- What a modern, well-rounded approach to yoga could look like by Mark Walsh and Annabel Broom
Much yoga today isn’t embodied. What I mean by this is that many modern Western asana classes work ON the body as a THING, rather than relate WITH the body as an aspect of who and how we are. Also, traditional awareness based yoga can learn a lot from the wider field of embodiment and the clarity of modern Western approaches to viewing the body as “more than just a brain taxi, to steal a phrase from Francis Briers. This would help yoga become more well rounded and open to new possibilities, and less biased from the cultural inheritance of yoga’s particular historical context, which while rich and wonderful is not always a good match for the modern world. This article describes a third choice between purely physical McYoga and inaccessible Eastern dogma. It describes how a broader base of embodied wisdom can be useful to yoga teachers, to bring fresh perspectives and practices to the art, to develop an asana based practice that is psychologically and spiritually deep, yet not esoteric or superstitious.
Embodiment is a huge domain that is, by definition, awareness based, so includes meditation and mindful yoga (sadly the “mindful” part is now not a given), but also martial arts, body and dance movement therapy, somatic psychology, conscious dance (e.g. Five Rythms), some kinds of bodywork and even theatre and improv comedy. In some ways yoga and all these disciplines are pointing at the same thing – personal growth through the body’s wisdom – but have quite different flavours, insights and advantages to their methods.
Yoga is clearly a very broad church and many of the aspects described below will be part of some yoga classes and much of it could be seen as a translation of ancient Hindu philosophy into Western terms that may be more accessible. There is very little truly new under the sun, but some of what’s offered is however almost unheard of in yoga as most people in the West find it, or is at least subtly but crucially different, so we’d ask readers to keep an open mind and not just look through the lens of knowing already or defensiveness if yoga acolytes. We love yoga and would like to offer another perspective on it.
“Your body is the ground metaphor of your life, the expression of your existence. It is your Bible, your encyclopaedia, your life story.” – Gabrielle Roth
What an Integral Embodied Western Yoga Might Incorporate
- An embodied perspective
There are many views of the body that consciously or unconsciously dictate how yoga is done. These include the body as merely a vehicle for the spirit, potentially sinful and to be controlled, the body as a machine to be optimised and the body as an aesthetic consumer product. All these are influential in different yoga schools yoga today. An embodied perspective is one supported by a modern scientific evidence base, that sees the body as intimately involved with how we perceive, think, emote and relate, indeed that “it’s” the foundation for who we are via how we are. Embodiment is relational not objectifying.
- Mindfulness Based
Secular mindfulness has taken the Western world by a storm and awareness has always been the base of traditional yoga. The practice of mindfulness is the basis of embodied yoga and this can now be described in neuroscientific rational terms for a Western audience. Forms of yoga are only embodied if they are based on and raise awareness, if not they remain physical and may have health value but miss out completely on the mental and emotional benefits which separate yoga from other forms of physical activity.
Mindfulness is about where you are, and intention about where you’re going. We regard intention setting as a critical aspect of yoga. Naturally the body can be used to support intention setting both on and off the mat. On the mat it is critical that intentions, and practices to embody them, are individually considered or a more random outcome will be achieved. A simple practice from one of my aikido instructors is to ask, “for the sake of what?” at the start of every class.
- Insight Generation and Expression
Through the embodied lens a yoga class is not just physical, or even physical and psychological, but a way of developing awareness of our way of being in the world. By observing the tendencies in our body and mind when we copy a yoga pose or sequence (ie. how we deviate from forms and prefer to do things), our patterns are revealed. Rather than jumping to correct a posture as imposed by a teacher – the standard Eastern corrective guru model – it is often worth stopping to see the pattern of difference.
In truly embodied approaches to yoga the process of how we relate to ourselves during the postures in what matters most. Embodiment also suggests that fully expressing our own unique patterns (is that Iyengar rolling over exactly 181.5 degrees? is beneficial, so embodied yoga should involve an element of creative individual expression, not just copying someone else! Another facet of insight is the deep body listening of methods like Focusing and Authentic Movement which can be incorporated into yoga classes, at least in a basic way. How easy it is to focus on the doing of postures without noticing our pattern of HOW we are doing them or what the body is saying under or instead of the form?
- Options, Building a New Way of Being
Any posture, breathing pattern or movement style, as well as revealing our habits, PATTERNS us, making certain ways of being (seeing, thinking, feeling, relating etc) more likely. Happily this also means we can change our way of being to create a greater range of choices and more freedom as a result. Building awareness, range and choice through the body is a good definition of embodied practice. In embodied yoga we choose to develop a better posture, way of moving, breathing, attending etc, FOR a particular aim (eg to develop more confidence, compassion, creativity, self-discipline, etc). Increased flexibility is just a side effect of our practice.
As well as working with a range of traditional postures to build a range of living, I would also recommend working with different movement styles which is rarely done in yoga. There are many maps such as The Five Rythms, four elements models and Laban movement analysis. Most yoga styles have a strong and often unconscious and subtly enforced preference for one style of movement e.g. – soft and flowing, precise, strong and dynamic, and this may not be of benefit to the practitioner.
- Yin and Yang, Form and Freedom
Most styles and poses of yoga stress either allowing, receiving, relaxing and letting go, or energising, discipline and will. From the embodied perspective of patterning, the self balancing flow and form is also particularly important. Traditionally the Asian and guru system heritage of yoga (and military calisthenics influence) has meant stressing the form aspect over expression, with only lip-service paid to listening to the body and going with the flow. Yogis may dispute this but there is no comparison with improvisational comedy or Five Rhythms dance for example, in any style of yoga I have seen, when it comes to free movement and expression and modern yoga is associated with set forms. This is not to say this is bad, it is often very helpful to people, and also not an integral approach.
