Is Yoga for Everyone? Yes...and No.
Many of you know me as a violist/yoga/pilates teacher, which often leads people to think that I want everyone to do yoga (and pilates). In regards to yoga especially, this is not true, and here's why: Yoga is not a magical therapeutic movement modality, as many people seem to think it is, and many "traditional" poses, teaching practices, and the culture of male guru leaders can be quite injurious. Yoga still has the power to be a transformative and amazing movement modality, but not all yoga practices and classes are equal, nor are they all beneficial for most people, musicians included. Side note, the initial conception of yoga was multilayered, not just consisting of poses. There are other limbs of yoga that are fantastic and worth exploring, they just don't always come up in the context of a one hour class at a gym or studio.
Yoga asana, as taught in the west, is undergoing a huge revolution on many levels. There have been multiple instances of sexual assault and violence in the yoga community, and teaching authority (and abuse) are very much being reevaluated. This process of self examination is empowering to witness, but I’ve also seen the rise and fall of certain yoga gurus, such as Bikram Choudhry, Pattabhi Jois and John Friend, and I’ve seen both positive and negative responses towards the victims of their crimes.
Yoga is also undergoing a re-evaluation on cultural appropriation, best teaching practices, and ways to make yoga relevant to the current western society, while also being keenly aware of the environment in which postural yoga evolved from. You can find everything from Yoga for Dentists to Yoga with Goats to Yoga for Musicians, which comes from a good intention of trying to tailor the practices to the people at hand. Conversely, the extreme specialization of classes and offerings sometimes seems as though a “normal” teacher can’t handle a wide range of populations, which many can and do well. I received all of my formal training in movement from non-musicians, and have worked with a few amateur musician bodyworkers and fitness coaches along the way, but have found that most well trained instructors, coaches, and bodyworkers are able to work with a wide range of people, musicians included.
Lastly, the whole field of yoga is experiencing a shift and questioning of the movements themselves- whether all yoga movements are safe, what the “goal” of a yoga practice is, whether extreme yoga movements serve students or whether they lead to injury, and how much yoga one should actually be doing. There has been a significant questioning of yoga’s love of stretching, and whether extreme flexibility poses are even important, such as the splits or extreme backbends.
There are so many amazing scholars, philosophers, and thinkers evaluating these practices, and I’ve really questioned my own yoga practice in the last few years. Let’s step back though first and simplify.
For many years, teachers and students have perpetuated the notion that "any pose is possible if you practice diligently." This is simply not true, nor is it a helpful notion if you're working with limitations or past injuries. Every single body is different in terms of bony restriction, muscles, etc., and not every pose is right for every person. I will never get my foot behind my head, and I'm totally fine with that.
Not all yoga teachers instruct with progressions in mind, meaning gradual progress towards a pose or goal, whether it’s a long term or short term goal. Often times, the instruction is “here’s a pose, and if you can’t do it, hang out in child’s pose until your neighbor stops hopping into handstands.” That’s great for the person who can do handstands, but what about someone who has wrist extension limitations or is afraid? When I take more fast paced classes, I see poses handed out like candy without a lot of warmup- “here’s a pose, here’s a pose, here’s a pose, good luck!”
You may have heard instructions in a classroom like "find your edge" and "push your limit" juxtaposed with contradictory statements like "listen to your body." What the heck does that even mean? If you're a musician with wrist issues or shoulder issues, those comments are confusing, especially when there aren’t a range of options in different poses. In addition, a majority of traditional yoga poses will put extra weight on the wrists (in extension, no less), and put the shoulders into wide ranges of motion. There is often a praising of people who can do the "hard poses" which often demand a lot of flexibility, often in extreme ranges, which shouldn't really be the "goal." I've been in many a yoga class in which a difficult backbend series was called out, and the most bendy person was used as an example for what You or I might achieve if we work hard. This is not necessarily true, and not necessarily in line with my goals as a movement practitioner. For that reason, I've been re-evaluating my yoga practice and changing how I teach movement and yoga over the last few years. I no longer seek out intense, end-range glorifying yoga classes, and I have a lot less attachment to specific complex poses. I'm happy to never be the "demo" body for deep or complex poses, and I'd rather do my own thing in the back. I love slow, down-regulating practices, that allow me to mindfully move with my body. I also do other movement practices besides yoga, and don't expect yoga to be a complete body workout/movement plan. Here are some considerations for starting yoga or just rethinking your yoga practice.
