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Five Words That Do Not Belong In Yoga

Posted: 08/03/09 05:33 PM ET

Ashtanga yoga (a type of traditional Indian yoga that is based on the linking of breath with movement) is notorious for its rules. From which days on which to practice which poses, to not daring to show up in the yoga room while menstruating, to when you should exhale and when you should inhale, to how many breaths should be taken in each pose, to what to eat and when to eat and exactly how many bites to have, to when and under what circumstances sex is appropriate (something about not having sex when one of the nostrils is clogged, but I can never remember which one), the rules are so numerous that countless books with hundreds of pages apiece are devoted to them. And endless discussion by Ashtanga practitioners. Endless, circular, sometimes angry discussion.

Ashtanga's physical practice (again, the "asana" practice) is a vigorous one, one which attracts many runners, dancers and lawyers, as well as others who tend to enjoy a little masochism in the name of achievement. In its traditional form, the "Mysore Style", the poses are "given out" by the teacher to each student on a one-to-one basis, based upon the teacher's determination that the student is "ready" to learn the "next" pose in the sequence. The students are expected to practice only those poses that have been "given" to them and to not "ask" for any additional poses. The teacher is often inscrutable (and the students seem to like it that way). The student is often projecting (and some teachers seem to quite enjoy that and have even been known to date their students, even while married to someone else).

This linear approach to yoga teaching can be appealing to those who have a tendency to enjoy a little competition, whether with themselves or with others. This is odd, considering that yoga is essentially the practice of "stilling the mind", which would seem to subsume such distractions as thoughts of "when will I get the next pose" and "what can I do to get my teacher to love me enough to give me the next pose" and "why does my teacher give poses to so-and-so, but not to me?" and "I think my teacher hates me/I think I hate my teacher."

In addition, lifelong dramas can pop up in the Mysore Style room: Daddy loves my brother more than me. Mommy doesn't think I am good enough. Unfortunately, few Mysore Style teachers are trained to handle the transference. Weight issues come up not infrequently as well. I was told by a Mysore Style teacher to drop some weight in order to get into a pose that was difficult for me. I was thanked by another Mysore Style teacher for having dropped weight, because in his opinion, it is why my practice improved by leaps and bounds over the course of one summer.

I practiced Ashtanga faithfully from 2005 until this year (even taught it for a period of time), when for reasons that I cannot even yet articulate, I found myself growing inexplicably repelled by it. I like to say "I threw myself out of the cult." But in truth, I didn't so much throw myself out as find myself slowly edging out the door, not sure that I would never return, only to find myself not wanting to return. At least not in the 6-days a week, rules-minded, punishing way in which I had approached it before.

These days, if I turn up in a Mysore Style room, there are people who express surprise: "I thought you didn't practice anymore."

Well, I still practice "yoga". I just do it my own way.

When I want, I turn up in a Mysore Style room, and I show respect for the teacher in the room by doing my best to follow the rules in the room. Otherwise, I practice other forms of yoga (and there are many to choose from: Bikram, Jivamukti, Anusara, Kundalini, to name a few). Mostly, I devise my own practice in the privacy of my own home and enjoy the Lauren Cahn School of Yoga, where I am my teacher and also my student. I mix that up with running and hiking.

One of the potential effects of the "rules" of Ashtanga is a need to detail one's adherence to the rules in the form of blogging. Indeed, this is how my own blog, Yoga Chickie, was born. If you go back to the early days of Yoga Chickie, you will see many references to the Five Words That (I now believe) Do Not Belong In Yoga Practice. I was a card carrying member of the Ashtanga cult, after all. Now, since I've managed to extricate myself and find some balance in what was always, essentially, my workout routine (that's right, for me, the "ugly" truth is that the yoga has always been, first and foremost, a workout for me), I feel kind of embarrassed about that. Nevertheless, I feel the need to confess. So here goes, the Five Words That Do Not Belong In a Yoga Practice (but which I admit, I used all the time in the past):

1. Criminal.

Ashtangis love to use the word "criminal" to refer to anything that falls outside of the "rules". If an Ashtangi practices on a Saturday, it's a "criminal Saturday practice" or on the day of a full or new moon, it's a "criminal moonday practice". If an Ashtangi practices a pose at home, that is criminal too. If it's a pose she hasn't been "given" by her teacher, even moreso. Practicing yoga that is not Ashtanga is criminal.

