When my yoga classes are smaller than usual, I tend to ask if anyone has requests.
Today one of my students responded, “Anything detoxifying.” I knew what she meant: twists. This is a notion taught in most 200-hour yoga teacher trainings and mine was no exception. Even as a student, the idea that a twist would detoxify my liver – like wringing out a dirty sponge – never sat well with me.
As a new teacher, however, I did what most new teachers do; I parroted what I had been taught.
But my curiosity eventually got the best of me. Could twists really detoxify the liver? So, I did my homework.
And guess what? Any reference I could find to twists detoxifying the liver was purely anecdotal. Not an iota of proof anywhere. So, I stopped saying it.
Lately I have been contemplating the place of traditional yoga teachings within the framework of our modern-day practice. Patanjali’s teachings form the foundation of most yoga teacher trainings, but mentions very little about asanas other than to state that they should strike a balance between steadiness and ease (sthira and sukha). Patanjali focused more on the cerebral and meditative aspects of yoga. According to the 2016 Yoga In America Study, the top reasons people begin a yoga practice are: flexibility (61 percent), stress relief (56 percent), general fitness (49 percent), improve overall health (49 percent), and physical fitness (44 percent).
To the dismay of the yoga purists among us, most practitioners are drawn to the physical practice and it’s benefits alone. I’m okay with this. It gets people in the door and while we’re together, I can sprinkle in some philosophical yoga wisdom.
We tend to think of yoga as a system of practices that has been passed down over thousands of years. While this is true of some aspects of yoga, particularly breathing practices (pranayama), meditative practices (dharana and dhyana) and self-study (svadhyaya), the modern asana practice is relatively new. In his book, Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, Mark Singleton traces yoga asana practices back to the early 20th century, with a basis in calisthenics and gymnastic exercises that were popular in Europe at the time as well as physical fitness regimens for training militia.
So what is a yoga teacher to do?
Well, I believe Patanjali has some answers if we’re willing to apply his wisdom to our modern practice as it is. According to Patanjali, yoga is gaining control over our habitual tendencies. This includes instructing yoga exactly the way our mentors showed us without question. Patanjali suggests that we seek out sound knowledge (pramana) by verifying that it is both accurate and applicable using three criteria: direct experience, deductive reasoning and valid testimony.
Luckily for us, the number of publications on yoga-related research has jumped from approximately 200 publications between 1990 and 2000 to over 1500 publications from 2010 to the present (more details here). Yoga teachers and practitioners have long touted the benefits of yoga asana, breathing and meditation practices and at long last the scientific community is paying attention and beginning to prove what we have personally experienced and observed. We know more about the human body than ever before and, yet, tomorrow that knowledge may be confirmed, debunked, or revised. This is reassuring, but it also puts the onus on yoga teachers to stay current with the research and refrain from stating as fact that which, well, isn’t.
There are statements I made (“Engaging the core protects the low back.”) and cues I gave (Triangle between two panes of glass anyone?) in the past that I would not give today. What’s the difference? Experience, continuing education, evidence-based research and observation of my students.
I wasn’t necessarily wrong before, but as Maya Angelou wrote, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” I am certain my teaching will continue to evolve. It should. I owe that to my students. I owe that to yoga if I want to continue to represent the practice I love with integrity and honesty. That’s satya.
It seems to me the alignment of yoga poses lives on a continuum; only a few years ago, allowing the knee to pass the ankle in lunges and warrior poses was demonized. Functional movement and biomechanics has demonstrated that healthy knees can and should pass the ankle and that, in fact, when we mindfully stress healthy tissues in various positions they adapt and grow stronger.
In a world that is paying closer attention to yoga than ever before, it is essential that we strike a balance between honoring the past and opening ourselves to the present. A few years ago I taught the philosophy module of a 200-hour yoga teacher training. I offered the following translation of Patanjali’s first sutra, Atha Yoganushasanam: “Now begins instruction of yoga.” Underneath I wrote myself a note, “What if Patanjali really meant the now – the present moment – is your yoga teacher?” That notion changes things, doesn’t it? It makes space for the practice of yoga to evolve. Just as we, as teachers, make space for our students to evolve.
Yoga brings us face to face with the present moment. It asks us not to cling to anything (aparigraha), particularly that which no longer serves us. Yoga is an invitation to adapt. Mark Nepo says, “to listen is to lean in, softly, with a willingness to be changed by what we hear.”
The Now is calling… how will we answer?
Karin Weinstein, E-RYT500, YACEP, CPT
Karin took her first yoga class over 20 years ago seeking relief from low back and neck pain. She found not only relief from pain, but a transformative practice that continues to positively impact every aspect of her life. In her classes, Karin celebrates the individuality of each student and strives to make classes unique, fun and empowering. She creates a warm, nonjudgmental sense of community where students are free to explore and challenge themselves. Karin takes an innovative approach to teaching, encouraging a sense of playfulness and curiosity so each student can determine for themselves what feels best. A dedicated student of yoga anatomy and philosophy, mindfulness, breathing practices, biomechanics and functional movement, Karin feels the best teachers are also life-long learners. Her passion is helping others move through life on and off the mat with greater ease and resilience. Karin has her 500-hour Yoga Teacher Certification and is a Yoga Alliance Continuing Education Provider. She is also a certified Personal Trainer and is in the process of becoming a certified Mindfulness Meditation Teacher. Karin teaches yoga, mindfulness, meditation, relaxation, and somatic movement in public, private and corporate classes and workshops. Visit Karin online at www.karinweinsteinyoga.com or check out her yoga tips on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/karinweinstein/.
Never Miss a Post!
The Top Three Reasons for Joining NJYC
The greatest teachers, studios, classes and communities are in the Garden State.
You are ready to inspire and be inspired.
You believe in living a life you love, supported by a practice that makes you feel amazing