esther m palmer

An anatomy student of mine recently took a yoga (asana) class that tested her notion of what a safe and productive yoga class can be. Her observations painted a picture of an approach to yoga that tests my understanding of what yoga is.

Let's call this yoga style "Studio X". Here's how my student described her experience:

I decided to take a class at Studio X, after hearing so much about it. Here are my impressions.

  • The teacher today never studied yoga with anyone else. She came into it much later in life and studied only with [the Founder].
  • She did a "body reading" of the student next to me. Asked her to sit in baddha konasana and then studied her. She noted that the student's heels were grounded well together but that her arches were flat, which meant that she was bearing too much weight into the earth. Also that she was living too much in her back. With straps and her foot, she "restored" the student's lumbar curve and opened up her chest. She brought the breathing from the back of the body to the front. Related it to psychology, in a way: "living in the past" versus "moving forward." I talked to to the student about it afterwards and she seemed to have appreciated the rather deep adjustments.
  • The teacher then briefly addressed me. Didn't do a formal body read, but she talked about how externally rotated I was. While I was lying on my back with my legs up against a wall, she internally rotated my ankles, which then led to an internal rotation of the thighs. She talked about how the feet/ankle/hip are connected. She wanted me to contain. All made sense. She also nailed my breathing issue, which is that I breathe too much from the top and don't connect my breath to the belly. I was impressed by that.
  • There was a lot of talk about patterns of the body, so that if you do something here, another part of the body should follow. Given everything I now know about the body, I found this line of reasoning to be somewhat problematic, as students often have localized pathologies that may or may not affect other parts of their bodies.
  • She also talked about their being an "ideal" form and that we shouldn't trust our feelings because "feelings lie." Granted, the latter point was made in the context of finding your "hip-width" in tadasana, but as a general principle, I'm still trying to figure out how I feel about this phrase. I also think that it's dangerous to push anyone to an "ideal" form, as we all know that bodies are built so differently.
  • The adjustments were brutal, in my opinion. Interestingly, she never asked me or the other new student about any injuries or body issues. She just got right around to yanking us around. Somewhat problematic. One of her adjustment was actually quite painful. She came up behind me (as I was seated), stuck her knee into my spine, and then grabbed my shoulders and yanked them back. Ouch. Again, I find that to be an incredibly ballsy move. Perhaps she had "read" my body from afar and decided that I was a safe candidate for this kind of adjustment.
  • She also mentioned something about working the joints in adjustments so that she would avoid injuring students. I found that perplexing, as joints can also be injured?
  • Downward dogs were also somewhat problematic. She definitely encouraged hanging in the shoulder joints, and insisted on backbending in the position. I can totally understand maintaining the lumbar curve, but I don't understand the need to open up the chest in this particular asana. We had talked in our last class about creating axial elongation of the spine, which, to me, would be the major benefit of downdogs...not backbending.
  • She talked a lot about the body being an origami. If you don't fold properly in a certain part of the body, it's apparently because you didn't start the original fold out well...?

That's all I can remember for now. It was just really a lot to absorb. I am intrigued enough, however, to want to go back next week. Will report more back then. I am simultaneously horrified but curious. -SH at slowly glowing

I fully allow for it to be A-ok for anyone who finds wholeness in a particular practice to dive in and never look back if it continues to help them. That said, I instinctively responded to the above-described approach to asana (physical postures) and yoga philosophy with several damning thoughts about Studio X's practice.

My strongest objection is that the approach by definition doesn't lead to yoga because it perpetuates an illusion (in this case, about an ideal human body) where hard and fast evidence exists to show that we are not all the same in skeletal or muscular or any other kind of structure. Moreover, while variation has many causes, it is always a participant in the evolution of our species. Each of us is unique -not in all ways, but in some way- on an anatomical, physiological level. While there are indeed principles of practice that may apply sufficiently to all of us, no two bodies experience a pose the same way --nor, I believe, should be expected to do so. I base this belief on the demonstrable fact of our bony variances, among other things.

The founder of Studio X seems, to me, to have fallen under the cloud of avidya in this area! Not knowing anything about the founder or even her approach other than through hearsay, all of my thoughts here are offered for discursive purposes only, not as evidence to cut down her or Studio X. Keeping that disclaimer in mind, it sounds like a possible explanation that the founder's personal exploration of yoga took her to a conclusion that may very well be a truth in her body, may very well be a true practice towards yoga for her, and then, in an effort to share its powerful effects with others, created a system based on that experience, believing it would and should apply broadly to others. Ah, and there the trouble begins.

It is part of our human experience to have shared experiences and to be able to relate through common experiences, so it makes sense to think that what brings me joy will do so for you as well. And so, when a yoga teacher or strength trainer or coach develops an approach to working through the body and calls it universally sound, I don't doubt their sincerity, and it will almost surely resonate with some one. Others will force it on to themselves, like Cinderella's stepsisters jamming their large feet into a tiny glass shoe, taking the fault of a poor fit onto their own shoulders, rather that just calling it a mismatched practice. And this is where I believe it is crucial with any practice, that yoga teachers and students (really, any consciously engaged human being) try out everything in life with an open-mind: allow that it may or may not be right for you, and that it may or may not be right for others, too.

There's space for this origami yoga to be a valid approach. Nonetheless, I still believe Studio X perpetuates avidya (which doesn't invalidate it, just takes it in the opposite direction of yoga). Getting emotionally involved in the "wrongness" of that, however, gets in the way of my own yoga. The yoga sutras, and many a teacher, tell us to leave be that which disturbs our serenity (or practice of yoga). As a teacher in a community of yoga approaches, I feel a responsibility to educate myself about the different approaches out there, and so to that end, I try to engage dispassionately and leave my ragingly-personal opinions aside (that's no easy feat!).

But as a yogi, with my own practice and a responsibility to my practice of yoga, I feel no compunction whatsoever to know anything other than the practice that works for me. Nor should I. I have studied in my lineage without break, and every step I have taken outside to explore other styles and listen to other perspectives has caused me some distress and ultimately sent me racing back to my ISHTA practice. This may change one day, but for now, I know where my yoga is, and that's enough.

hari om tat sat!


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