as i do most mornings these days, i was walking henry on the beach while catching up on podcasts. this morning’s pick was discussing seated forward folds, their popularity within yoga classes, and the need to rethink their efficacy.
(and obviously the whole time i was like YES YES YES i have been saying this ish for years! while i may flesh that out in more detail later, it made me think about a lot of other, more important things.)
first, the most common defense for a bunch of seated forward folds toward the end of class is, “it helps to calm the nervous system.”
right. so, let me ask you, 200-HOUR YOGA TEACHER TRAINING GRADUATE: off the top of your head, WHAT ARE THE FOUR MAIN FUNCTIONS OF THE NERVOUS SYSTEM?
that’s what i thought.
even seasoned teachers. even famous fitfluencing yogalebrities from the pinstagram…how many of them could even tell me that basic piece of information? i don’t think that most teachers are qualified to make that call. not to mention, whenever we start to put the body in positions that re-inflame bodily trauma (for example, what mark robberds calls “yoga butt,” the pain in the upper thigh/lower bum area from doing too many forward folds), what the nervous system actually does is receive and interpret the stimuli present, so it is experiencing continued trauma from previous and present injuries and will, in fact, do the opposite of “calm down.”
k, cool, so we can put that to bed.
AND YET, these SFF (seated forward folds) appear in almost every single vinyasa-style class i’ve ever been to. why might that be?
well, that part’s obvious. SFF are in every class because SFF are in the ashtanga primary series. the formula of the ashtanga primary series is: sun salutations, standing postures, seated postures (mostly forward folds), backbends, inversions, svasana. and most vinyasa classes stick to that script.
wow, ok. so let’s unpack that a little bit.
pattabhi jois, founder of the ashtanga yoga method, established his mysore-based ashtanga yoga institude in 1984. (not in 1100 BC.) and while there are many who have said that their time in mysore, their time with the ashtanga practice, their time with pattabhi jois, was instrumental to their health and wellness, he was also irrefutably a serial sex offender.
so i just have such a hard time thinking that he was some sort of master…this idea that he was infallible and that his offerings were somehow complete and correct and appropriate for all bodies? if he thought that inserting his finger into a student’s vagina DURING CLASS WAS APPROPRIATE, is it not possible that he also made other judgment errors?
he was not a doctor. not a physical therapist. not in any way an expert in anatomy and physiology. like today’s YTT graduates, he was never in any way qualified to make sweeping claims about the needs of individual people’s bodies or the benefit of specific yoga asana.
and the sexual violence is not the only physical issue at play. the ashtanga method has a history of incorporating these really intense hands-on adjustments that caused serious injury to a number of students. people’s knees swelling up like balloons (gregor maehle), spinal injuries from rigorous backbending (like cecily milne of yogadetour recently spoke up about), and then some.
from where i’m standing, it’s kind of impossible at this point to validate his offerings.
and if his offerings are the basis for most vinyasa classes? this formula was developed and popularized by a man whose teachings on so many levels hurt the bodies and psyches of the people closest to it!
while plenty of “ashtangis” made it out and built careers on it, scroll through any of their social media feeds, and while their movements may be advanced, they are 100% NOT practicing ashtanga the way it is prescribed. they may self-identify as ashtangis to give a nod to the fact that ashtanga was their gateway into yoga culture. but let’s not act like their yoga gainz are only attributed to mysore ashtanga.
in short: there is no reason, no word from on high, to legitimize this sequence as being in any way beneficial in a vinyasa yoga class, and in fact it can and does lead to injury, pain, and at the very least, large plateaus in a yoga asana practice.
but before we roll up the mat on the whole thing, let’s keep digging. (we’re at about the halfway point, i think, if you have to get up and pee.
most yoga classes have very few verbal cues that are of any use at all. i mean, in traditional mysore, there are no cues. there’s just the pose name and the breath counts. but let’s look at a few really common cues i’ve heard time and time again:
- go deeper.
- if it’s in your practice… (this one KILLS me. how TF would anything be in my practice if you didn’t teach me?! aren’t you the teacher? what am i paying you for? to call out the poses like a square dance?)
- fill it with breath.
- really feel it.
- we are all one.
- put your hand on your heart.
- make it your own.
- let go.
- downdog. (like…that’s not even a cue. literally just a pose name.)
it’s our egoic desire for some kind of spiritual parent. for some kind of religious, transcendent catharsis. so when the teachers don’t have the body-knowledge, and when everyone in the class is still looking for lineage, even though every. single. major. lineage. has been tarnished by scandal after scandal…this egoic desire is the wounded inner child sacrificing bodily sovereignty for a spiritual daddy who will make all the choices and absolve us of the responsibility of learning how to communicate and heal within ourselves.
and because the yoga mommies and daddies lack the knowledge, they fill class with psychospiritual fluff.
i’ll be honest, in my opinion, it doesn’t matter if the quality of that content is good or bad. because the fact that i’m paying you and you are ejaculating your sermon on me, regardless of how inspiring or powerful it is, that points to my lack of personal responsibility for my own healing journey.
so you ask, what’s wrong with that?
well nothing, maybe.
however. when we step back and say, alright. whatever other things this practice is, it is fundamentally a movement practice. then we can say:
- i deserve to move safely.
- i deserve to move intelligently.
- i deserve to be in the care of or in a practice facilitated by someone who is genuinely an expert in human movement.
and here’s the real mindfuck. when that happens, when you find, in the purest sense of the word, the guru (gu. ru. literally, dark light. as in, the one who guides you from the darkness of your ignorance to the light of your awareness), when you find someone who empowers you and gives you back to yourself, in an intelligently sequenced and cued class that highlights and reinforces the body’s relationship to itself, you don’t need them to tell you to put your hand on your heart. you don’t need to be asked to hold hands or to let them bend your spine or to remind you that we’re all one.
because those things? the underlying universal truths? they are all. actually. already. true. AND THAT TRUTH ALREADY EXISTS BOTH WITHIN AND OUTSIDE OF YOU. when we learn to show up for ourselves and to connect with the breath in the present moment. and the only way we can do those two things is to move safely and intelligently.
YES, functional movement junkies. i already hear you saying, “the body should move every way it can! there is no right or wrong!”
and can i get an amen to that? but FIRST, if you already have injury, if you already have trauma, if you already have a short-circuited feedback loop where you’ve never been empowered to trust yourself, you FIRST need something to come back to. some semblance of a practice that can help catalyze your healing and build your relationship to your body. then once you’ve “mastered” a few things, you adapt and aim to master something else.
and a great teacher can help you learn how to do that.
it is my hope that the teachers who are showing up now can surrender their own egoic need to have spiritual babies, to admit their ignorance and to fill in the gaps in their knowledge, and to maturely take on what it is to give their students back to themselves. so that the people coming to class are coming because they enjoy it, because they feel excited by the community, or whatever reason, but NOT because they cannot seem to find the breath or find the practice or find the YOGA without a spiritual mommy or daddy spoon feeding it to them.
amen. namaste. merry christmas.