But how can anything about yoga be criminal? How can practicing when the moon is full be criminal? How can it be criminal to take a Bikram, or Anusara or Jivamukti, or whatever that isn't Ashtanga? How can it be criminal to do a headstand/backbend/twist/whatever just because someone didn't say in an Indian-imitating voice, "[this pose], you take"?

2. Crank.

By "crank", I mean any form or synonym of the verb, "to crank", as in what we do to lift a car off the ground to change a tire. Many Ashtangis speak of how their teachers crank them into poses. Or they give each other advice along the lines of, "lift your leg and then crank it back with your elbow."

No. No, no, no.

We do not want to "crank" any part of our body into a yoga pose. Is this respecting our body, cranking it as if it were a piece of inert machinery? If the body does not wish to bend in a certain way, and we wish to make it bend that way, how about moving toward the desired bend sloooowly, over time?

I know, I know, during my Ashtanga years, I was cranked into many a pose. And the reward was that I learned how to do those poses in far less time than if I had merely bent gently. But looking back....wow. I can't stomach the thought of it now -- the chances I took with injury, the injuries I did get -- bruised ribs, strained muscles that put me out of commission for weeks. The last time I was in a Mysore Style room, the teacher laid down on my back while I was in a seated forward bend. His weight (probably twice mine) pushed me deeply into the pose, for which I suppose that I was supposed to feel grateful. Instead, I felt brutalized. Violated. How I lost the desire to be cranked, I do not know. But I understand now that while it may have its place in, say, contortion coaching, I do not understand what it has to do with yoga practice.

3. Bad.

In conversations amongst Ashtangis, you will often hear the word "bad", as in "bad lady" (a phrase coined by the beloved Ashtanga guru grandaddy, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in jest) or I am "bad" at hip opening. I am "bad" at backbends. Look, I can't stand bogus yoga blather like, "there's no such thing as doing it 'badly'", but really, it's true (it just needn't be said in the middle of a yoga flow). How can anything about practicing yoga be bad, except not practicing? (or being cranked?)

4. Cheating.

As in "I got my legs behind my head, but I cheated."

In yoga, there is no such thing as cheating. If the idea of a yoga pose is the way it makes you feel to be in the yoga pose, then so what if you need to stand/sit/lean against a wall to make it happen, or to keep it happening? So what if you need to plant your face on the floor to remain steady while attempting to balance upside down on your forearms? So what if you jump into a pose, as opposed to easing into it? Who cares? Just do the freakin' thing.

5. Pain.

Ashtangis often talk of pain like it's a good thing: "If it hurts, you're doing it right" or "Something snapped, but I think it was a good pain". Some use the word "opening" instead of "pain", as in, "I felt a real opening in my hamstring."

Sorry, but there is no good pain. All pain is a warning from your body. Pain contains no magic. It does not mean you are doing it right. It means you need to stop what you are doing. Pain is not an opening. It means something is being torn or broken. Pain has no place in a yoga practice.

Yoga should be an uplifting experience. It should provide a vacation from the thoughts. If it causes one to conjure up new ways to beat oneself up, then, well that's criminal.


 

Follow Lauren Cahn on Twitter: www.twitter.com/yogachickie

Ashtanga yoga (a type of traditional Indian yoga that is based on the linking of breath with movement) is notorious for its rules. From which days on which to practice which poses, to not daring to s...
Ashtanga yoga (a type of traditional Indian yoga that is based on the linking of breath with movement) is notorious for its rules. From which days on which to practice which poses, to not daring to s...
 
 
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12:20 AM on 08/13/2009
Lauren is so correct and so brave to speak out. I have dozens of injured yogis coming to my studio to study my unique style of painfree yoga and self guided bodywork called YogAlign . . I have practiced yoga since 1972 steadily but decided to ramp up my practice and so I did ashtanga yoga in 1988 for 2 years. In a workshop with P. Jois, he called me bad lady and but when he started touching my pelvic floor repeatedly when I was in a seated forward bend, I elbowed him out of the way.. . Some physio therapists estimate as many as 40% of people in yoga classes get injured. Why? Is it because of cranking, bad teachers, type A personalities, or rigorous movements? It is something else.The human body is made to squat. WE have curves in our spine and our body in general is made to spiral in movement from the center. So a good percentage of yoga poses are based on a right angle or legs straight out feet together and the trunk at a perpendicular angle.. Trying to lean over in this position causes disc compression in the tight folks and in the bendy girls, you get sacral ligment overstretching. Notice how many yoginis have a flat butt? Yogalign is based on natural spine alignment and moving from the center of your body at the psoas/diaphragm connection www.manayoga.com from Kauai, Michaelle Edwards
01:35 PM on 08/08/2009
I think the points in your article are well taken. Those thing on principle should not be a part of yoga and things I teach as a newer yoga teacher (not Ashtanga) I adhere to them. But I wish the statement "I threw myself out of the cult." had been avoided.

