I’ve taught yoga for over 15 years, I’ve taught in Professional Football for 13 years so I figure that should make me a yoga teacher. But here is my worry: I don’t think I teach asana any more. Looking at my classes you would see me teaching stuff that kind of looks like a Warrior One, or a Triangle. But this isn’t asana – or at least not as we know it.
And yet this is also my inspiration: To me this is the radical evolution rippling through yoga making yoga – and our teaching – more relevant and more necessary to 21st Century Western life.
What we teach here in the West is hugely focused on asana. We stand in the heritage of the early 20th Century extraordinary radical reformers of yoga – Krishnamacharya, B. K. S. Iyengar, K. Pattahbi Jois, T. K. V. Desikachar. They were radical, science-based and forward looking, dragging yoga from its tantric roots and demanding that it meet the challenges of their changing society: a truly Indian practice fit for a new nation.
It is this tradition of closely prescribed asana that most of us practice and teach today. For any newbie contemplating a class, yoga is synonymous with the practice of asana: it is the one thing everyone expects in a class. Classes can run without pranayama or meditation, but asana? Can yoga be yoga without asana?
Asana always worried me as a yoga practitioner and as a teacher. In my early days of practice attending loads of different classes none of it made any sense: every ‘style’ or lineage or even teacher taught the same named asana completely differently. Take Warrior One – are the heels lined up? Is the back foot turned out, the pelvis rotated– and by how much? Is the front thigh parallel to the mat? Are the palms together – or separate? Is the spine straight or bending back? And why, why, WHY?
‘Are we teaching our students to just copy what something looks like because someone said ‘Do it this way’
So here is The Elephant In The Room: Are we teaching our students to just copy what something looks like because someone said ‘Do it this way’ – a kind of yoga as performance, a slowed-up gymnastics in which all (and any) variations are OK? Or are we teaching yoga as a therapy towards a more healthful body.
This is serious and radical because if we are teaching yoga to help resolve the musculo-skeletal (and emotional / mental / psychological…) problems our students’ bodies carry, then it matters profoundly HOW we teach each pose. Back to Warrior One: if you teach it with excessive extension of the back leg (i.e. outside of norms of flexibility), coupled with lining up the heels, externally rotating the back foot, internally rotating the pelvis and arching the lower back you create a combo that slides the head of the femur forward in the hip joint putting pressure on the soft tissues at the inner front of the joint area. This is right bang square into Femero-Acetabular Impingement territory (FAI) which can lead to an aching pain at the top of the groin, and ultimately a constantly inflamed, impinged joint requiring surgery (common also in footballers and dancers). So probably not a great idea for most of the people we teach. These things matter.
And here is the issue for us as teachers: you might LOVE doing Warrior One like that. A great teacher you admire might have taught it that way and It might feel great to you and never caused you a problem. So go on doing it: you might be the one person who’s body can cope with that and you can do whatever you want to yourself. But our hip joints aren’t (generally) designed for that force and you can’t do it to other people. We know too much about the absolutes of our biology these days. We know way more today than our teachers of the last century who codified the asanas. And we can’t unknow it – our knowledge about our human design is now an Inconvenient Truth for us as contemporary yoga teachers.
Welcome to the 21st Century. We have an explosion of movement disorders in 21st Century Westerns (and that’s without contemplating how the physical is the emotional is the psychological etc). We are a sedentary population who move too little, and sit too much. We then add short spurts of ever more intense physical exercise to be ‘fit’. We as a population are suffering with the chronic problems of rubbish posture, imbalances, shortening muscles, and restricted movement patterns. And it is only a question of time before that combo bites.
And many of these people – we’re talking huge numbers – will one day end up trying a yoga class because there simply isn’t anywhere else to go. GP’s just don’t deal in musculoskeletal problems unless it is acute (torn your ACL) and they can refer you for surgery. Faced with multiple chronic movement restrictions and imbalances there is only so much even the most talented physios and body workers can do. So eventually people end up at a yoga class.
Here’s the good news! You – we – as yoga teachers are superbly placed to work with these groups: to gently lengthen shortened muscles, slowly untether adhered fibres, decompress restricted joints, find new balance and freer movement, and enable people to lead fuller, freer, more expansive lives. We are the movement therapists of tomorrow.
But here’s the Big But: teaching asana just the way you were taught or the way you like doing probably isn’t going to be hugely helpful.
“Rather than imitating our teachers, we need to follow in their radical re-inventive footsteps”
If we are to be relevant to these 21st Century bodies we’re going to have to work out what these bodies need: what will help, what needs lengthening, what needs shortening, what needs stabilising – and teach that.
And that means knowing how our bodies are designed to move and teaching based on that anatomy. As teachers, we need to work out (and it isn’t hard) what an individual or group actually need -and just as importantly what they don’t need. And then adapting our teaching to help those needs. This is worlds away from teaching a series of asana done in a prescribed way.
So if you see me teaching something that looks like Warrior One: it isn’t. The group I’m teaching may need hip flexor lengthening and I may be using a standing lunge to achieve that, and I will be positioning it and teaching it for that end. This isn’t any series of asana I’ve been taught: I modify, challenge, change, adapt, make-up whatever I need to help the bodies of the people standing in front of me.
The radical challenge of the 21st Century is to become the best movement therapists – gently combating the overwhelming problems of posture and movement around us. This is yoga that works with the best of what we know now, that is relevant and responsive to the needs of the group or individual, and that is responsible to those we teach. It is yoga that is a miraculous weaving of intelligent, thoughtful, well designed movement patterns with the healing power of breath. Maybe we need to think of asana more in its older meaning of sitting with ease – creating freer, fluid, well-moving bodies - rather than be hung up on poses and imposing them on our students.
Sarah has worked in professional football for 13 years, including 11 years at Manchester City & Manchester United football clubs, where she worked long-term with Ryan Giggs. She has worked at MCFC & MUFC with senior, youth & academy players where she works with players’ movement patterns. Sarah holds the highest teaching accreditation with Yoga Alliance Professionals (with over 12,000 accredited teaching hours), an MSc in Sports Science, and many other movement trainings.