the students can autonomously renounce my instructions. I want to share my own experience, explorations, and even my doubts with the students and thereby encourage them to do the same, be it through my actions and/or my use of the language. Over time I have realized with my teaching that the social structures reflected in the language or in our use of language, can lead to demarcation and discrimination. (7) For example, by value-based judging of the situation, because I want motivate the person exercising. Or as in the German language often used generic masculine, "Der Krieger" (the male warrior) is very commonly used example in yoga poses in the German translation. These are just two of many possibilities of demarcation designated by language.
Martin Soder writes in his article, "Yoga- Die Menschlichkeit in uns entwickeln"(8) of yoga's central question:
How can I develop my potential as a human being? And that our most valuable asset according to yoga is our ability to understand.
This can result in the following actions:
Not to turn away
Not to discriminate against your counterpart
Health and well-being can have many ways of postively influencing the mind and thus support "willing understanding". If it's also about cooperation with and understanding of your counterpart and strengthening your personal self, then why are so many yoga classes more like fitness-oriented sports?
In talking with other yoga practitioners and teachers, we exchanged experiences and reproduced situations where practicing the asanas in groups, really led to a competitive environment. Our criticism is that in a very sports-oriented environment, too little biomechanical and anatomical knowledge is transmitted (in addition to other problems). The student can be easily misled by the aesthetics and attempt the particular exercise in an unprepaired manner. (See more in the 2nd part "Considering the yoga asanas vocabulary using Axis Syllabus lexicon")
"Yoga today is a unique example of a truly global innovation, where eastern and western practices have joined to create something greatly esteemed around the world."9
I find ths quote very valuable because it reminds us, as practitioners and teachers, of yoga's ever-continuing development and its adaptability to practitioners' needs.
There are many different options to respond to the students' individual physicality and needs. As essential, I believe yoga teachers need to be involved in ongoing discussion and continuing education. And of course, every aspiring yoga teacher should ask whether a 4-week training is sufficient for all the requirements that teaching needs. From my experience, the willingness to question the familiar, the pursuit of current scientific findings about anatomy and pedagogy, and of course, the personal study of yoga and its history, are worthwhile. This makes the lessons lively and authentic.
I am aware that I have only touched on the topics in this paper. In addition, there are topics such as feminism in yoga and cultural appropriation, which I consider to be very important and would like to investigate in the future.
1) Seat, mat; posture. The base definition comes from the root word “ās”,
meaning “to sit”. Originally, this word described the surface on which the
practicing yogi sat. (2006, Wilfried Huchzermeyer, “Yogic Vocabulary”, pg.26f)
2) Vinyāsa means "movement, position; connecting". In Vinyāsa Yoga each Āsana is connected with synchronized breathing performed dynamically.
3) In principle, there are no restrictions on who can be a yoga teacher. Anyone can teach yoga, there is no mandatory training path. In Germany there is the professional association of yoga teachers, BDY (Berufsverband der Yogalehrenden in Deutschland e.V.), which developes guidelines for continued education. In Austria, the BYO (Berufsverband der Yogalehrenden in Österreich) functions similarily. And there is the US Yoga Alliance, which also operates internationally. All three organizations volunteerly aim to establish stable criteria to guarantee a serious teacher training. The 4-week yoga training that I graduated from was tested and certified by the Yoga Alliance training format. It included 200 hours of lessons and is offered in a similar format by diverse yoga teachers and yoga studios around the world.
4) see “part 2 – examining the yogic Asanas through the lens of the Axis
5) William J. Broad “The Science of Yoga, what it promises, what it can do”, pg
6)Interview February 2003, T.K.V Desikachar,Martin Soder, Imogen Dalmann, "Kein Stil, keine Marke-nur viniyoga" T.K.V. Desikachar is an Indian yoga teacher, author and son/student of T. Krishnamacharya, who is considered the founder of modern yoga. T.K.V. Desikachar teaches the concept of Vini-Yoga. "Viniyoga means individually orientating the exercises for the individual by responding optimally to his constitutions and dispositions as well as to his personal goals." (2006, Wilfried Huchzermeyer, The Yoga Dictionary, p.215)
7) 2012, Anatol Stefanowitsch, „Sprache und Ungleichheit“, Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung ("Language and inequality", Federal Agency for Civic Education)
8)2008 Martin Soder, yoga develops our humanity, Viveka 42
9) 2011 Meera Nanda, Professor of History of Science at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Mohali, Himal South Asian magazine, "Owing Yoga"