Updated: Sep 8
Why a yoga practice nowadays should consider modern bodies and what is self-care?
Contortionist postures, acrobatics displaying strength, flexibility, slim bendy woman and muscular men often sparingly clothed are displayed everywhere and used in advertising or in blogs about yoga and cancer (as if a person who suffers from cancer wants to do a powerful warrior pose or handstand – it infuriates me to see the lack of sensitivity!), airlines, banks etc. are using those powerful images of not only telling us how we should look like but also how bendy we should be – postures that look the same as those postures that are done enthusiastically in yoga studios and gyms and advertised by yoga teachers all over the world showing off their bodies and sometimes sexual organs as the ultimate pathway to happiness! But does a handstand with a lotus ultimately make you happy and constitutes to self-care and overall a better connection with yourself and the whole?
I am going to discuss in this blog the origins of yoga and the meaning of yoga and how our current environment does not really suit those “traditional” classical postures for the “normal” person who mainly sits on a chair and moves far less than maybe his most recent ancestors in the beginning of the last century. Most people are put off and say “Nah, yoga is not my thing” – I don’t blame them. On top we get yoga teachers to be experts and offering retreats to quit smoking, be slimmer, get your digestive power working like they were doctors, psychologists and physiotherapists (those people often having studied more than 10 years - this is not to say that yoga potentially could do all those things, but I feel we lack humility in honouring this ancient wisdom that takes years to understand and embody). Marketing is all about making us buy that thing, but it’s time we have a good look at this “thing”!
Asana – what is that?
Asana translates into posture and that is what we practice mostly when we go to a yoga class in a gym or studio. The sage Patanjali defines it as a seated posture, that is firm, steady but comfortable and relaxed. In fact, he or she devoted very little time about physical yoga postures in the so-called Sutras (about 400 CE, aphorisms about yoga). Reading the Sutras and it becomes very quickly clear that yoga is so much more than doing the wild thing (yoga posture)!
Similarly, in the earlier Bhagavad Gītā, Kṛiṣhṇa instructs Arjuna to sit in a clean place establishing a firm seat (sthiram-āsanam). “There, having made the mind single-pointed, the activity of the mind and senses restrained; having a seat (āsana), he should practise yoga for the purification of the self — Bhagavadgītā 6.11-12
How far does asana practice go back in time?
There is a lot of debate about it and there are still some unpublished treaties to be translated, interpreted and published.
The first pictures of some sort of “postures” and the origin of yoga can be traced to the Hindus Valley Civilization dated to 3,000 BC. Evidence of pictures mainly included pictures of people sitting in a certain way. In the first commentary on the Yogasūtra (Bhāṣya), postures mentioned were mainly seated postures, including Padmasana (lotus pose).
According to the Goraksha Samhitha (only written about roughly 1000 years ago), there are 84 Asanas and furthermore 8,400,000 variations of those postures. Here we see postures, such as arm balances and inversions.
Mark Singleton outlines in his book “Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice” that most yoga postures that we practice nowadays are in fact from the beginning of the 20th century! He outlines that postures were developed as a result of a mixture between ancient Indian yoga practice that got combined with European gymnastics & bodybuilding. This is confirmed by a documentary by the BBC and other yoga experts in this field.
I certainly have seen a huge array of new postures only from the time I started to practice physical yoga postures about 20 years ago to nowadays. Most well-known asanas, including "Downward Dog" and Surya Namaskar, or "Sun Salutation" - are said to be not found in ancient texts. Dr Jim Mallinson (a yoga history researcher and senior lecturer at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), states and confirms that they were in fact taught around the 1930s.
According to an article by BBC News from the 22 June 2017 “Yoga: How did it conquer the world and what's changed?” researchers believe Downward Dog to correspond with the Elephant Pose (references to which exist first in 18th-century texts). Also, it is believed to have been a posture in exercises used by Indian wrestlers who were strongly influenced by European body-builders, especially Eugen Sandow who had his fans in India. Furthermore, many postures are like postures used in martial arts. I can certainly see similarities there having practised a bit of martial arts before I started my passion for yoga.
This is not to say that everything is in fact not that old and originated in the 1930s. Some argue that Surya Namaskar is said to have ties to ancient times and was used to worship the sun and praising Surya as a source of light. However, Mr Singleton argues that it seems that the claim of Surya namaskar in its physical form as practised for example in the Ashtanga Tradition does not go back into ancient times.
Even if we hear of some sun-worshipping, that was or still is done mainly in meditation, so it’s just speculative that the sun salutations come as far back as the Vedas. We can argue that the origins of the Sūrya Namaskār (the sun salutes) are not clear, this dynamic sequence of poses became popular and found its way into many yoga classes today and we find variations in almost all “styles” of yoga.