TKV Desikachar in The Heart of Yoga (introduction pg. 19), suggests the applicable principle that no one hatha yoga style is right for everyone. Just as Bikram yoga works for some and not others, and Iyengar is the yoga path for some and not others. It maybe that Ashtanga is not the path for you but is the path suited for others. So such broad statement about your Ashtanga experience which can be perceived by some as an indictment of all Ashtanga yoga might have been even more impactful and still made the point if it was more measured.
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Lauren Cahn
06:52 PM on 08/14/2009
I have heard several people complain that I might scare people off of Ashtanga. Let me tell you, Ashtanga has NUTHIN to worry about. There will always be people who want the challenge. And many of them will drop out on their own. Some will stay. The most senior of students will generally practice on their own. I think that what drives someone to self-practice is a mixture of things, but one of them is the understanding that no one can tell YOUR body what to do and how to do it. Another is the sense of the "wall"....there is simply no further forward progress to be made, and the thought of being pushed for that purpose seems unappealing.

Is Ashtanga a cult? I maintain that, yes, it is. And so is any spiritual-based group that adheres to a singular philosophy (see: the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali), that worships a singular guru (see: SKPJ), that is exclusive in who it "allows" to bring forward its teachings (see the rules of the AYRI regardng teacher authorization and certification), that brings people so enthusiastically TOGETHER such that when one loses one's faith in the method/the teachings, one finds either that he has nothing left in common left with his former friends or is entirely rejected by those former friends.

See: Bikram, Iyengar, Kabbalah, Anusara.

Feel free to disagree. And know that what I say will not take away any of Sharath's business...
01:20 PM on 08/05/2009
Your comment about Cranking brings up poignant thoughts for me about my dad who injured himself for life during an Ashtanga class. He basically crippled his shoulder and has not been able to use it well for the last 15 years or so because of overexerting himself in that class with the encouragement of the teacher in the room.
I got involved with Bikram a few years ago and also left the fold, albeit in much less time than a few years, it took me a few months.
I became convinced that if I continued I was going to hurt myself badly. I also found it completely ludicrous that the instructors would advise people with injuries or pain in a pose to continue and 'work' through the pain. They also told us that if you were about to pass out or vomit that you should not leave the room because of the disruption you'd cause to the energy in room and would make you feel guilty if you walked out nonetheless. The competitiveness in the rooms was palpable and in my mind completely inappropriate for a yoga practice.
Yoga militants seem to exist in many of the styles taught out there and I personally avoid any style with rigid rules as being a huge red flag that something is terribly wrong with the thinking of the people teaching it.
08:02 PM on 08/04/2009
There seems to be a peculiar mindset and/or preoccupation with " not taking yourself seriously" in U.S.
I was very puzzled by it when first visited U.S.
I feel this mindset has lead to general acceptance of mediocrity.
When you leave path, make sure you don't litter before you leave.:-)

By the way "cranking" is a well accepted and highly efficient practice in gymnastics. feel free to invent your own personally empowering PC word for it if it make you feel better.
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Barbara Dehn
10:19 AM on 08/04/2009
Hi Lauren,

I'm sorry that this was your experience. I wrote a tongue in cheek post on my first experience with Yoga, which I now call, Navy Seal Yoga, because the poses were so difficult. Now, I'm in a class that I like to call: Recovering Stroke Victim Yoga, because it's more about restorative poses and stretching, which I need.

See: www.huffingtonpost.com/barbara-dehn/yoga-poses_b_165678.html

Luckily, I found a great instructor who likes to laugh and helps each of us in the class quiet our minds while getting a bit of stretching and exercise. I hope you've found what you're looking for in a Yoga class. Be well, Nurse Barb
08:12 AM on 08/04/2009
Hi Lauren,

GREAT article. ... I knew a fair amount about authoritarianism in Yoga, and how some internationally known **masters** have done quite a bit of physical and even mental damage to quite a few students, but I had no idea that some Ashtanga teachers went to such extremes.

