Yoga Injury Prevention: How World-Class Yoga Teachers Get World-Class Yoga Injuries
Part 3 (of 4 Parts)
How American & Western Influence Evolved
Hatha Yoga Into A More Conscious Process
In Parts 1 & 2 of this article series, we discussed many of the potential problems showing up in a yoga practice.
In this 3rd Part, we’ll take a brief look at the evolution of physical yoga from Europe to India (!?!?) then to America. Then we’ll see where the “kinder, gentler,” more “conscious” approach to postural yoga really came from, and some of the people behind it.
Then, in Part 4, we’ll take a look at one of THE major factors in keeping YOU safe in your yoga practice, as well as your students if you’re teaching.
Aggressive Approaches to Physical Yoga
A lot of people hear of the verbal and/or physical forcefulness of some yoga teachers, or how some practitioners drive themselves so hard, sometimes leading to injuries small and large. Then, they say that’s NOT the way yoga was “originally taught.” Many tend to think the physical yoga teachings from India were more “meditative,” introspective, and far less aggressive towards the physical body.
They say we need to get back to the more “spiritual” approach supposedly taught by the original Yogis of India. Many also say it’s the commercialism in American Yoga that perverted the practices to a more “athletic,” physical body only, less conscious practice.
That’s not really very accurate. … As I and several others have written elsewhere (and I will briefly describe here for those who’ve missed this news) …
99% of the physical yoga postures we think we know as “from ancient lineages of yoga” have a very different and much more recent origin. Most of the physical postures from so-called “Indian Yoga” were imported to India from the gymnasiums of Europe in the early 1900s, and practiced VERY aggressively.
Modern Hatha Yoga (meaning the VAST MAJORITY of the physical yoga postures we’re all familiar with), as originally practiced in India, was VERY aggressive, much more of a physical fitness building process than a method of “introspective inquiry into consciousness via the merging of mind and body” … or whatever.
The Original Physical “Yoga” Postures
Were Purely Fitness Exercises
Originally, in the beginning of Physical Yoga, postures in India were mostly exercises for strength & endurance, NOT spiritual enlightenment. It was not a “kinder, gentler system,” not an introspective process of bodymind integration, as many of us in modern yoga think of it.
It is estimated that “authentic,” ancient hatha yoga (as described in the truly ancient texts) only had about 15 physical poses, and they were mostly for sitting in meditation (such as Full or Half Lotus), or releasing sexual energy from the lower spine and “chakras.”
William Broad, author of Science of Yoga, goes into this background quite extensively.
He also discusses the problems with yoga on his website and in the New York Times article described in an earlier part of this series of articles, How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.
Again, the many physical postures and exercises we now associate with Hatha Yoga in India were really part of a modern fitness regime imported to India from European gymnasiums. This was NOT an ancient, meditative practice. It was not much geared toward a “spiritual integration” or a “meditative experience” of body and mind, if any at all. …
That came later, and much of that was originated in America. There was VERY little of the “kinder, gentler” and “listen to your body” and “integrative” approach to what many American practitioners (though not yet a majority) now associate with yoga.
After all, it’s generally believed that it’s vigorous exercise that builds body strength and endurance. And that’s to a great degree true. And THAT was the objective of the importation of these exercises into India in the early 1900s: strengthening the physical bodies of the average Indian male in the hopes of changing the stereotype of “weakness” Indian males had become associated with around the world.
The Indian branch of the American YMCA even played a big part in this importation from Europe to India! … (The YMCA? They are CHRISTIAN in origin! … HMMM! … How many Christian ministers who condemn yoga even know that?)
In fact, much of early hatha yoga was embraced by the military in India, as well as the wrestling community, based on the exercises they imported from Europe, all with the support of the YMCA.
All this is well described in Mark Singleton’s well researched book, Yoga Body, published by Simon & Schuster; 1 edition (February 7, 2012), if you’re interested. There is a paperback version with a new introduction, too.
AGGRESSIVE YOGA IN INDIA
When we observe the early days of various well known yoga practices, such as Iyengar, Ashtanga, Power Yoga, Bikram, and so on, we see a very aggressive approach, more like — with the exception of even more “exercise-like” Sun Salutations — slowed down, semi-static calisthenics, rather than an introspective meditation for an integrated bodymind. This persists with many styles of these practices to the present time.
There are many stories, for example, of people who were or are either pushed, slapped, pressed or otherwise coerced into postures (even stood on!) by teachers like Iyengar himself, or Bikram.
Some coercion was not physical, but psychological, which in some cases can be even worse. There even was a revolt in one of the well known yoga systems where many teachers and participants recognized they had become seduced by an authoritarian “energy” and even went so far as to establish “recovery support groups” to wean themselves off their dependency on such an authoritarian approach to yoga.
