My New Yoga Manifesto

After summer break, with a new session of yoga classes approaching, my thoughts turn to what I most want to embody and share as a teacher. This year though, I am finding it especially challenging. My discovery that modern asana based practice was no sacred, time-worn discipline but a 20th century invention (see here and here) was a bit of a shock.

Not only did it undermine everything I’d been so evangelically teaching, it left me searching for a new language to describe yoga to my students. Can I, without reference to history, to ancient tradition, explain what this practice of postures we call yoga – is really all about?

Well, I have to try. Because I haven’t lost faith in what modern yoga-whatever it is- can accomplish. Medical science demonstrates that yoga makes us healthier and happier – and for this reason alone it deserves our committed practice.

So the big question then becomes – how to most effectively teach it? What framework should be provided, what context to explain yoga’s miraculous ability to revitalize, heal and transform?

I don’t disregard the influence of Eastern mystical wisdom. Because the irony is that while post modern practice has little to do with historic yoga, it has paradoxically distilled the essence of enlightenment teachings.

I believe modern yoga, by amalgamating ancient spiritual wisdom with modernist ideas of somatics and embodied cognition is forging a revolutionary new/old body technology that is capable of unlocking undreamed possibilities of human consciousness and potential. Possibilities, it seems, already well understood by the yogi’s of old. 

Now that’s a pretty big statement I know, so bear with me as I try to unpack it.

The Healing Art of Embodiment

Lets start with the idea of “conscious embodiment” – a concept central to somatic psychology and body work.  According to yoga historian Dr. Mark Singleton, somatics began to “interact with twentieth century international yoga through the development of psychoanalytic body work” pioneered by William Reich and Alexander Lowen. The term somatics is derived from the Greek “somatikos”, soma: “living, aware, bodily person”which posits that neither body nor mind is separate from the other; that both are part of a living process. 

This idea is also fundamental to yogic philosophy and Singleton points out many somatic practices “are explicitly derived from asana and pranayama, with the many of them identical to the prop-assisted posture of Iyengar yoga.”

One of the most important shared concepts between somatics and modern yoga is that chronic emotional tension creates physical patterns in the body, rigid shoulders, clenched jaws, restricted breathing etc. Like kinks in a garden hose, these rigidities armor the musculature, inhibiting healthy function by dampening the electrical activity of the nervous systems and spinal column, restricting the free flow of fluids, blood, lymph etc. and negatively affecting heart rhythms, blood pressure and hormonal balance.

Yoga, as does somatics, works on releasing emotional tension from our body, musculature, connective tissues and joints, allowing normal function to return. And it helps us develop awareness of the mental patterns that cause these ‘blocks’ in the first place. As the great yoga scholar and author Georg Feuerstein wrote “Gaining awareness of the body’s vital energy, one comes to realize that depression, confusion, fear, hatred, disease, and love are, in fact, cellular experiences of consciousness.” A statement, I’m sure, with which the ancient yogis would agree.

So while I think that much of modern yoga’s value in its somatic applications – in creating ‘conscious embodiment”- I think it goes even farther than that. Today science demonstrates how our minds can influence our biological functions but it is also uncovering evidence for another key yogic idea – that it also works the other way around. We can alter our psychology and our consciousness through the ‘technology’ of the body.

The Body: A Technology of Consciousness?

Research in the field of “embodied cognition”is demonstrating how everything from the tilt of our head to the turn of our toes influences our emotions and state of mind.

While scientists aren’t sure exactly why or how it works, studies reveal that reclining postures help to inhibit the flight or fight response and ease angry emotions while powerful or expansive postures boost testosterone, decrease the levels of the stress hormone cortisol and even increase tolerance to pain.

Now think of yoga poses we apply with specific effects in mind. Warrior postures, arms and legs spread wide and strong – for developing strength and power. Forward folds( triggering nerves connecting to our parasympathetic system) for cooling, calming and relaxation.

Are these postures not a real technology by which we can boost our mood and soothe ourselves? That they are centuries old or derived from 20th century calisthenics, no longer matters – because they work.

Even more fascinating are the implications raised by research exploring the ritual use of body posture to alter consciousness. Dr. Felictas Goodman‘s investigation into the use of ritual posture in cross cultural religious and spiritual practices, has documented at least seventy postures (many similar to yoga poses) which create verifiable physiological changes in brain wave function – switching the beta waves of ordinary consciousness to the low-frequency high amplitude patterns of theta waves.

