Monday, May 19, 2014

YogAlign: The Anti-Yoga?

A huge part of being a yoga teacher, of being a good yoga teacher, is staying open to new information about this ever-evolving practice. So when Michealle Edwards, the creator of the YogAlign method of yoga came to my local yoga studio, I signed right up to see what she had to say about yoga and posture.

I read through her website in the week before she came to the studio, and noticed that she uses William Broad's notorious book, The Science of Yoga, as an example of how "dangerous" yoga is. (Cue interior cringing. There's a lot wrong with that book and it's distorted presentation of asana practice.) Her website promises that her method will result in "pain free" yoga, which to me, seems kind of odd - I've always believed that all yoga should be pain free.

So, more on that later, but the day of the workshop, she had all of us take before and after pictures so that we could see if there was any shift in our posture after working with her methods throughout the morning. She taught us a couple of breathing exercises to make us aware of what muscles are moving in the body every time we take a breath.

Michaelle guided us through a series of movements meant to create body awareness and stabilize our posture. I definitely noticed a difference in how my body felt before and after we did each side. When we did some upper body work, I noticed that after completing a range of movements on my right side, my right arm was most definitely about an inch longer than my left. (The left arm evened up nicely after I repeated the movements on that side!)

First, I completely agree with Michaelle that posture is a huge problem for a whopping majority of people these days, even among practitioners and teachers of yoga. We've (de?) evolved into a society of mostly desk-sitters, and our bodies are slumping forward as the result of poorly designed chairs and desks from where we sit all day.

I also agree with her that yoga should not hurt, and that asanas should most definitely be modified to create a sense of ease and stillness.

I don't agree that the practice of asana is inherently "dangerous". Speaking as someone who hurt herself a whole lot (read: weekly) when I got serious about a daily asana practice 18 months ago, I've learned that a huge part of asana is meant to bring your awareness into your own body. How many years have we all spent rushing through life in this body without giving any thought to how it feels or what it wants? It's probably the hardest part of asana practice for many of us: learning how to tune in to our bodies and what they really want after all these years, and learning how to treat ourselves gently. That doesn't necessarily make the practice of asana dangerous - it just means that we have to pay attention to how and what we're practicing.

And how is our body really "meant" to move, anyway? I think a huge part of the practice of asana in yoga is to develop the strength and flexibility to get into some of these poses, while, of course, being gentle to yourself while you're doing it. Michaelle asserts that the human body was never "meant" to be in positions like staff pose (sitting on the floor with the legs stretched out in front, feet flexed).

But from my beading studies, I know that this is how the Ndebele tribe of South Africa sit for extended periods of time while doing their beadwork. Is this somehow unnatural?

Ndebele woman doing traditional beadwork in seated position very similar to staff pose

No, we don't often walk with our knees locked stiff and straight, nor do we walk with our pelvic floor tightened and engaged, nor do we sit like, well, the Ndebele tribe does on a regular basis. But that's not the point of asana in yoga - at least, not as I understand it. 

My last question, and one that was asked by more than a few people at the workshop, was that if Michaelle thinks that other forms of yoga are so "dangerous", why is she marketing her workshops to yoga teachers and yoga studios? Why is she even using "yoga" in the name of her method?

Now, before you get the wrong idea, I took away a lot of valuable information from this workshop. First and foremost was a reinforcement of my belief that too much flexibility without strength can be a liability in asana practice, and people who just stretch mindlessly without full awareness can indeed injure themselves pretty seriously.

Something else very interesting that Michaelle talked about was resetting our muscle memory, which is what I heard about when I took a short positional therapy workshop last month at Kripalu. Muscles that are too tight can cause lots of pain and lots of problems, and the idea behind positional therapy (much like Michaelle's YogAlign method) is that allowing certain muscles to relax back into their natural configurations, you can relieve things like chronic back pain and muscular tension headaches.

I intend to immerse myself in Michaelle's book to learn more about her methods and the reasoning behind them, but for now, I'm going to continue to practice certain asanas with the support of props like blankets and modifications like bent knees.

Last lesson behind all of this? Staying open to new information from alternative viewpoints can sometimes lead to a reinforcement of your current beliefs! Don't be afraid to hear what others have to say, even if it's not totally in agreement with what you already think you "know"!

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