- Emotional Intelligence
Being smart emotionally is a key competence for successful, happy and harmonious living in relationship. Yoga often doesn’t pay much attention to it however except perhaps calming the emotions. Yoga practice can however build the full range of EI competencies which include emotional awareness, emotional management (not just calming), expression, empathy, impact and influence (see Partner Practice below for these last two).
Usually yoga classes have an element of relaxation incorporated throughout and in the typical corpse pose chill-out at the end of class. Yoga could be used, but seldom is though, as a graded systematic practice for developing awareness of the fight-flight response and relaxation under pressure with ways to transfer this to the outside world. Embodied yoga is not just about relaxing but about developing transferable skills for life, including relaxing in the face of modern stresses, not just after the event as a balm. Relaxation skills that can be used in the thick of life’s challenges are fundamentally more useful as part of our emergency kit rather than having to wait until we can apply asana medication for harm reduction.
Most yoga teachers have some ways to reduce the fight-flight-freeze response created by the more intense techniques (the bucket term for which is sometimes “centring”) but these may not be well developed and what is happening not well understood. Rarely is the life application element taught. It is either ignored or left to chance as to whether the leap off the mat will be made. Learning to relax into warrior pose will not automatically translate into difficult work conversations or Facebook flaming responses for example. Bridging practices such as using triggering words or phrases and noticing and reducing the bodily response are usually necessary. Embodied yoga can help people learn to live more skilfully through teaching applicable centring regulation skills.
- Partner Practice
We are social animals and many of our greatest challenges and joys involve others. For this reason, for any yoga to be integral it must include an interactive component or it risks the self-involved “I’m alright on my mat Jackie” narcissism of some studios, or at least an overly introverted perspective. Happily partner yoga and AcroYoga has started to emerge and much can be learnt from partner dance and relational arts like aikido, Embodied Leadership and group dance therapy. Using partner practice to consciously explore habits and build range in relationship to boundaries, trust, listening, influence, leadership and all key interpersonal skills is however a long way off most current partner yoga classes and what embodiment excels in. An embodied yoga builds awareness inter-personally as well as infra -personally.
- Verbal Component
While the average modern yoga class is relaxing and aids body awareness for beginners, much of daily life involves words and any skills learnt on the mat will not automatically transfer without the careful addition of language. There are emerging mindful practices of communication such as Insight Dialogue, Authentic Relating and Circling which can help, and embodied leadership traditions that involve working with specific aspects such as requests, offers, yes and no, etc. Any yoga which doesn’t support people in language use keeps people STUCK in the here and now, and doesn’t help their ability to coordinate with others and get things done over time – a big part of being human. The power of future is needed not just now The often largely ignored ethical component of yoga can also be brought back into asana class through such methods in an embodied manner to build insight and strength of commitment, for example committing to kindness or stating what we are grateful for. Bringing the body and words together in this way is very powerful.
- Technological Component
Just as the transfer to words is often ignored in yoga, so too is any recognition that most of us today use technology daily. If you’re reading this on a computer or hand-held device for example, what yoga practices are you equipped with to help you transfer your yoga skills to this weird modern technological world that ancient Indians couldn’t have dreamed of? Practical exercise: next time you practice a balance, get your phone out and check Facebook for a challenge Yoga is often seen as a nice break from technology and this has benefits, but again, a skills acquisition and life transfer model is fundamentally more helpful than simple harm reduction which will usually be outgunned by the greater hours NOT doing yoga. Technology use is a powerful part of modern life and yoga ignores it at its peril.
For those new to it, Ken Wilber’s integral system is a map of everything. Yup, cool eh? An integral approach to yoga appreciates the differences between states – which yoga is helpful for shifting, between the “quadrants” of I, we, it and it’s – commonly confused in yoga, types of people – who need to do yoga differently and shouldn’t be pathologised which is common, lines of development or multiple intelligences – several of which are involved in yoga, and stages of development – which yoga can help with long-term . Crucially a mapping of the aspects of embodied intelligence [http://integrationtraining.co.uk/blog/2011/03/embodied-integral-body-integral-theory.html] is needed to teach in a rounded, balanced and effective way. This creates a clear non-esoteric framework for personal growth through yoga.
What we see in modern asana classes is the potential for a more balanced system of practice that develops the whole person in a rational way. We believe yoga can be reinvented, or at least fully translated by The West, for modern Western life, to make it clearer, kinder and more effective. This is fundamentally more desirable to us than languishing in culturally inappropriate superstition, or reducing yoga to consumerist body as object athleticism.
About the Authors
Mark Walsh has been studying embodiment his adult life, holds a black belt in aikido, and has also practiced yoga, buddhist meditation, outdoor pursuits and various kinds of body therapy and dance. He runs a training company teaching embodiment and it’s applications in business leadership, to life coaching and as part of trauma education and resilience training for humanitarian aid workers in war zones. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j0Q7MtLXwMg
Annabel Broom is an experienced traditional yoga teacher who is passionate about equipping people with tools to help them feel better, happier & stronger. She has been teaching yoga to adults and children of all ages and abilities since 2003. http://www.annabelyoga.com/Home.html
They are students of each other.