The other day I picked up a copy of Nexus, a free paper from Boulder, because it was featuring Yoga. Inside there was a comment from a student who relates, “Using the Iyengar method [the teacher] walks you through each pose, teaching you the CORRECT way of doing it.”
One has to be careful in thinking that there is one correct way to practice asanas, just as one must be cautious in thinking there is only one right way to give birth, to raise children or to worship God. The ancient doctrines of Yoga actually do not elaborate as much on how to perform yoga asanas as do modern interpretations of the practice. William J. Broad wrote, “Iyengar emphasized that in cobra pose, the head should arch ‘as far back as possible’ and insisted that in the shoulder stand, in which the chin is tucked deep in the chest, the trunk and head forming a right angle, ‘the body should be in one straight line, perpendicular to the floor.’ These teachings have been shown to be contraindicated for the neck. And Bikram Choudhury’s original script for teaching his style of yoga says, “lock your knees.” Both Bikram and Iyengar have refined their practices and teachings over the years to reflect scientific study as well as continued refinement of postures.
All people have a unique anatomy: no two bodies are the same; we all have different strengths and weaknesses; and our joint structures can vary greatly (See Paul Grilley’s Anatomy of Yoga). So why do we have styles of yoga that have a one-size-fits-all approach to alignment? This can be limiting for many students and ignoring skeletal and muscular differences only leads to injuries. Almost all postures can be modified to accommodate every body type and every physical limitation. Adhering to only one approved alignment principle excludes those that may not yet be flexible or strong enough and those whose skeletal structure limits mobility.
According to Desikachar, the teaching of both Iyengar and Patabhi Jois developed from yoga therapy sessions with Krishnamacharya and thus were not developed for the masses or touted as “the” way to practice yoga; yet both had such great success from their prescriptions that they took the prescriptions to the world as a way to practice yoga. In the west we are very rajasic and thus we must compare and find the “right” or “correct” or “hardest” practice as if yoga practice were an outward achievement.
What is the history of your body? Do you remember that fall you had from a tree at 6? Or the whiplash you received after a car accident with friends at 16? Or how about the fall you had last year on the ice that you did not have checked but that caused you problems for a month? Did you even know that you suffered from a neck injury when you were thrashed around on that roller coaster with your son last year? The key to practicing yoga safely and “correctly” is to listen to your body. What one practitioner or teacher says is right may not, in fact, be right for your body.
In the same Nexus magazine was an interview with Swami Shambhavananda who states, “… as one begins a spiritual discipline, it’s essential to have… a qualified teacher. Not just a Hatha yoga teacher but someone who’s gone beyond that, and who can really share from their own experiences.” He also says that “Hatha yoga was traditionally something you did to fine-tune your nervous system so that you could meditate, so you could have a deeper spiritual practice. It was a means to an end, not the end in itself.” According to scholars in yoga and to yoga practitioners alike, the yoga asanas are a way to connect to the deeper aspects of our being and to experience the essence of who we are. A true yoga practice includes yama and niyama (deal with universal ethics and morals, and personal conduct), yoga asanas (postures), and pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (controlling the senses), dharana (concentration), and dhyana (meditation). And the eighth limb culminates with the experience of super-consciousness (samadhi). Asanas are the doorways that let us into our deeper home. And just as we can enter from the front door, back door, or kitchen door, all are ways to get inside.
The actual practice of yoga is “so not about the asanas” as we say at ICY. The asanas are one way to open us up to the deeper aspects of who we are as people. Like Swami Shambhavananda, we at ICY teach not just the physical postures of yoga; we teach how to quiet and release the activity of the mind as taught in the Yoga Sutras, how breath works in the body- how it moves and how to use it to clear the body of unwanted stored “junk”, how to create a sense of balance in life, and how to live the richest life possible by rediscovering the Truth that lies within.