In ancient times, Hatha Yoga was perfected by people who did not have daily stressors that we as a culture experience today. They did not wear shoes at all; much less ill-fitting ones that make us walk on our toes or scooch around to keep them from flopping off our feet. They did not spend hours a day at desks, in front of computers, in cars, or slouched in front of TVs for hours at a time. All of this has changed the way we hold our bodies. Even sitting in that comfy recliner while reading a good book takes a certain toll on the posture of the back. The beginning student of Hatha Yoga needs to approach with caution to see where tension is held tension in the body, and receive coaching in safe ways of moving in to the various asanas (postures). This takes time, understanding, and most of all, a keen eye on the teacher’s part.
Yoga can be an excellent benefit for almost anyone’s body. It can be a great way to return to physical activity after an injury or surgery, if it is done with caution. And yet, I think many people are turned off from Hatha Yoga because of the way it is portrayed in society. There seems to be an attitude about Hatha Yoga now that makes people think that they have to be good at it before they can go to class or they won’t be able to keep up. I once saw a wonderful article in a national magazine about migraines and chronic headaches. One of the resources for preventing headaches that was listed in the article was yoga. This, of course was a very good thing, for it is true that yoga can help to remove tension from the tissues and help to relieve headaches. Unfortunately, the accompanying photograph was of a man in kukutasana (rooster pose). I’m not sure how many people who have never studied yoga before would investigate it based upon that photo. It fed right in to the “I can’t do that, I’d never be able to be a pretzel” mindset that inhibits people from trying yoga.
Hatha Yoga isn’t about how far a person can twist his/her body in to a contortion. It is about how much flexibility and strength one can gain through the various postures. Hatha Yoga is not, nor has it ever been a competitive sport. There is no reason to rush in to achieving “perfected” asanas. Asana means “posture” or “sitting.” Not “doing.” Using yoga props to push the body into a posture may not be in the best interest, either. If the body is not ready to bend or stretch as far as a perfected posture would go, then the student should be encouraged to go to the place of resistance in his or her body, and breathe in to the stretch from that point. Each time the posture of an asana is held, a little more progress is made. The stretch happens with the breath as the body slowly relaxes in to it. This is the process of yoga. What Patanjali wrote in his sutras of Astanga was that true Yoga is when the body and the mind are in perfect balance. Holding an asana is a form of meditation. It’s why it’s called yoga practice, not yoga perfection. Like most of life, it is the process that is the teacher, not the outcome.
Yoga means “union”; and that is the union between the person’s mind/psyche/spirit and the body. Forcing, pushing, and over-stretching all cause a disruption in that union. The name of that disruption is “pain”. Pain is the body’s way of saying, “Stop!” The adage “no pain, no gain” does not hold up here. Time and time again as a Yoga Teacher, I was able to prove to my students that by softening their approach to a stretch, allowing the body to relax in to it through patience and following the breath, stretching a little more each time the body relaxed and stopped resisting, the outcome was that they could actually stretch farther than if they forced it. Another thing that happens when the asana is forced or performed too fast is that incorrect movement is substantiated. Muscles build pathways through habitual movement and most often our pain and/or lack of ability to be flexible is due to the fact that the muscles are not moving in the way they were intended. To do Hatha Yoga quickly or without being fully attentive in the moment, allows the body to just keep moving in the same way it always has.
One of my former students is a great example of this. When she started my class, she had been doing Hatha Yoga in a different class for three years. I noticed that when she did the “sitting forward bend” (Paschimottanasana), she was able to easily put her forehead upon her knees, and her back was not rounded, but she was not in the true posture because she was having to compensate by letting her hip raise up of the floor. I had her come out of the asana and begin again with awareness of what was going on in her hips. If she kept them balanced and didn’t allow one or the other of them to come up off the floor, she was not able to get her forehead very close to her knees. What followed were many months of her working with her hips, in yoga class, with massage therapy and with somatic bodywork, to get the severely tightened muscles to relax in to their proper way of moving.
I still cherish the letter that she wrote to me, thanking me for the support as she discovered the emotional release of a painful childbirth that had left her hips out of alignment and very stiff. The stiffness and the moving while out of alignment had become a habit for her body, and she had no awareness that it was that way. The work we did together slowly allowed her hips to realign and move freely, and gave her new ability to do her Hatha Yoga better and more correctly. Lack of flexibility is due to the habitual way that we use our bodies; or because as the body moves, it moves away from pain (whether that pain is physical or emotional, or most likely, both). We all have compensatory ways of moving: ways that we move around pain, old injury, and/or stress. If teachers allow the students to go into postures without addressing the compensatory movement first, we are doing them a disservice, and may be putting them in line for an injury.
Sometimes, due to injury and/or disease, such as arthritis, people cannot achieve the posture correctly. Then it is the duty of the teacher to help them get in to a safe and comfortable posture that will have a good effect on the body. One of my students had severe arthritis in his hips. A forward bend was not possible for him. So, as the class did the forward-bending series, he worked on (gently) sitting as straight as he could, using his hands on the floor directly behind his hips for support. He still benefited; over time, he was able to sit straighter and for longer periods of time. This man would not be able to keep up in a large class or a fast-moving class, and he would not have the benefits he achieved in the eighteen months he came to class and did what he could.
Yoga Teachers must be completely aware of the responsibility to the students. Teaching a yoga class is not a time to do asanas or to show off how adept the teacher is. The focus must remain entirely on the students. They have come to learn…to be taught, not shown. I always verbalized for them what the postures should feel like in their bodies, and guided them with words (and sometimes gentle hands). When I taught, I encouraged my students to keep their eyes closed, and listen to me. I constantly scanned the class to see who needed a little correction, and then I verbally guided them in to adjusting their body so that they could achieve a better posture. I wanted them to feel it from the inside, not watch me and try to mimic what they saw. That way, they remembered what they felt and were better at re-creating the posture at home. When I made a correction, I always asked: “Can you feel the difference there?” If they couldn’t, I directed them again until they could differentiate between compensatory posture and correct posture. Therein lies the healing of the body’s old habitual way of moving.