Dispelling Yoga Myths

Listen in to a short introduction to a recent discussion I shared with yoga teachers and teachers-in-training on some of the most common myths and misconceptions in yoga.

 

Or, read a transcript and a few extra notes on dispelling common yoga myths and misconceptions:

Today we’re going to dig into some of the common yoga myths. To start I want to clarify, I will be talking about modern postural yoga here, because that’s what I’ve studied and that’s what I can speak to. The yoga world is immense so we can’t talk about every point in yoga’s history or every yoga form.  But, for what we know today in the West as yoga, what we’ll call Modern Postural yoga, that’s what I’ll address.

That leads to the first myth – there is a pure form of yoga, an original form, there was once a yoga that was understood by all to be the ‘real’ yoga. And, for us Westerners, that this ‘real yoga’ had sun salutations and reverse warrior and wild thing as prominent aspects of the practice.  That’s just not true.

Yoga Myth: All Yoga Postures Are Ancient

When I started studying yoga, I was under the impression that all yoga postures are 5,000 years old; ancient and sacred.  What I’ve learned is that in reality most of now the poses we practice today in our Vinyasa Flow style date back about 100 years or so to folks like Kuvalayananda and Krishnamacharya, and Mysore India.

Of course, some asana has been practiced for much, much longer, but for example the Primary Series of Ashtanga Yoga dates back to about the 1920s.

So, what were the earliest poses?  Meditation postures.  For the earliest yogis, asana was not a primary focus of yoga.  They weren’t concerned with healthy bodies and good posture and being able to align their Trikonasana, they were all about transcending the physical body – disengaging from any attachment to the body, it’s needs and desires, and the cycle of birth and death.

In the Yoga Sutras, a dualistic text which sees the self as composed of a body (prakriti) and a consciousness (purusha), the only asana described is the posture of sitting in meditation to follow the 8 limbs towards Samadhi, the absorbed or superconscious state. Asana literally refers to seat here.

With the further development of practices like Tantra yoga in India, this idea of the body as part of our experience – a non-dualist approach to yoga began to be more popular.  By this I mean, instead of looking at the self from a dualistic perspective, there is a body and a consciousness, Tantra looked at body, mind and consciousness as all manifestations or facets of the self or the divine or the sacred.

This led to movement, breathwork, kriya, mudra, and ultimately to Hatha Yoga, like that described in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (written in the 1300’s) which described 15 postures – asanas like hero, cow face, fish, Paschimottanasana and Savasana. The primary postures in this text were sitting postures, many focussed on meditation. There weren’t sun salutations and Chaturangas and inversions.  At least not in available writing.

Leaping ahead, things started to change a lot in the late 1800’s where yoga started to really develop both as a spiritual practice in the west, and as a physical practice, part of a physical culture in India.

First there were teachers like Vivekananda who brought yoga to the US, but was originally more focussed on breathwork and meditation, and wasn’t big on asana. This is a time when traditional yoga philosophy and practice was deeply influenced by new age ideas and spiritualism.

Then we have one of most influential periods of development for modern postural yoga was the period from the turn of the century to the 1950’s in India, first with teachers like Kuvalayananda and Krishnamacharya, and then their students like Iyengar and Jois.

I’m not an expert in this area, but from what I’ve read, this was a time where there was a huge focus on physical culture, building strong, ‘purified’ bodies, perhaps in response to colonization and wanting to reclaim first their bodies and then their country – and perhaps in some cases training fighters to rise up and expel the British from India.

Krishnamacharya took this physical culture-focussed yoga to Mysore to train the young boys, keep them healthy and fit and disciplined – this is the advent of the Ashtanga Vinyasa system we know.

Krishnamacharya trained three major teachers who played a huge role in modern postural yoga.  BKS Iyengar, known for creating the Iyengar style – strict alignment, use of props, focus on therapeutic applications.  Pattabhis Jois, known for the Ashtanga Vinyasa style – dynamic, gymnastic, strong adjustments, adherence to the 6 series’.  TKV Desikachar, Krishnamacharya’s son, known for ViniYoga, an individualized style of yoga, with practices tailored to each individual.