Then, on the other hand, we get the Yoga Korunta (the ancient texts Pattabhi Jois with his teacher Krishnamayarcha discovered), but unfortunately, this book that was discovered in an old library ended up being eaten away by aunts. Some suggest that it may be possible that the Yoga Korunta comes from a time pre 14th century and many postures of the Ashtanga Vinyasa sequences were in fact mentioned or described in this ancient textbook argues James Russel. Krishnamacharya also used those flowing movements as the foundation of his Mysore style of yoga.
The authors of ancient text describe in their texts often species of animals, so we get the elephant pose, camel, cobra and other names etc. As we can see there is a conflict about how much really we can attribute a physical dynamic acrobatic practice to ancient times and research is still happening.
So, what is YOGA?
When we look at the earliest use of the word “yoga” it implies the connection warriors have with their chariots in battle. The seven guarding deities (number seven invokes in me a similarity with the 7 chakras) will allow the warrior to ascend through the sun to take his place among the gods (rising of consciousness/evolution?). Maybe some of the Warrior Postures come from this, although it might be more of a symbolic connection? Yoga is also translated as “union” and / or “connection”.
Some of the older stories we get is, for example, the story from the Ramayana (Ramayana is one of the two major Sanskrit epics of ancient India, the other being the Mahābhārata), where we hear about the love between Rama and Sita. Sita becomes abducted by Ravana and he takes her to the island of Lanka. Rama is setting off searching for her and meets Hanuman (nowadays the splits, that is, Hanumanasana or Monkey Pose) and both reached the southern shores (of India). Hanuman with a leap helps Rama to get to Lanka (Sri Lanka) over the ocean to get Sita back.
In the Hatha Yoga books (e.g. the Hatha Yoga Pradipika) techniques relate mainly to pranayama, mudra and bandha and almost all of this is done seated. The sun also is symbolic in the stomach and relates to the digestive system. So does Hatha Yoga often gets translated into the “sun” and the “moon” speaking of those opposing forces, such as, a low- and high-pressure systems that move energy. However, it is in the Haṭhayoga texts and tradition that we can begin to see the gradual shift from only seated to more complex other āsanas including balancing and inversions. Those postures serve bodily purification, as described above to help the distribution of energy within the physical body and also have many other therapeutic aims.
We can also find evidence in sculptures on the walls of some South Indian temples and paintings, which certainly depict some yoga postures, such as the Peacock Pose.
Maybe physical poses were never the central focus of yoga for most of its history, so it’s just crazy that nowadays that what most people think yoga is. I would even argue that if we were to ask people on the street if they wanted to come to a yoga class (who never have done yoga) quiet a lot of them would say |” no thanks, it’s not my thing” thinking they have to twist into some impossible contortions. Until the 19th century, yoga was almost exclusively the practice of ascetic Indian holy men aspiring to spiritual liberation and as I mentioned before this was done mainly seated.
In the 20th century, a new craze emerged about health and strength and European callisthenics exercises and it is said that Scandinavian gymnastics were introduced in the military drilling throughout India and combined with other bodybuilding techniques were adopted by yoga innovators there.
The shoulderstand also called “legs in the air” was described as “to add slimming and prevent any sagging organs by the Women’s League of Health and Beauty” in the 30s. Especially Trikonasana is claimed to be coming from a Scandinavian gymnastic keep fit regime despite its Sanskrit name “Trikonasana”, which makes it sound so ancient.
It is clear to me that many of those “classical” yoga postures (coming from the not so distant past as we may believe) are nevertheless out of touch with the needs of many contemporary modern bodies who seem to sit on chairs for more than 10 hours a day, drive cars, sit in buses and don’t move as much as our ancestors did (we don’t have to go really far back for that). When I observe people in classes I see them pushing themselves often into difficult postures that their bodies are not ready for and it may be ok for the teacher who practices every day, but certainly not to Mr or Mrs Office worker (working in an office environment or similar) who may only come once or twice a week to classes.
We have to encourage people to move more, but also move more lovingly, that is, being calm and rather than looking good make them feel good. This can be achieved by letting them actively move from their core (again without tensing that too much) and start to get the mobility back into their bodies and then eventually they can practice more complex postures.
Somatic Movement and Biomechanics
Does this not sound fancy? Others call it mindful movement, embodiment etc. We adapt classical postures, as outlined above, to a modern body using gentle and enjoyable movement that releases patterns that otherwise could or would cause pain. It is very empowering to realise why our neck hurts so much and what we could potentially do or change to relieve that pain. If we learn how to move better (e.g. walking) we let our own body strengthen and repair itself. In fact, I would argue that going for a walk barefooted for many people might be a better idea than going to a Hot Bikram or dynamic Ashtanga Class (at least in the beginning). Natural walking using the shoulders, hips and side bending and twisting mobilise the spine and help to distribute blood throughout it. We go in all ranges of movement (6 or 8 movement patterns).
We have to ask ourselves: “Why do we practice yoga, and what is its purpose in our lives and how do our body-mind feel better with it?” If it were for to be a trapeze artist, circus artist, dancer, acrobat, showing off our but or other sexual organs – why not honestly be one or do it without calling it yoga all the time?
