The CULTure of Yoga

Like so many facets of our society, yoga seems to have gone from something that only tree-hugging hippies did to a mainstream answer to all of life’s problems. Where yoga studios used to be one per city, now they line the streets in every shape and size from industrial buildings to apartment flats. We’ve seen this in other current issues such as alternative energy sources, local and organic food, and fuel efficient cars. Although we don’t like to admit it, those hippies were onto something.Now, obviously yoga didn’t get its roots from North American hippies, but that is what we associate it with. Yoga can be traced back to ancient Indian texts, the Vedas, written in Sanskrit to describe both the technique and literature of yoga. Patanjali, the Indian sage, has been referenced in many texts as describing yogic philosophy some 2000 years ago in his work, The Yoga Sutras (Carrico, 1997; Farhi, 2000).Whenever I do something new, I always try to look at its roots to figure out why something was developed in the first place. Whether its weight lifting, music, or yoga, I try to look back at some of the true pioneers to understand what it was that made them create this new form or genre. All yoga texts will define it differently, but essentially to me yoga is a practice merging the physical asanas, or postures, with the mindfulness, awareness, and internalization of meditation. In fact, I see yoga as one form of meditation. Now, everyone has their motivations and reasons for practicing, or more appropriately now, doing yoga, but from what I have read and heard, the asanas are just a small part of yoga. As Donna Farhi writes, “Form is what the Western mind could understand, and so it was the forms of the yoga that were emphasized. In an effort to popularize yoga the more essential spiritual message of the practice has been pared away and oftentimes completely eliminated”.Thus, the issue I have with yoga is not the traditional practice and philosophy, but its cultish popularity and one-stop-shop from everything from back pain to depression. Yoga, as we know it today, is a fad. The question is, is this a bad thing? Well, it depends on how you look at it. It is hard to argue with something that has taken a sedentary and terrifyingly overweight society and got them moving. After all, just the act of getting people to make less of an ass groove in the sofa deserves credit. However, when you start something new you have to ask yourself, “why am I doing this”. And, it seems to me that more of us are taking up yoga for the wrong reasons.I’ll admit that I didn’t exactly start doing yoga for the reasons I do it today: To quiet my mind, release stress, and become spiritual. I started because I was stiff. Now, as a strength coach, I do apply a lot of mobility work that mirrors yoga and was probably borrowed from yoga. But still, I thought that something that I could attend regularly and didn’t have to think about too much would help me maintain some joint mobility.The concerns that I have with the resurgence of yoga is that with popularity has come a combination of poorly applied information and the mentality that yoga is for everyone… all the time. In fact, from talking to physiotherapists and chiropractors, the people they see most often in their clinics are not the beginner yogi, but the person who goes to yoga everyday and is labelled “good” at yoga. You know the one – they can wrap both legs around their head while arching their back into a shape resembling an archery bow. These “uber-mobile” yoginis (mainly female) are being told that they should push further and further into the “ideal” yoga asana. The problem is they have no stability and far too often over-stretch. So, although they appear to be in great physical shape, they are actually putting themselves at risk of injury. The body needs a combination of mobility and stability and it is entirely dependent upon body type, musculo-skeletal restrictions, tissue tolerances and the specific activities that you do on a daily basis as to how much mobility/stability is needed. Each muscle has an ideal force vs. length curve; basically meaning that each muscle has an ideal length that it can function optimally at. If we continue to overstretch and “lengthen” the body without developing the strength and stability needed withstand the forces of both life and sport, injury is most definitely lurking in the yoga studio background.As you’ve heard me say before, it depends on the practitioner. Like any practice, I’ve seen yoga teachers who know the body inside and out, realizing everyone has limits and not trying to force them beyond these limits. Unfortunately, I’ve also seen many yoga instructors who are in my mind, under-qualified and do not have enough knowledge of the human body to be prescribing certain postures to everyone. So, if you are someone who resembles the description that I gave above, understand that you need to balance a lot of the mobility work that you are doing in yoga class with strength and stability in order to have a strong, healthy body. Yoga is a great practice when applied properly. Understand its limitations and see it as one piece of your very important health puzzle.ReferencesCarrico, M. (1997). Yoga Journal’s Basics: The essential beginners guide to yoga for a lifetime of health and fitness. Holt Paperbacks.Farhi, D. (2000). Yoga mind, body, and spirit: A return to wholeness. Owl Books.

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