So, just looking at one teacher, handing down a practice to three teachers, who all three created something completely different and unique from the teachings. Imagine that happening for hundreds and thousands of years and we have the immense world of yoga.

It’s a bit too much to go into here, but if we look at one system, like the Primary Series of Ashtanga Yoga, this is very much like a Scandinavian gymnastics system that was popular at the time called Primitive Gymnastics, blended with some traditional yoga asana, military calisthenics, and wrestling techniques woven in.  This led not only to the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga system, but also variations like Power Yoga, Hot Yoga, Vinyasa Flow, just to name a few.  I like to imagine that, just like I do now, the yoga teachers of the time were borrowing and innovating and evolving movement systems to suit the time, place, and students.

Where my big learning came from in this subject was, I was adhering to the system, even though it was hurting my body, it wasn’t suiting my students, because I thought it was ancient and sacred, and it was, and yet it was not. It was still open to interpretation, innovation, and evolution, and that’s been probably the biggest part of my own progression as a student and teacher in the last 5-10 years.

To finish, I’ll just share a little quote from Mark Singleton’s excellent book Yoga Body:

“The practice of asanas within transnational anglophone yogas is not the outcome of a direct and unbroken lineage of hatha yoga. While it is going too far to say that modern postural yoga has no relationship to asana practice within the Indian tradition, this relationship is one of radical innovation and experimentation. It is the result of adaptation to new discourses of the body that resulted from India’s encounter with modernity.”

Useful Resources:

  • Mark Singleton Yoga Body
  • Elliot Goldberg The Path of Modern Yoga
  • James Mallinson Roots of Yoga

So, that’s my little contribution to the discussion.  It is taking me a long time to actually learn about the origins of the practice I have basically dedicated my life to.  The reason it took so long for me to get here is that I didn’t question. I was curious about a lot of things, the nature of the self, the nature of existence, how we are all connected.  But for a long time, I didn’t extend that curiosity to challenge the narratives that my yoga community were committed to.  But luckily today we have a lot more ability to share information, ask questions about what we are doing, and sit together with the unanswerable questions like – what is the self?

So, that’s my yoga myth. I’m curious to hear your questions, the myths you’ve already researched, or the myths you’d like to explore together:

Are some myths harmless?

I’m sure there are.  The ones I am concerned with, though, are the myths and misconceptions that can lead to harm, risk of injury, or myths that make people feel excluded, that make people question their own experiences or body wisdom, or that make yoga inaccessible.  I think that the more we can interrogate these myths, the more we’ll find that they have roots in harmful places – classism, racism, ableism, fatphobia and diet culture, and even eugenics.  Those are the myths that I want to keep exploring, and I’ll hope you’ll keep on exploring them with me.

 

Other Myths (In Brief)

All yoga is therapeutic (all yoga is good for back pain etc)

This is a common myth, along with this idea, the myth that you can’t get hurt doing asana.  I rejected this at first, especially when William Broad’s book The Science of Yoga came out about 10 years ago and talked about the risks of yoga.  But, then over a few years I started to acknowledge how so much intense yoga practice was impacting my body and my friend’s bodies, I took the blinders off and I started to learn more about the risks of yoga, yoga injuries, and the prevalence of harmful adjustments and actual assault in yoga.

Matthew Remski spoke about this when he began writing a book on yoga injuries initially titled What Are We Actually Doing in Asana (published as Practice and All is Coming – highly recommend).  He talked about as he did research for the book, beginning to see a broader issue in the yoga community than just unreported injuries. He saw a dynamic where injuries, harassment, and abuse where prevalent but not spoken of, or if spoken about, with a bit of a *shrug* ‘oh well that’s Guruji’ kind of framing.   This cult dynamic could be seen as one of the causes of injuries, and the reasons why injuries aren’t reported.  Why else would we be harming our bodies in the name of yoga, and calling it therapeutic?  We had these intrenched ideas like ‘you have to take your body apart to build it back up’, ‘you have to break your knees to get into Lotus pose’, ‘if you have pain that’s the impurities or resistance leaving your body’ – all of these ideas, and the culture they were shared in, did cause injury.

