Transcending tradition and finding a contemporary yoga that fits

Most of the physical movements and postures commonly recognised as “yoga asanas” haven’t been around that long, but have come to be widely accepted as sacred forms. But things are evolving quickly, and yoga is now adapting to evidence-based understandings of the human body.

A tailored fit is everything

It’s not the suit that makes the man – it’s the man that makes the suit.

There was once a man who wanted a new, tailor-made suit. He went to his local tailor shop, where they took his measurements, and told him to come back in a week for adjustments. A week later the man returned to try on his new suit. Standing in front of the mirror, he noticed one sleeve was shorter, and the jacket was tight in the back. He couldn’t breathe in it.

“The suit looks nice, but it doesn’t really fit me,” he said to the tailor.

The tailor answered in the manner of a seasoned professional. “But the suit is perfect! You just need to tuck in your arms a bit, and it will look great.”

The man felt confused, but deferred to the tailor’s apparent authority and reluctantly squeezed himself into it. The suit itself was stylish and the tailor complimented him on his appearance.

So the man walked out out the shop wearing it, and as he passed a cafe on the corner, he overheard a couple at one of the tables commenting about him.

“That suit looks great,” a guy drinking a coffee said to his companion. “Pity such a weird guy is wearing it.”

“What’s this got to do with yoga?” I hear you ask. Quite a lot actually, as we shall now see.

Moving beyond blind acceptance

In the last 10 years contemporary yoga has opened to other movement modalities and research-based practices based on how our bodies actually move.

This influx of new ideas began because many senior yoga practitioners and teachers were experiencing physical injuries that could be traced back to movement patterns of traditional yoga styles that emphasised repetitive movements, linear alignment and hypermobility of the joints.

When New York Times published William J. Broad”s article “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” in 2012, it sparked further debate about the benefits of physical yoga practice as we know it in its traditional form.

To use the above metaphor, the suit didn’t fit properly. In a similar way to the guy who deferred to the authority of his tailor, even though the suit obviously didn’t fit, a great many yoga practitioners and teachers deferred to the authority and inherited methods of the early yoga teachers. The way they did things was accepted without much question and became the norm.

In recent years a significant push back against this inherited wisdom has slowly developed. Methods, movements, goals and forms that long defined and limited physical yoga have begun to be questioned, and new, better fitting, approaches are emerging.

Even with all the growing pains of contemporary yoga, it’s important to acknowledge the practice still offers a meaningful transformation for many people. That’s why I believe it’s so important to question the old assumptions, to peel back the layers of new age myths and to look through corporate yoga’s profit-based manipulation, to find a more balanced, informed and down to earth understanding of yoga. This includes its real, as opposed to its mythological, history. And also a physical yoga practice that suits the reality of the human body.

Modern yoga’s not so deep roots

The history of contemporary postural yoga, which is what most of us in the West are practicing these days, is a story of an experimentation, invention and reinvention. Yoga poses and movements weren’t presented by God to a chosen yogi standing on the top of a mountain. They developed through human experimentation.

As Dr. Mark Singleton discusses in his groundbreaking book Modern Yoga: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, contemporary yoga postures are not thousands of years old – as some would lead you to believe, but rather a creative crossover between early twentieth century calisthenics, body building practices, and Hatha yoga practices that originated in the eighteenth century. The Sun Salutation, or Surya Namaskar, sequence is not an ancient practice that connects us with the roots of yoga, but rather “a glorified burpee” as yoga teacher Davis Burroughs described it in his informative article about this popular sequence.

Yoga schools that validate themselves via a certain defined tradition and a guru (usually around whom there is an origin myth) provides its adherents with a sense of security, certainty and belonging to practitioners. However, it is also true that what emerged as physical yoga in the West was promoted as being traditional in order to gain validity, rather than it actually being so. Some of the popular claims around this, include the notion that yogic practices were transmitted in secrecy for thousand of years, to chosen few, and therefore the origins of the practice cannot be traced. Others say the poses haven’t been changed for thousands of years, since their origination in the Himalayas, and are – in of themselves – somehow sacred relative to other postures and movements.

Walking the line in 20th Century yoga

linear yoga

BKS Iyengar in Trikonasana

The straight line is a human construct, and if applied to movement, it expresses a particular aesthetic ideal, rather than the way our bodies can actually move. Think of army parades, for instance! The point of those is to create conformity and groupthink.

Linear movements have long been a salient feature of traditional postural yoga. There’s no evidence-based justification for this. On the contrary, it contradicts what we are learning about the body. The repetitive linear movements often taught by traditional yoga schools are not always good for the body and – over time – can lead to injuries.

But we are strangely obsessed with them, perhaps because they are more “straightforward” than nonlinear movement. It’s a top down approach; the mind imposes linear limitations on the body. The underlying assumption is that the body needs to be “straightened out” and then ultimately transcended. Similarly, discomfort and pain should be transcended, as well.

The aesthetics of modern postural yoga are shaped by its origins – in the politics of physicality in colonial and postcolonial India, as Melissa Heather explores in her informative article Extreme Makeover: Yoga in the British Empire. Ideas such as: going through the pain to resolve the blockages, or old karma; that being more flexible, more “open” in the body equals being more advanced on the spiritual plane. (see Matthew Remski”s writing).

These ideas were a product of the thinking, values and social relations of the time. Being resistant to pain, being the best, pushing oneself, subduing the body so it can be hauled towards enlightenment – these all smack of an almost soldierly approach to life.

The good news is we are moving on from this, to a more informed approach to physical yoga practice and movement.

Catching waves in 21st Century yoga

Functional movement is based on real-world situational biomechanics. It usually involves multi-planar, multi-joint movements which place demand on the body’s core musculature and innervation. Functional movement includes circles, spirals and bounces. It is a safe and healthy way to move for our joints, the connective tissue and the system as a whole.

It’s based on working with our body as it actually is, rather than as we think it should be. This includes understanding what is beneficial to the body and what may result in damage. It’s about making movement, like a well tailored suit, fit form, rather than form – our bodies – being forced into particular postures just because someone said so.

It’s stepping away from disciplining the body, whipping it into shape so it can be better, to a more understanding, caring approach and listening deeply to what the body needs. In this sense it’s more bottom up; the body itself sets the directives.

Choosing your approach as a professional yoga teacher

A woman from London visited one of my classes recently. Sharing a cup of tea after the class, she told me she is a yoga teacher and is interested in joining my advanced teacher training next year. However, choosing a contemporary, research-based training that “looks and feels different” felt risky to her. She was wondering if training within a popular and widely recognised yoga style would be smarter from a business perspective. Maybe it would give people what they recognise to be yoga. It would be giving them what they think they want, and be easier to market.

I could totally understand her hesitation. I’ve had them myself. Navigating the multifaceted landscape of contemporary yoga world is challenging.

But here’s the thing – a huge amount of people out there have been put off by many of the traditional yoga styles and are looking for something different, that fits them, that isn’t about becoming the most bendy, being able to levitate, or being able to perform stunning gymnastic feats.

So many people I myself and other teachers I know have met have said they are looking for something else. Many people who experience Dynamic Mindfulness yoga for the first time are totally surprised. They say things like, “I didn’t know yoga could be like this” or “this is exactly what I’ve been looking for” or “what kind of yoga is this? It’s amazing!”

People have been sold a line about what yoga is and liberating them from that is wonderful. This nontraditional, research-based, creative, mindful and functional movement yoga is a joy to teach and joy to practice. Come and try it some time. You’ll feel like you’ve just slipped into a perfect fit. That’s because it’s tailored for you.