You are absolutely right about the No Pain, MORE Gain approach. Playing the Edge is about going up to, but not into, irritation or pain. The best results with the least injury happen at or BEFORE one gets to this high-intensity edge. ... Unfortunately, instructions such as **Honor the body** or **Be gentle with your self** and etc. are just not specific enough to inform people how to really deal effectively with their edges.

I learned most of my foundational knowledge about Yoga from Joel Kramer, whom *Yoga Journal* has called the Father of American Yoga. Joel was (and still is) more into using postures as directions to move in, then to explore the tensions that become evident in the process. It was all about deepening the awareness, not **over-coming** the body, which is a VERY Eastern thing. (Most people do not realize the gentler approaches to yoga are far more Western than they are Eastern, much of that because of Joel's work. Much of traditional, Eastern yoga was about aggressively overcoming or *conquering* the body with the mind, nothing gentle about it.)

Joel and his partner, Diana Alstad, have a website at www.joeldiana.com
07:08 AM on 08/04/2009
Please, Please Please stop generalizing. That is not good journalism. If you want to know what Ashtanga is about without opinion and your masochistic teachers misuse, then read Yoga Mala by Pattabhi Jois or the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Every Ashtanga teacher is not that way. I am an Ashtanga teacher and I don't do any of the things you mentioned. Please find another teacher. You obviously are with the wrong one.
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Lauren Cahn
10:42 AM on 08/04/2009
Lashanna, I have read Yoga Mala and the Yoga Sutras numerous times over the years, and I use Yoga Mala as a source in this piece. I have said nothing inaccurate factually, and of course my opinion is my own to have. Of COURSE not every Ashtanga teacher is that way. I have a couple of teachers whom I LOVE as teachers and as friends and many many students and fellow students. If you check my blog, Yoga Chickie (http://laurencahn.blogspot.com), you will see a very balanced response from one of my friends.

One final note, Lashanaa, the goal of Ashtanga is to become your OWN teacher. I have found that teacher.
06:39 AM on 08/04/2009
Part 4
The eating habits and sexual denial that you allude to in the beginning of this article that refer to a text in a particular cultural tradition, that few if any, Ashtangi's I know of follow, is, I'm assuming, just to add colour to the article and need no comment here.

Of course there are things that frustrate and grate on ones nerves about Ashtanga. Often it may be a case of how one teacher interprets the practice as opposed to another or how the practice is taught and regulated in the face of the growing numbers of practitioners and teachers. But then this goes for anything. It's still an exhilarating, rewarding and possible life changing practice, it was and is for me anyway.
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Lauren Cahn
11:44 AM on 08/04/2009
Yes, Grimmly...of COURSE it is an exhilerating, rewarding and life changing practice..it has been for me, and I think that this negativism I am expressing is a step along my own personal journey. Like, your parents tell you what to do, as a teenager you rebel, as an adult you make choices. I like to see my yoga "journey" (oh, how I hate that word, but it works here) as one of personal growth and maturity.

I do want to point readers to your blog, Grim, and I hope you don't mind the publicity. Grimly can be found at http://Grimmly2007.blogspot.com. Grimmly and I have much in common, but he and I are on very different places on this yoga road: Grimmly has been known to try doing backbends without warming up and blindfold himself before making "jumpthroughs"...an integral and difficult part of the Ashtanga practice even WITHOUT a blindfold. I think Grimmly gives a great totally different perspective on Ashtanga...definitely extremism, in my opinion, by not DOGMATIC extremism...:)
06:39 AM on 08/04/2009
Part 3
Pain is the only one of your five words that I tend to agree with on principle. And yet Pain has such a broad range of usage, from passing through the pain barrier to the pain from an injury. An ache is a pain and yet in most sporting activities your going to experience aches and pains of some kind. I don't agree, that it's always the case that pain is your body telling you 'Don't do it' . Rather, it's more a case of you're body alerting you to a situation. Of course there's the extreme example of the child touching the hot pan but in the context here surely it's more a case of your body telling you where your edge is. You might make the informed decision to stretch a little beyond the first suggestion of pain or to hold a pose little longer than yesterday but that doesn't necessarily imply that your going to ignore the pain warning altogether. Ashtangi's like anyone else engaged in a physical activity are afraid of injuring themselves , if for no other reason than that they would have to take a break from the practice they love.
06:38 AM on 08/04/2009
Part 2
I might perhaps have chosen 'Wrong' rather than 'Bad' here. Bad, in the context of 'bad lady' as used by the founder of the style, Sri K Patarbhi Jois, is surely an example of the man's warm and humorous teaching style. On encountering a practitioner who might try to slip in an easier variation or miss out one of the moves in the series, IE. 'to cheat a bit' SKPJ might say 'bad lady', but with a twinkle in his eye that I've always interpreted as a way of saying, 'try a little harder, you can do this'. But readers can make their own minds up on this by visiting Youtube where there are several examples of the great man's teaching style. Though I have heard he could be fierce with his more advanced students.

