THE BLOG
09/03/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Five Words That Do Not Belong In Yoga

Ashtanga yoga (a type of traditional Indian yoga that is based on the linking of breath with movement) is notorious for its rules. From which days on which to practice which poses, to not daring to show up in the yoga room while menstruating, to when you should exhale and when you should inhale, to how many breaths should be taken in each pose, to what to eat and when to eat and exactly how many bites to have, to when and under what circumstances sex is appropriate (something about not having sex when one of the nostrils is clogged, but I can never remember which one), the rules are so numerous that countless books with hundreds of pages apiece are devoted to them. And endless discussion by Ashtanga practitioners. Endless, circular, sometimes angry discussion.

Ashtanga's physical practice (again, the "asana" practice) is a vigorous one, one which attracts many runners, dancers and lawyers, as well as others who tend to enjoy a little masochism in the name of achievement. In its traditional form, the "Mysore Style", the poses are "given out" by the teacher to each student on a one-to-one basis, based upon the teacher's determination that the student is "ready" to learn the "next" pose in the sequence. The students are expected to practice only those poses that have been "given" to them and to not "ask" for any additional poses. The teacher is often inscrutable (and the students seem to like it that way). The student is often projecting (and some teachers seem to quite enjoy that and have even been known to date their students, even while married to someone else).

This linear approach to yoga teaching can be appealing to those who have a tendency to enjoy a little competition, whether with themselves or with others. This is odd, considering that yoga is essentially the practice of "stilling the mind", which would seem to subsume such distractions as thoughts of "when will I get the next pose" and "what can I do to get my teacher to love me enough to give me the next pose" and "why does my teacher give poses to so-and-so, but not to me?" and "I think my teacher hates me/I think I hate my teacher."

In addition, lifelong dramas can pop up in the Mysore Style room: Daddy loves my brother more than me. Mommy doesn't think I am good enough. Unfortunately, few Mysore Style teachers are trained to handle the transference. Weight issues come up not infrequently as well. I was told by a Mysore Style teacher to drop some weight in order to get into a pose that was difficult for me. I was thanked by another Mysore Style teacher for having dropped weight, because in his opinion, it is why my practice improved by leaps and bounds over the course of one summer.

I practiced Ashtanga faithfully from 2005 until this year (even taught it for a period of time), when for reasons that I cannot even yet articulate, I found myself growing inexplicably repelled by it. I like to say "I threw myself out of the cult." But in truth, I didn't so much throw myself out as find myself slowly edging out the door, not sure that I would never return, only to find myself not wanting to return. At least not in the 6-days a week, rules-minded, punishing way in which I had approached it before.

These days, if I turn up in a Mysore Style room, there are people who express surprise: "I thought you didn't practice anymore."

Well, I still practice "yoga". I just do it my own way.

When I want, I turn up in a Mysore Style room, and I show respect for the teacher in the room by doing my best to follow the rules in the room. Otherwise, I practice other forms of yoga (and there are many to choose from: Bikram, Jivamukti, Anusara, Kundalini, to name a few). Mostly, I devise my own practice in the privacy of my own home and enjoy the Lauren Cahn School of Yoga, where I am my teacher and also my student. I mix that up with running and hiking.

One of the potential effects of the "rules" of Ashtanga is a need to detail one's adherence to the rules in the form of blogging. Indeed, this is how my own blog, Yoga Chickie, was born. If you go back to the early days of Yoga Chickie, you will see many references to the Five Words That (I now believe) Do Not Belong In Yoga Practice. I was a card carrying member of the Ashtanga cult, after all. Now, since I've managed to extricate myself and find some balance in what was always, essentially, my workout routine (that's right, for me, the "ugly" truth is that the yoga has always been, first and foremost, a workout for me), I feel kind of embarrassed about that. Nevertheless, I feel the need to confess. So here goes, the Five Words That Do Not Belong In a Yoga Practice (but which I admit, I used all the time in the past):

1. Criminal.

Ashtangis love to use the word "criminal" to refer to anything that falls outside of the "rules". If an Ashtangi practices on a Saturday, it's a "criminal Saturday practice" or on the day of a full or new moon, it's a "criminal moonday practice". If an Ashtangi practices a pose at home, that is criminal too. If it's a pose she hasn't been "given" by her teacher, even moreso. Practicing yoga that is not Ashtanga is criminal.

But how can anything about yoga be criminal? How can practicing when the moon is full be criminal? How can it be criminal to take a Bikram, or Anusara or Jivamukti, or whatever that isn't Ashtanga? How can it be criminal to do a headstand/backbend/twist/whatever just because someone didn't say in an Indian-imitating voice, "[this pose], you take"?

2. Crank.

By "crank", I mean any form or synonym of the verb, "to crank", as in what we do to lift a car off the ground to change a tire. Many Ashtangis speak of how their teachers crank them into poses. Or they give each other advice along the lines of, "lift your leg and then crank it back with your elbow."

No. No, no, no.

We do not want to "crank" any part of our body into a yoga pose. Is this respecting our body, cranking it as if it were a piece of inert machinery? If the body does not wish to bend in a certain way, and we wish to make it bend that way, how about moving toward the desired bend sloooowly, over time?

I know, I know, during my Ashtanga years, I was cranked into many a pose. And the reward was that I learned how to do those poses in far less time than if I had merely bent gently. But looking back....wow. I can't stomach the thought of it now -- the chances I took with injury, the injuries I did get -- bruised ribs, strained muscles that put me out of commission for weeks. The last time I was in a Mysore Style room, the teacher laid down on my back while I was in a seated forward bend. His weight (probably twice mine) pushed me deeply into the pose, for which I suppose that I was supposed to feel grateful. Instead, I felt brutalized. Violated. How I lost the desire to be cranked, I do not know. But I understand now that while it may have its place in, say, contortion coaching, I do not understand what it has to do with yoga practice.

3. Bad.

In conversations amongst Ashtangis, you will often hear the word "bad", as in "bad lady" (a phrase coined by the beloved Ashtanga guru grandaddy, Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in jest) or I am "bad" at hip opening. I am "bad" at backbends. Look, I can't stand bogus yoga blather like, "there's no such thing as doing it 'badly'", but really, it's true (it just needn't be said in the middle of a yoga flow). How can anything about practicing yoga be bad, except not practicing? (or being cranked?)

4. Cheating.

As in "I got my legs behind my head, but I cheated."

In yoga, there is no such thing as cheating. If the idea of a yoga pose is the way it makes you feel to be in the yoga pose, then so what if you need to stand/sit/lean against a wall to make it happen, or to keep it happening? So what if you need to plant your face on the floor to remain steady while attempting to balance upside down on your forearms? So what if you jump into a pose, as opposed to easing into it? Who cares? Just do the freakin' thing.

5. Pain.

Ashtangis often talk of pain like it's a good thing: "If it hurts, you're doing it right" or "Something snapped, but I think it was a good pain". Some use the word "opening" instead of "pain", as in, "I felt a real opening in my hamstring."

Sorry, but there is no good pain. All pain is a warning from your body. Pain contains no magic. It does not mean you are doing it right. It means you need to stop what you are doing. Pain is not an opening. It means something is being torn or broken. Pain has no place in a yoga practice.

Yoga should be an uplifting experience. It should provide a vacation from the thoughts. If it causes one to conjure up new ways to beat oneself up, then, well that's criminal.