Will-Power versus Meditation
— Mind OVER Matter versus Mind IS Matter —
Much of that approach is a VERY will-power oriented. Much of yoga in India was about “conquering the body” with the mind, yet also submitting to the “wisdom” or “spiritual protection” of the guru or teacher, tending towards a submissive psychological “posture” regarding the guru.
Bikram has been known to yell out in a class “don’t listen to your body, listen to ME!” …
Teachers such as Bikram epitomize the authoritarian approach to physical AND mental yoga.
Another well-known guru wrote in one of his books that if you could sit in full lotus for eight hours yet endure the pain, you were achieving some of the goals of yoga! … I would say if he was in so much pain, he was not yet physically ready to sit in full lotus, and was actually defying the definition of an asana (yoga posture).
Asana: A position of the body you can hold with ease. (Although in pre-postural yoga days, asana meant “to sit down” for meditation.)
For a far more in-depth explanation and modernized definition of what an asana is, and is not, from a modern, American Yoga point-of-view, please see my e-book, Simple Steps to Let-Go Yoga.
So the original practitioners of physical yoga in India, several of whom are well known today, were quite aggressive and were in some ways all about this “mind conquering the body” or a “mind OVER matter” thing, rather than the more meditative, wholistic, unified, integrative, body-mind approach.
That more moderate approach is the Mind IS Matter method we hear about, or what some (though too few) American Yoga studios and teachers actually teach.
Bringing the body and mind into one harmonious, synergist, unified system, rather than the body merely being the carriage for the body, is one aspect of this more “body-mind integrative” kind of practice.
The Question as to whether there is a “spirit” inhabiting the body but lives on beyond the physical death certainly complicates the issue, but is outside the scope of this series of articles.
All of that mind-over-matter mind-set takes a lot of willpower and mental force to “subdue” the physical body, to block or transcend the pain. People have been trying to do such things for many centuries, with not a lot of success.
And as Krishnamurti (more on him later) began teaching, willpower is actually at the other end of the spectrum of mind than is meditation. Although willpower is quite necessary in life, and developing or “exercising” it has many important benefits, confusing willpower with meditation has some BIG problems, which we’ll get to in a different article at another time. (Please e-mail me if you want that topic put higher on my priority list.)
There is also the difference between meditation and visualization, which I discuss in other publications, as well. Visualization can be very useful for some things. But again, at a fundamental level, it is very different than “pure” meditation.
Anyway, there are many similar stories about excessively aggressive yoga practices. But the idea that yoga, as it “originated” in India, was a kinder, gentler, more meditative integration of mind into body has little foundation to it.
In fact, if there are less aggressive teachings now in India, it is in great part what they brought back to India from the American Evolution of Yoga on this side of the ocean since the 1960s, as briefly described below.
A Kinder, Gentler Approach
Now, American Postural Yoga, as developed here in the 1960s and 70s, was a great departure and evolution beyond the more aggressive, extreme hatha yoga practices from India.
As it evolved in America, yoga was NOT meant to
be a replacement for a Marine Corp Boot Camp!
There were teachers offering various of the more esoteric or mystical practices, such as Tantra, but that’s a differ topic all together.
It was later in mid-20th Century, because of developments by individuals such as Pundit Archarya in India and the modern American yogis like Joel Kramer, many in India began backing off of the more extreme practices, as well.
Yet, if you read Iyengar’s classic book, Light On Yoga, you’ll read in the first section much about Eastern or Hindu spirituality. Then, in the next section, he gets into hatha (physical postural) yoga. But he never really made much of a connection between those two aspects in that book, or not the early editions, anyway.
(I admit I have not re-read that book in a very long time. Maybe there is an update to this. I believe later of Iyengar’s books went in the general direction that Americans pioneered, however. … If you have some insight into that, I’d appreciate an update if there is something new on that.)
So then came Pundit Archarya, an Indian who became a Western trained, medical physician. He was not happy with the very common, highly aggressive yoga practices in India. He developed Para-Play Yoga, an extremely gentle, very small, micro-movement method very focused on activating the parasympathetic nerve system. This part of the nerve system is in part of what gives low-intensity yoga much of its healing power.
It appears — possibly — that Archarya embraced the homeopathic teaching of the Arndt-Schultz Law, stating that weak to moderate stimulation of the nervous system is what activates the parasympathetic nerve system, and that strong to very strong stimuli tend to shut down the parasympathetic system as the sympathetics (Emergency Mode: Fright, Freeze, Fight or Flight) turn UP. The parasympathetic system is what activates and controls the regeneration, healing and immune functions of the body. These functions diminish if you spend too much time with the sympathetic system turned up.