In a similar range with sleep and dreaming, the theta state is one of deep relaxation and hyper awareness. Stress related hormones fall off and the brain begins to release beta-endorphins, the body’s own opiates. The theta state is associated with enhanced creativity and problem solving skills, heightened intuition, positive feelings of emotional connection, and spiritual experiences.

So could we, as modern yogis and yogis, with our newly evolved 21st century postural practice, be simply rediscovering an ancient mind/body technology?

Taken together, the implications of somatics, embodied cognition and the mind altering effects of ritual postures, seem to suggest that modern yoga is activating what author Joseph Chilton Pearce describes as a “ biology of transcendence” hidden in our cells, flesh and bone. A biology, I believe, whose potential was already being explored by the ancient enlightenment traditions – and that we as practitioners of modern yoga, are currently reinventing today.

So in finding new words for my students, to describe why yoga is so important and relevant to us now, I want to start with this. Yoga empowers us – physically, mentally and spiritually. It provides a tool by which we, in the midst of our secular culture, can re-sacralize the body and reconnect with our transcendent capacities for spiritual development. Postural practice may not be millenia old – but it is an instrument by which we can enhance our health, boost our intelligence, heighten our creativity and make ourselves happier. All in all, it sounds like a pretty good reason to practice to me!

8 thoughts on “My New Yoga Manifesto

  1. Would you explain, in a nutshell what problem it is you are trying to solve? In over twenty years of independent research I have yet to meet a yoga teacher who has been able to disarm themselves of their enthusiasm and the notion that they have some divine vision of what they / their students ^should^ be feeling/thinking/doing. It feels as though you are at least, asking some interesting questions here although there is quite a big set of common assumptions that underpin the rest of the post, not least that yoga has boundaries which are described by individual psycho-pathology and perhaps some socio-political theory whereas yoga has always had much broader, religious, cultural and cosmological dimensions which have been conveniently overlooked by the dominant, petit-bougois, therapy movement who have been targeting resources at the professionalization of the discipline since around the 1960′s I think. Thanks.

    • The problem in a nutshell is integrity. Modern yoga, as taught in mainstream yoga studios today, falsely peddles it’s antiquity. It assigns spiritual meaning to the exclusive practice of asana -which has no historical correlation.

      So I’m not so much concerned with what my students ‘should’ be thinking or doing – as I am with how I can best serve them. I want to be as honest as possible about what I am teaching and why – and do it with heart.

      Yes, I make a lot big assumptions (I’m writing a blog not a book). And yes, I agree yoga has much broader, religious, cultural and cosmological dimensions than I am able to articulate. But I hope the rest of the posts on this site, taken as a whole, will flesh out the underpinnings of my POV.

      • I agree with you completely Danielle. I am so relieved to find this blog. As a teacher, I have found myself over the years, constantly reexplaining the essence of yoga and pulling teachers/students out of the physically attention and into simply….giving my students inspiration to be simple inspire themselves and reconnect to what elevates them as a human being. I want my students to discover how they feel on their own. I want them to elevate their hearts by being curious, exploring themselves and the relationships they hold between themselves and everything they interact with…isn’t that real yoga? I’m only a guide, I share my experiences that come about through my studies/observation/wonderment of this art and science. It’s true, how can I best serve myself and my students? How can I relay to them that this art of “yoga” is simply the art of expanded human consciousness? A intertwined technology that allows us not to just bend over and touch our toes with ease, but to live with expanded ease in all our facets. Yoga is just a simple word for something that truly I believe we already are. Connected. We just have to dust ourselves off and remember the illuminated potential, wisdom, and love that we already are.

  2. wow, what a potent post, will need some time to mentally digest, but 100000000% agree. just made me want to do my own mini research, especially on theta waves. thank you for sharing :)

  3. Wow, beautiful blog. I have come to very similar conclusions about yoga as a student and teacher, and I appreciate your clear written expression of what yoga means to you as well as this lovely visual layout!

  4. The best place you CAN teach them IS from your heart! “Teach from where you are.” is how I was taught and in the end it’s the only place we CAN teach from. From THERE in lies truth. AND, trust every student will receive from that, exactly – no more, no less – what they need… as you say, serve them from your heart and you can’t do wrong.

    * A small aside: a correction on your reference to “William Reich” – needs to be “WILHELM Reich”…

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