Again cheating, is another example of a practitioners self awareness. 'I got into the pose but I kind of cheated'. Ashtanga is full of variations to the full pose that beginners are allowed to use in the early stages and us Ashtanga criminals occasionally employ at home when trying out a new pose. Have you heard teachers shouting across the Shala at students 'Oi, that's Cheating you.. bad ...criminal you!'
06:37 AM on 08/04/2009
Part 1
I'm wondering what exactly your criticising here Lauren. You refer to Ashtanga several times as a cult. but I wonder how serious you are about this? Do you really think Ashtanga IS a cult or rather, as I suspect, that it has some culty aspects, Slavish, uncritical devotion to the teachers and founder perhaps. And yet word number one, 'Criminal', suggests that many practitioners do indeed tweak the party line regarding the practice and that this is so prevalent that they have a terminology for it ( not so culty then). I've only heard Ashtanga students use the term 'criminal' as in 'I'm indulging in some criminal practice this weekend'. Do teachers themselves ever refer to a student's practice as criminal ?

Crank to is of course a joky way of referring to more effort, increasing the intensity, and it's interesting you choose Crank rather than 'Force'. Crank given it's joky nature suggests a degree of awareness. In engineering it refers to transmitting force through rotation, to crank your leg behind your head as in rotate your hip joints seems very yogic to me. It's the later word, force, that I would say has no place in Yoga or indeed any other physical activity. I'm not aware of Ashtanga teacher's or students using the word force?
11:33 PM on 08/03/2009
Thank you Lauren for a wonderful article. Just today I was reading on Twitter a discussion from @IntegralYogaMag about how maybe the physical Yoga, asana, should be referred to as "Hatha" and that the Yoga community should begin reserving the word "Yoga" for the larger system & philosophy of Yoga as put forth in the Yoga Sutras. So, it was with great interest I read your article here. Amen to all your points!
Thanks for the wisdom!
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Ed and Deb Shapiro
10:42 PM on 08/03/2009
ISMA are WASIMS

Life is a precious gift- that's Yoga

Ed
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Ed and Deb Shapiro
07:29 PM on 08/05/2009
whooops

ISMS are WASIMS

what is real for you

the past is no longer the future doesn't exist

Peace in Yoga, Om Shanti

Ed (Swami Brahmananda)
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Lauren Cahn
08:20 PM on 08/05/2009
Ed...what does WASIMS mean? And how does one get a name like "Swami Brahmananda"? Can I get one?
09:55 PM on 08/03/2009
I think you've been practicing at the wrong studios :) Seriously, I have had a daily practice for years and we joke about cheating and all do our best to follow the rules. But most of us are moms with full-time jobs, so we figure being a dedicated practitioner is the real goal. Right? Didn't SKPJ say, "Practice, practice, practice." So whatever form that takes seems just perfect. I still love ashtanga and find that the tight constraints on postures allows me to lose myself in the practice, not thinking about what's next, not thinking about what might work best for me on that day, but just doing the practice, in order, and accepting whatever happens. Anytime you want to practice with us at Santosha in Milton, MA, we'd love to have you.
09:46 PM on 08/03/2009
I'm an Ashtanga practitioner, eight years now. It's been my experience that the "masochists" and "lawyers" that you talk about bring this attitude to the mat. It makes me sad that you had teachers without a sense of irony, or even of fun, that might have kept you from this goal-oriented attitude that's really antithetical to Ashtanga.

Asana is only one limb of eight, and of lesser importance, the first step. It's a shame you weren't able to find teacher who would help you see the "rules" as "guides" rather than dogma.