(You can learn more about my concepts of the Health <==> Fitness Spectrum in my infographic and my e-book, both available on this web page.)
Archarya’s work is described in the book The Breath, The Heart, Sleep and Life, published by Dawn Horse Press in 1975.
My First, and Last, “Real” Guru
When I decided, in 1972, it was time to get my first “yoga guru,” I went to Sri Nerode of India, in Hyde Park, a neighborhood a little south of downtown Chicago, Illinois. Sri Nerode was a full-blooded Hindu Brahmin, and at 85 or so years old, had at that time been teaching yoga in America for 45 years. And he was a true gentleman. (He was also Paramahansa Yogananda’s room mate in college!)
Yet Sri Nerode didn’t even mention physical yoga postures, focusing ONLY on breathing & meditation, until I asked him about them…
Oddly, I was discussing my thinking about going to a 1-month, intensive training program in British Columbia presented by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad (discussed below). I told him a major focus would be yoga postures, of which my only real exposure was a lecture by Joel Kramer in 1973, and practicing the postures, on my own with NO teacher, from Richard Hittleman’s book 28 Days to Yoga.
So Sri Nerode then asked me to demonstrate some postures for him. I did. He then, on the spot, offered me a job teaching hatha yoga at one of the schools he provided teachers for! …
In retrospect, I should have taken that job AND gone to the training with Joel. But to be honest, the Hindu aspects of the teachings from teachers like Sri Nerode or the various religious texts from India did not interest me very much. … But I did end up in British Columbia for a month with Joel & Diana for what was a truly life-changing event for me on Physical / Mental & Relational Yoga.
Joel Kramer RE-Invents Yoga in America
In the 1970s, Joel Kramer had several articles published by Yoga Journal. These articles were considered ground-breaking insights into the inner workings of physical and mental yoga, as well as the integrative, mind-body potentials offered by Joel’s unique merging of Hatha (physical) Yoga and Jnana (mental) Yoga.
Joel’s first book, The Passionate Mind, delved into the very nature of meditation and “living creatively within ones self.”
Much of this developmental work was done by Joel in the 1960s and then when he was Yogi-in-Residence at Esalen Institute in Northern California in the 1968 through 1970.
(Curiously, Joel is not mentioned on the Esalen Wikipedia page. I’m not sure why. He might have been too much of a rebel for even the rebellious people at Esalen?)
So it was actually people like Joel Kramer in America, and his interactions with New Age Thinkers at places like Esalen Institute, and with much support from his partner Diana Alstad, that the deeper, more meditative aspects of mental yoga were developed, expanded and more fully integrated into physical, postural yoga practices.
Based on an extensive education in a wide variety of disciplines, Joel developed and deeply expanded the yogic concepts & practices of:
- The Edge
- Lines of Energy
- Stretching the Nerves
- Using the Breath to Dissolve Tension
- and other innovations.
That’s one of the reasons many people refer to Joel as the First American Yoga Master and the Father of American Yoga. Joel, it could be argued, was one of the leaders in bringing more meditative and introspective elements to physical yoga.
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Common Causes of Yoga Injury
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Joel did this in part by combining the physical practices of yoga with the teachings of J. Krishnamurti, who some call the “anti-guru” of India. Joel followed in this general direction, if not the footsteps, of Krishnamurti. …
Joel was and is NOT a footstep follower, that’s for sure! But he is adept at integrating, refining & adapting from the past what is useful and creating & transcending into a Next Wave of human development, integrating and transcending the old into the new, evolutionary directions of consciousness.
BRIEFLY ON KRISHNAMURTI: Central to this transformation of yoga transcending the ancient, Indian traditions, Jiddu Krishnamurti (JK) often dismantled many of the revered teachings of the Indian Gurus with their very own words and principles. Because of that, he was not much appreciated by a lot of the gurus and mystics of The East. Originally, from a very young age, JK was groomed by the Indian branch of the Theosophical Society to be the new Avatar (similar to a Christ figure) on Earth. Yet eventually, even with many thousands of followers and disciples around the planet, JK rejected that position, renouncing the very idea or even possibility of a “World Teacher” as one is ordinarily thought of.
Speaking in a very direct and intellectual, rather than a mystical or overtly “religious” fashion, JK taught little or none from the traditional Indian texts such as Patanjali or the Bhagavad Gita. Leaving the ancient traditions of the East behind, he became far more accepted in The West, and spent most of his time teaching in Europe and America. …
JK was all about directly observing life and one’s self, in the moment, as we and life actually are, rather than in light of some idealized philosophy or religion, regardless how ancient or revered it was. It was this “phenomenological”* approach, using direct experience to personally examine and discover reality, that Joel Kramer applied to physical yoga.