1. If you're interested in trying yoga but have a history of arm, wrist, or shoulder injuries, look for a class that has gentle, hatha, yoga therapy, slow, etc. in the title. Even if you're healthy, it's great to start with the basics, to develop awareness and skills that can be applied to more complex classes and movements. The more dynamic styles (flow, vinyasa, ashtanga) are difficult to jump right into, and often don't offer a range of accommodations for traditional poses (such as plank, chaturanga, DFD). There isn't always time to break down poses either, as it is assumed that one is already familiar with them.
2. Doctors often tell patients to practice yoga if they have back pain, or tell them to strengthen their core. This is not the most helpful advice, as there isn't necessarily a correlation between core strength and back pain. More importantly, there are a million styles of yoga, and many would in fact be challenging for managing back pain. Meeting with a teacher one on one, working with a yoga therapist, going to class aimed at back pain ...these will help more than a general class. Group classes are not always a great way to get specialized attention, and one on one is infinitely more helpful, especially if you come in with injuries or a pain history.
3. Read the biographies of your teachers or possible teachers. Look for teachers with anatomical knowledge and experience who can tailor movement to you. The last thing you want is a teacher whose entire business is based on extreme poses, who can't help you with progression or modification, or who has no experience with shoulder or wrist injuries.
4. Try not to think of yoga as your workout. When we think of yoga in this way, we often gravitate towards hot room/hard poses/move fast, which can often cloud our integrity of movement, especially if we're vulnerable physically. If you're healthy and have never had a problem with hot room vinyasa/bikram, that's great, but for a beginner or sensitive person, I would say start slow and at room temperature!
5. Ask yourself why you're doing yoga, what you like about it, and what your goals are. (To be more flexible, to learn how to breathe better, to combine mind and body, whatever). Make sure that the class you're attending serves that goal, and if not, try a different class, or a different movement practice.
6. If the studio or teacher makes an unpleasant or unwanted physical adjustment, or you don’t want to be touched on a given day, you have the right to say no. I didn’t realize this earlier in my class attendance, and I’ve definitely had some heavy handed adjustments that didn’t feel great.
7. If the language or vibe of the studio makes you uncomfortable, whether it’s the fellow students, the ages/bodies/sizes of the models and students, or the lack of diversity present, look for a studio that has a different approach. Whether it’s a strong weight loss focus, marketing and media that only promotes thin, able bodied white women doing extreme poses, or an extreme focus on sales, the yoga marketing machine can be tough to stomach, no matter your age or ability. I initially felt like I couldn’t do yoga because I wasn’t flexible, thin, or decked out in lululemon, and once I found a welcoming, diverse community of students and teachers, I felt way more at home.
8. And lastly, only do as much as you can with integrity. This is something I try to apply to most movement practices but only do as much as you can with integrity of movement, good alignment, and feeling like you can breathe. If a teacher or class is pushing you to a place you're not comfortable or able to go, don't do it. I've skipped MANY a pose/cue, and done just fine.
At the end of the day, I like many things about yoga, and I dislike many things about yoga. The greatest benefits that I see are the power of breath awareness, bodily awareness, and relaxation, whether that’s at the beginning of a class or the end. Allowing your nervous system to down regulate is incredibly valuable, and the feeling after savasana (corpse pose/yoga nap) can be fantastic. But…I also like walking, hiking, lifting weights (yes), pilates, and trying different movement practices. As a teacher, I also want my students and colleagues to be strong, mobile, and pain-free. If another movement practice takes them there, that's great. It doesn't have to be yoga.