the safety dogma

Posted by on Apr 20, 2016 in Blog | Comments Off on the safety dogma

the safety dogma

I’ve been standing back and watching this all unfold for quite some time now.  I can only speak in reference to the community with which I am most familiar, but there seems to be a shift going on in many schools of yoga– a movement away from the more traditional dogma and blind repetition of sequences towards a questioning of the core principles of the practice (ideal alignment, class sequencing, verbal cuing, physical assisting, etc).

I was really excited to witness this dialogue developing.  I love “geeking out” with other professionals about anatomy and biomechanics as they apply to a yoga practice, and I was prepared to put what I thought I knew with confidence on the line with each discussion.  Over the years (even in the time that fell between my first and second yoga training), the tentacles of other movement modalities have reached in through the cracks to offer ground-breaking information based in research that we are able to take into our classes, helping us to offer our students what we hope to be a safer practice. Many of us are amenable to the fluidity of our particular knowledge base.  I understood early on that over the span of my career as a yoga teacher there would be discussions, questioning and evolution– the tossing out of some old ideas and the bringing in of some new.  Mistakes would be made, but hopefully the collective movement would be in the right direction: that of increased safety, stability, and longevity.

The words “always” and “never” have long piqued my ears.  I’m wary of instruction that takes a pile of unique bodies and stories and says “this is always how it must be done.  Never do that…”  Many of us have moved away from this approach– the universal, non-variable style seems outdated.  But in the evolving conversations that I’m reading on the internet concerning safety in a yoga practice, I’m increasingly uncomfortable with how some conversations are coming full circle, back to the “always” and “never” style of understanding. Of course some movements are by nature biomechanically unsound.  To force a joint into a movement that it is not designed to make will eventually lead to harm and injury.  To stress tissues beyond their capacity will do the same.  But in our shift away from the dogmatic practices of the past, practices that have created very specific patterns of wear and injury (ie. “too much” passive forward bending leading to weakening/susceptibility of certain muscle groups such as the hamstrings), we seem to be stepping right into a new one. 

A new set of one-size-fits-all “dos” and “don’ts” are circulating through this updated lexicon of yoga cues. This time, however, they are not showing up as hallowed tradition but as a dogma of safety. And mea culpa—I have been guilty of landing on cues that resonated so deeply with my own bodily experience that I assumed they would lead to the same feelings of freedom and stability for others. When I learn new approaches to a pose that positively affect my own experience of it, I get excited to share them.  But of course we are not all inhabiting the same body, and we are not looking for the same things from our practices.  Instructions must become subjective when they are applied to living, breathing beings following our lead. Sweeping generalizations are easy outs; they are blinders that keep us from really connecting and engaging in dialogue with our students.  I feel that the minute we absorb a paradigm as truth, we lose our ability to see the other truths floating around just beyond the periphery.

Yoga postures and whole families of yoga postures are being deemed inherently unsafe by many leading voices in the yoga community—forward folds come to mind. Yes, the repetitive practice of passive forward folding poses will lead to a weakening back line (if left un-strengthened). But why are we assuming that they cannot also be of some benefit?  To whom are these poses dangerous?  To everyone?  What if, instead of tossing them out completely because they can be of detriment to some practitioners, we teach them carefully and selectively, in balance with other poses and in concert with other movements and with actions that strengthen and stabilize the student?  What if, instead of saying that we will no longer teach paschimottanasana, we include it at the end of a strong back line strengthening class, and keep our gumby students out of their habitual dumping grounds and guide them into something more active?  Certainty in labelling poses as inherently “good” or “bad” is unsettling.    

Of course we are doing our best as instructors to keep our students safe, to keep them moving with strength and stability and balance, but we must remember that we are offering dynamic movement practices.  Students show up with their own particular weaknesses and imbalances.  As one of my great teachers Jennifer Yarro has said, “their biographies become their biology.”  And they aren’t always fully awake to these patterns (though we may see them show up during a practice).  While we might reduce the incidence of some formerly ubiquitous overuse injuries, we need to believe that they can (and do) still happen.   

We work to create biomechanically sound classes and we guide our students with the best of intentions.  But if there is stress, strain or injury, it is not necessarily the fault of the instructor for not seeing it or for not keeping them safe nor is the student guilty of lacking mindfulness, being overly competitive or egoic.  If I become injured in a class, it is not necessarily because it was a “bad” class or that it was poorly instructed.  It’s also not necessarily because I’m trying too hard or because I’m disconnected from my practice. I worry about how definitive-sounding talk of safety may dampen the nature of honest teacher/student feedback.  If I am repeatedly assured that a yoga class is progressive and safe and I still manage to injure myself, I’m naturally going to believe that I did something wrong–a shame that may prevent me from wanting to talk about it with the instructor (lest the instructor feels I am trying to put it on them!). This blame game sounds the death knell of helpful dialogue that might otherwise happen between the student and teacher in a direction of understanding and healing.

The last thing we need in this new wave of yoga that is so full of potential is smug confidence.  We offer up our best understanding of the middle ground when we can’t tailor-make the class to each student, and we watch the ways in which the bodies work to find what they see us do or what they hear us say and I believe we must respond to them with our best knowledge set, but with more curiosity and humility.  I think we are ill-advised to even lend airs of a promise of safety to our students.  A yoga class is not a controlled experiment where all variables can be accounted for.  People with varying degrees of pre-existing wear and tear will be moving their bodies in your room.  Students vary in their ability to decipher the difference between work and pain, or to sense when a muscle is strengthening or when it is vulnerable.  And it’s not your fault, and it’s not their fault. I think these are essential conversations and they need to keep rolling, but we as instructors need to be more open to variability and some margin of error.  We need to acknowledge our vulnerabilities as leaders of bodies in motion as well as continue to share what we know and believe to be most helpful in situ.  It’s likely that these very certainties we are hanging our hats on today will be exchanged for newer models soon enough.  And thank goodness for that.

A friend shared a brilliant quote by Annie Carpenter that I think sums up much of this: “While alignment has a truth, the truth has a continuum.”  Let’s play closer attention to the continuum.

All content by Lisa Veronese. Please do not publish or copy my material without my consent.