* Phenomenology: an approach that concentrates on the study of consciousness and the objects of direct experience. … a body of knowledge that relates empirical observations of phenomena to each other. … subjective experiences or their study. [This is about being as “objective” as possible about ones own “subjective” experiences, which takes a high level of inner-intelligence** and a disciplined mind.]
** Intelligence was defined by Krishnamurti as the ability to “discern the essential,” discovering the very essence of life, of being, and of ones self.
JK was NOT about trying to learn and recreate the ancient Eastern teachings as taught in their Holy Books, but in discovering a more direct, personal experience of life itself in the present moment. It was about using your own intellect and feelings to discover Truth, rather than learning, repeating and emulating* “the truth” as discovered by others.
* In my training programs for therapists and teachers, I distinguish between Old Paradigm Learning versus New Paradigm Learning. Old paradigm is about modeling the past as an ideal way of thinking and being, something to emulate. New Paradigm is about using the past to springboard into the future, in many cases abandoning the old ways to thinking and being. Usually, however, we integrate and enfold the past, and transcend into the future.
JK claimed no one could, at the core or essence of things, really show you the way; there was no “path to truth” you could follow, no matter how ancient or revered. You had to discover it all for yourself for it to be authentic. Otherwise, you are just recycling old stuff.
This is why one of his books was titled Truth Is A Pathless Land.
While Joel Kramer* did not completely ignore the teachings of the East, he cautioned that ideally, tradition was not a vice one should lock one’s self into, but were evolutionary steps toward a transcendent future.
(* Joel Kramer is also *JK* but is that just coincidental, or a Cosmic Connection?)
Joel was equally as good, if not better, as Krishnamurti at dismantling questionable or outdated philosophies and ideologies. That might be one reason Joel was not more well known in his day. People do not like having their ideologies dismantled.
Interestingly, while it is well known that JK practiced a lot of physical yoga under the Indian masters such as Iyengar and Desikachar, he did not make much of a connection between mental (jnana) yoga and physical (hatha) yoga. There is not very much mention of hatha in his writings, and among the few times he does discuss it, of the dozen or so texts I read by or about him, he did not at all see physical yoga in the light that philosophers such as Joel Kramer did.
While it was Krishnamurti’s mental yoga that initially attracted Joel’s attention, it was Joel who made the profound connections between mental and physical yoga at a deeper, more integrated level.
Joel’s ground-breaking articles on physical and mental yoga are available at his and his partner’s (Diana Alstad’s) website.
And further, Diana Alstad took many of Joel’s yoga principles and applied them to what became their approach to Relational Yoga. One such principle is that since hatha yoga is similar to “unraveling knots” in the physical body and muscles, so to, there are “knots” in the relationships we have with other human beings, and within ourselves, that also need “unraveling.” They taught principles on how to unravel those psycho-emotional and “spiritual” knots.
At one time, Joel defined spirituality as “the breaking down of boundaries between entities.”
(Yet ironically, even though he was a leading edge thinker in concepts like “playing the edge,” Joel unfortunately suffered some of the world-class physical injuries himself.)
Much American Yoga Is Still Very Aggressive
Unfortunately, as a hold-over from the more aggressive yoga as taught by many of the gurus from India, and the general paradigm of more forceful exercise, many in America have held onto the “mind-over-matter” style, rather than the more meditative, mind-IS-matter approach, where the body is not something to be dominated with mental willpower, but treated as an equal partner in any process of life.
While there are many fitness oriented benefits to practicing yoga more aggressively, other benefits are lost or minimized by staying too much with an aggressive approach. It is my view that both are necessary for a well-rounded health and fitness program. This spectrum of practice is discussed in my infographic and my e-book (available below on this page).
Now, on to the nitty-gritty about Yoga Injury Prevention … What do we actually DO about all this?
In that vein, some of those world-class instructors suffering injuries were SO precise & perfect in their alignment it is hard to imagine anyone doing it more “perfectly.” Yet some of them lamented they just must have not achieved the “exact joint & bone alignment” necessary to be safe in their postures! …
Yet if THEY could not do that, how can anyone else?
We’ll now move on to the 4th and final installment of this series … But first,
IF YOU WANT TO LEARN MORE about Yoga Injuries … You can start by Downloading my Infographic to your computer — FOR FREE —
OR, if you REALLY want to know how it ALL works, please check out my information packed, 300+ page e-book right here, below.
Knowing HOW your body works in Yoga,
tells you HOW to WORK your body in Yoga:
Many Thanks for Reading,
David Scott Lynn (DSL*)
* DSL: Your Hi-Touch Up-Link to the Inner-Net
Inner-Net: Your Psycho-Neuro-Musculo-Fascial System