An Intelligent Approach
In writing the book Intelligent Yoga, I intended to open up some key themes that I feel should be debated in the yoga world. The themes are close to my heart, but I realize they are not everyones cup of tea. However over the last twenty years of travelling and teaching I think I sense a change in the wind and the time feels right to bring these discussions more overtly into the open.
Face Up Dog
Reflections on the future of yoga
A talk given at Brighton Natural Health Centre on February 13th 2018, reflecting on the past, present and future of yoga.
Thinking about disc problems and their relationship to yoga practice
There is a lot of discussion in yoga about what constitutes safe practice in regards to disc problems, particularly of the lumbar spine. To help make sense of the diverse opinions on the subject it is worth reviewing the anatomy and physiology of the disc, and also the history of the ideas around the causation of disc herniation and prolapse.
Most yoga practitioners are familiar with the basic anatomy of the disc, which consists of a collagenous outer layer called the annulus fibrosus, and an inner more fluid/gel centre called the nucleus pulposus. The tough collagen fibres of the annulus are arranged in layers and at alternating angles. This makes the annulus resilient in regards to both internal pressure and external forces acting upon it. The internal pressure comes from the fact that the inner nucleus is hygroscopic in nature, meaning that it absorbs fluid from the surrounding area. This keeps discs plumped up and resistant to the compressive forces of gravity.
Yoga and the Mereological Fallacy
Mereology: the study of the relationship of parts to the whole.
Stomachs don’t eat lunch, mouths don’t talk and eyes don’t see… We would never use this kind of language because we know it doesn’t really make sense. However it is not unusual in an anatomy class to be told that a bicep flexes the elbow. These parts play a role in the functions described but they can’t elicit these actions on their own. This kind of thinking falls prey to the ‘mereological fallacy’, yet it runs deep in our study of anatomy – and nowhere is it more evident than in yoga anatomy books; often beautifully illustrated books showing exactly which muscle does what action, on a perfectly clean skeleton. Just in case there is any doubt, the origin, insertion, innervation and function are usually described on the same page.
There is something really appealing about these books and a satisfying and logical simplicity about this structuralist way of thinking. A way of thinking that, with a bit of thought, can put together a fully working human being by describing the contraction of the various muscles acting over levers, pulleys and fulcrums to facilitate balanced movement over joints. It derives from the study of cadavers; a body is dissected and a muscle is found, with its beginning and end noted. On careful inspection, the path of the nerves running from the muscle can be traced through the spinal cord and up to the sensory motor cortex of the brain. An obvious conclusion can be drawn: when the motor neuron fires, a signal will travel down the nerve and cause the muscle to contract and carry out its function.
However, like many things in life, it turns out that things aren’t that simple. The body is not like a machine, an assembly of various parts put together to create a greater whole, and we must stop thinking of ourselves like that. We are organisms that evolved in complex ecosystems, with layers of interdependence built on other layers of interdependence. There are no units that act alone or have any sense of autonomy – there are only relationships.
Intelligent Yoga: Key Themes
Themes that I think are worthy of debate are the following:
- Yoga as a modern practice. Most serious students of yoga will know by now that there is a big disconnect between the type of yoga that is practiced in the majority of Gyms and yoga studios today, compared to the type of yoga described in the texts revered by most yogis. There have been a raft of books in recent years pointing out this disconnect. If we take this as our starting point that current yoga is a modern practice, what from the past can we legitimately carry forward into the future and what needs to change? What differentiates modern yoga from exercise?
- Perhaps most contentiously can we take the ideas of chakras, kundalini prana, and other ideas of subtle energy as reality or are they simply a metaphor for experience, which is certainly the perspective I take. If we take this view and strip out much of the metaphysics how do we now differentiate yoga from other forms of exercise?
- Anatomy. Yoga is flooded with books on the anatomy of yoga. Having taught the anatomy of yoga for many years, I now feel it can be a red herring leading us down un-useful ways of thinking. There is a place for anatomy, but largely to help explain why some movements are unhelpful, or why some people can do certain poses and others not. What anatomy cannot do is inform about how to move. To understand movement we have to study movement and see how anatomy supports it, not the other way round.