Is this yoga? It’s a bit of a stretch …
First appeared in Sunday Telegraph
There are few exercise styles left these days that haven’t had the word ‘yoga’ slapped on the end to give them a shiny newfangled edge. Since I started practising eight years ago, I’ve noted Runners’ Yoga, Triathletes’ Yoga and Boxing Yoga (punch, punch, Oooooommm) as well as other variations on a theme: Loaded Yoga (wearing ankle and wrist weights), Rage Yoga (swearing and heavy metal) and Boys’ Yoga (broga).
Add to that ‘doga’ (using your poor dog as a prop), stiletto yoga and ‘buti yoga’ (pronounced booty) which promises to transform your body and soul with ‘calorie-torching’ workout dvds and online streaming, and it all begs the question: just what is the world of yoga coming to? The traditional style of Iyengar yoga bears little resemblance to yoga-lates and the humbling discipline of Ashtanga is a million miles from the Madonna-inspired dance-fusion class Voga. Yet somehow it all comes under the same umbrella (‘umbrella yoga’? I’m trademarking that).
What was once a genuine self inquiry practised by those who gave it time, concentration and committment has now become entirely bastardised; mis-sold to us by opportunistic marketeers and desperate fitness trainers …
What was once a genuine self inquiry practised by those who gave it time, concentration and committment has now become entirely bastardised; mis-sold to us by opportunistic marketeers and desperate fitness trainers who want to offer something extra to their clientelle. Stand-up-paddleboard Yoga, anyone? Just how does down-dogging with an actual dog facilitate anything other than a descent into absurdism? Just when you thought it couldn’t get any crazier, there’s Naked Yoga, a four week course that promises its practitioners a rather revealing ‘four week journey of enquiry into the self’. Personally I still can’t imagine being able to hold my drishti (the fuzzy view employed during a yoga pose to help direct attention inwards) whilst surrounded by all those birthday suits.
I think it’s fair to say that whilst we can now practice yoga naked, we’ve lost a sense of its bare essence. Of course there’s an argument that says ’anything goes’ – any craze or class that gets people moving more – enhancing blood flow, body positivity and self esteem in equal measure – must surely be a good thing. Yet we should remain discerning about what yoga is (and what it isn’t), just as we should be discerning about its teachers.
Yoga is a serious practice and those who teach it should take it seriously.
Thank goodness for the recent decision by The British Wheel of Yoga, the Sports England-appointed governing body, to start a year-long consultation with the movement to create national standards for teachers. It’s a huge step forward in raising the standards of yoga teaching in general but it also brings a clear message: yoga is a serious practice and those who teach it should take it seriously. After all, the consequences of teaching a backbend wrong can be fairly disastrous for a person’s spine.
But there’s more here too, about integrity. The word yoga, after all, means unity; to yolk. “Yoga refers to bringing body, mind and spirit together as one and was originally intended as a peaceful means of teaching people how to behave during the Vedic period three thousand years ago,” says yoga teacher Laurent Roure, who offers back-to-basics mindful yoga and breathing classes in South West London (www.yogalaurencom) “Since then yoga has taken on various forms and acquired many influences, with what are widely regarded as the traditional yoga schools, the likes of iyengar and ashtanga, arriving in the twentieth century.”
Roure continues: “It’s true that the old masters said yoga must evolve; to mould itself around the way people live now but there are three essential elements to yoga that all classes should include: movement, breathing and meditation. If you don’t have all three you just can’t call it yoga.” Why? Because yoga traditionally consists of eight ‘limbs’ or parts, of which only one is the ‘asana’, or postures, and the rest much broader principles upon which yogis make decisions about their lifestyle. The physical part of yoga was originally only intended as a means of relaxing the muscles, soothing discomfort, calming the nervous system and controlling what yogis call the ‘monkey-mind’, such that it might become possible to engage extended periods of seated meditation.
These days we aren’t so strict on the meditation part, but still: “Yoga’s primary purpose is to help people become acquainted with their bodies’ own abilities and wisdom and deepen self-awareness,” says Leeds based restorative yoga specialist Lara Heppell who did much of her teacher training in yoga’s heartland in India (www.all-woman.co.uk). She insists that the ‘savasana’, or corpse pose traditionally done at the end of class “should be a full twenty minutes because that’s how long it takes the body to relax.”
Doing only the more vigorous, upbeat, newfangled, kinds of physical yoga practice leaves little space for one of yoga’s most profound effects to emerge: the re-balancing of the nervous system.
Many of today’s classes reduce that relaxation time to three or five minutes instead. Yet doing only the more vigorous, upbeat, newfangled, kinds of physical yoga practice leaves little space for one of yoga’s most profound effects to emerge: the re-balancing of the nervous system. “Much of yoga is about activating the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for rest and digest,” Heppell explains. “But when you push the limits all the time, or even when you feel a really big stretch down your legs, you’re taking the body into fight or flight and releasing adrenalin. This isn’t what yoga is meant to do to the body (taking you to that place of unity between mind, body and spirit) and people who are doing this aren’t doing yoga, they’re doing something that’s being labelled as yoga.”
Just like anything else in life, doing too much yoga (yes, even naked) is bad for you. Not only does it seem to engender an urgent need to post selfies of oneself looking like a skeleton playing Twister, it can also weaken you in the long run. Paul Argent is a Personal Trainer and manual therapist, who says: “One consequence of passive stretching, as commonly found in many yoga poses, is that your central nervous system responds by switching off the involved muscles in order to protect them. Whilst you might see gains in range of motion, you will also see reductions in strength, which may have long term consequences for the health of your joints.”
Just as it’s possible to overstretch a muscle it’s also possible to overstretch an entire movement discipline. With all this recent watering down, and hyping up, of yoga we can barely get a real taste of it anymore. It’s time to bring the real yoga back and leave the nakedness to the nudists and the dancing to the dancers. So if you want to flip yourself upside down, in your pyjamas, holding a cat, be my guest. Just don’t go calling it yoga because it’s not.
– By Lucy Fry