Does the Wild Pose make us really feel that great in the long run? This is not to say that you cannot do those postures or should not do them, it just questions why so many people force their wrists, necks, lower backs etc.?
I would even argue that excessive sun salutations can be harmful to a modern body and you will find many people who have neck, shoulder and upper or lower back problems that often can get worse practising sun salutations unsafe for a long time. If the definition of yoga according to many ancient texts is to be calm and steady, we could argue in modern terminology that the purpose of yoga is to mainly switch on the parasympathetic nervous system and not the flight and fight response. When we stretch a muscle too quickly or/and overstretch this muscle, a reflex switch on that tells the body to avoid this stretch so that’s why most of us feel an intense stretch. However, this is potentially stressful for the body and really not what we aim for if we want to be in yoga.
Everything can potentially be yoga if the effect is on a mental, physiological and psychological level positive in the short and long run and done with the minimum effort. Can we use any given class and adapt it to the persons in front of us? Can we encourage the person to move actively from the core without over tensing it using active movement like we would when walking or moving in space? The more active movement we do, the more this person will ultimately become strong and flexible without having to overthink and use excessive effort into stretching and bending more than normal.
Should we adapt classical yoga postures to a modern body?
Absolutely, I am often so surprised to see somebody with tight hips and hamstrings going into a forward bend without bending their knees (I ask myself if people actually love to be in pain) and often teachers teach to have straight legs. We don’t only stretch muscles, but we also can potentially damage nerves, so for example, in Paschimottansana (seated forward bend) or in standing Uttanasana, where a person on top pulls the toes to their head in order to reach the toes with the hands, the sciatica nerve can be damaged. This is insane yet you see gyms and studios boasting to show off their full studios with people who clearly injure themselves. Crazy!
Another habit I see in people is wanting to reach the floor in the Tringle Pose, but often compromising their lower back or losing any benefit of what that posture can possibly give you. When I cover more dynamic classes, I feel a lot of tension form some people and some people hiss at you “are you going to give me a harsh practice”! Those people leave me cold, as even thus I will encourage people to get the full potential, I will also teach more subtle aspects. Normally this is well received and appreciated and sometimes I see even a transformation in a harsh looking or seeming person into a more loving accepting person.
I personally I am appalled by seeing yoga advertised with those bendy slim images everywhere. Shapes that don’t mean anything. On top, they induce this image in us that we are only adequate if we look like this. No wonder that people are put off yoga and say, “it’s not me”. I just replied to an article by Forbes talking about discipline and self-care and even thus I agree with the article that delaying gratification and a certain discipline is necessary to care about ourselves (that is getting up at 6am to meditate might not feel what we want but could potentially be positive for the future), but they showed a bendy pretty woman in a bendy handstand???? Why? Instagram is full of those images people showing off their sexual organs and being in extreme contortions to relay the message of relaxation? Crazy world!
I am not saying that is it not possible to do those postures with a dominant parasympathetic nervous system, but I doubt that most of those ads and the people they used are in a constant state of calmness and are those that contribute to better connections in the world.
People who sit all day need to gradually stretch out their hip flexors and move their spines. Moving into all 6 possible ways or if you take traction and normal spine as a movement 8 ways. Compression of the spine as we sit, but we can also lengthen it. We can side bend it, rotate it, flex it and extend it without extending it so much in the weaker parts of our spine, that is, lower backs and necks.
There is no need to combine too complicated gymnastics for people who have no longer a naturally flexible body. A natural body has strong knees for squats, strong necks because they can carry stuff on their head, flexible spines and already stretched out hamstrings.
In my courses I teach, one of the first things I say to people is that the practice should be joyful and the movement feels like in meditation or if you like swimming in the sea as much as I do “floating in warm water”. This feeling should not be ONLY there in the practice, but ultimately in the long term, this feel-good factor is there all the time. We don’t need at all fancy postures for this. This is not to say that you cannot do them if that is what makes you feel good, but to give this as an example of what yoga is, I strongly disagree because most of us have not got the time or body to get there and it feels like a failure and we say “yoga is not for me”.
A slight bend in the knees can also stabilise the knee better. We still can tension our quads and by slightly bending our knees our hamstrings also become tense and then bringing the weight slightly forward to the toes as if we were to raise the heels, helps to protect the back of the knee, bringing the outer edges of our feet to the outer knee, stabilises the outer knee and slightly gripping the heels inwards activates the inner thighs and helps to protect the inner knee. If you want to learn more about how to stabilise knees, ankles, hips, shoulders, wrists etc. come to a 121 class or I have a beautiful weekend retreat coming up in the beautiful magic Downs 5 – 7 July. For more information, contact me on email@example.com or visit my website www.sundarayogalfow.com
I also offer a 200-hour approved Yoga Alliance Professionals teacher training and we are taking people for our 2020 course. There you learn how to protect joints, how to move actively from the core without overbending and overstretching, how to be an ethical yoga teacher and we teach you even basic SEO (how to attract people on google without having to pay lots of ads).
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