So, without going into too much detail, no, the yoga of the past was not always therapeutic.  And, moving into the future, if yoga is to be therapeutic, the agency over how we practice, what we practice, who we practice with, who touches us and when, has to remain with the student.

Rather than the teacher imposing their will and ideas onto students, students have to be empowered and free to speak up, modify, use props, choose a different version of a pose, end a practice, etc., if they are uncomfortable or experiencing pain.

 

This pose will heal your…

Most of the biomedical miracle claims of yoga are founded on nothing but imagination and marketing.  There is no evidence that Shoulderstand will heal your thyroid, that twists will detox your liver, or that you should ‘do these 5 poses for (insert real medical concern here)’.

Here’s what we know: General yoga is generally good for the general public.  A general yoga practice can help you improve in areas of flexibility, balance, strength, endurance, focus, relaxation, and may be useful as a part of your health, fitness, or well-being practice for a variety of issues.  There is no one style or lineage or practice that is necessarily superior to another.  Choose the practice that works for you, practice in a way that challenges you without causing pain, that provides you with a safe space to explore and rest and helps you to get to know yourself. That’s all.

 

You should have a daily yoga practice

Sure, have a daily practice.  Regularly moving your body, meditating, or practicing mindfulness is wonderful. But anything that you do repetitively every day will put you at risk of repetitive strain.  If you have a daily yoga practice, variety is important. Consider having a multi-disciplinary approach to movement and meditation. Maybe one day you do a dynamic Vinyasa Flow, another day you do a core strengthening practice, another day you do some restorative movement, and another you focus more on taking a meditation walk in nature.  Yoga doesn’t have to look the same every day for you to have a daily practice.

 

You should practice first thing upon rising

I’m not a fan of the ‘shoulds’, especially ‘shoulds’ that don’t fit in with our needs or lifestyle and make us feel perpetually guilty for not adhering to the ‘right way’.  Practice when you can, when it fits into your life, when it works for your body, when it feels good.  Maybe a morning practice is right for you, and it’s a distraction-free time to focus, and it sets the tone for the day.  That’s great.  But morning it’s no better or worse than any other time.

 

You should strive to be as flexible as possible – bendier is better.

As a hypermobile person I can tell you from experience that bendier is definitely not better.  Having sufficient flexibility to complete your daily activities, your sport or movement practice, reduce the risk of injury, falls etc., these are all great reasons to develop and maintain your flexibility. But striving for more and more flexibility with no limit can put you at risk of instability and injury.  Balancing strength and stability with flexibility and mobility might be a better aim.

 

You should eliminate all tension from your body.

I’m not an expert on biomechanics, but one thing I do know is that we need tension. Physical tension literally holds us together, helps us to transmit loads, protects us from injury – we need tension to function in everyday life. I think that this is part of a bigger conversation about the use of terms like stress and tension as only negatives – yes chronic stress and tension are a problem, but that doesn’t mean we want to completely eliminate them from our lives.  Stress and tension are important for our survival, for our movement, and for our growth.

 

Yoga Can Help You Detox

Okay I’ve run out of time and patience, so just quickly: these are all patently false:

  • Yoga detoxifies the body
  • Hot yoga detoxifies the body
  • Sweating detoxifies the body
  • Twists wring out your organs and detoxifies them

 

In closing

Do yoga if you like it, not because there are some fancy made-up claims that it will cure you or fix you or change you.  You don’t need fixing.  But you might need some time to be with yourself, or to be in community, to move and breath, to relax, to meditate, and to sit with all the grand questions of life – who am I, why am I here, what shall I do with this life?

Resources:

For some real myth busters, follow folks like:

  • Jenni Rawlings Yoga
  • Jules Mitchell Yoga and Biomechanics
  • Yoga Research and Beyond
  • Pain Science
  • Conspirituality Podcast
  • Maintenance Phase Podcast
  • Yoga is Dead Podcast

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