I recently got REALLY fired up about a post a colleague, friend, and trainer I respect very much, Dale Dymkoski, posted on his blog this week regarding yoga. I tried to write my 'comment' on his page, but because it was so long, it didn't fit. I had lots to say and carefully thought out my retort. To get the full picture, please read Dale's blog and then read below for what I have to say about it.
I'd like to respectfully, offer a contradictory view, as I have to disagree. This article demonstrates a lack of understanding of what the discipline of yoga is truly about and how to practice it properly. Unfortunately today, many instructors are not teaching as they should or offering proper cuing to ensure students engage their muscles and foster strength in the body. Yoga is not all about being Gumby and forcing yourself into pretzel like positions. Yes, practicing yoga properly may emphasize the elongation of the muscle. But to equate that with ‘loose = weak’ muscles, as you do, is a fallacy. If properly taught, a student can discover both strength and flexibility in any pose. I ALWAYS discuss the concept of ‘strong stretching’ in my classes, whether it’s yoga or sculpting.
I agree that there are many poses most people should NOT be attempting. However, in this case, it's the opposite of the traditional saying, "Don't shoot the messenger". It is ABSOLUTELY a yoga instructor's responsibility to assess every student’s ability, and teach proper alignment and how to build a safe and STRONG practice. I cringe when I see instructors leading poses that, as you mentioned, are unsafe for a 99.5% of their students. Typically, there is a lack of understanding on the student's part of how to effectively practice not only advanced, but even the most basic of poses, which most certainly, can lead to injury and pain.
And again, it is the instructor’s duty to guide a student to more difficult asanas to ensure the student is moving into them safely and effectively, balancing the fine line between ‘discomfort’ and ‘pain’, just as it is the student’s responsibility to heed their own body’s communication.
What causes injury and pain is the practitioner NOT the practice. (As a note, I myself have experienced much relief from joint aches and muscle tears by practicing yoga.) Both the instructor and the student must share equal responsibility for a safe and effective yoga practice. Students should understand the true meaning of yoga and recognize it as a process. Teachers bear the burden of effectively communicating that message and fostering the proper environment in which the practitioner is safe to progress at their own pace and level of understanding.
One must move MINDFULLY in yoga. A practitioner CAN NOT check out and just soar through the class. That is the greatest challenge. To find the mind body connection. We as instructors, trainers and guides, give a lot of lip service to that philosophy, but rarely do we foster it or encourage it. And that’s a shame.
Addressing your point of 'functionality'. No, placing your foot behind your head is not, at first glance, particularly ‘functional’. But just like many exercises, more advanced yoga poses (or asanas) offer a challenge that can be beneficial to the body as well as the mind, similar to any advanced level of physical training. Learning how to use the breath to calm the body and the mind under situations of slight duress is EXTREMELY beneficial in the real world. There is no better preparation for everyday challenges than the yoga mat. If you can manage to stay calm when your hand is under your leg which is over your head in a room that’s 75*, you can certainly handle the stress of bumper to bumper on the 405. I don’t know anything more practical than that.
Unfortunately, our fitness culture, with it's result oriented focus, promoting that harder, faster and MORE is always better, has bastardized what yoga is meant to be. We have lost the joy of the process of getting from A to B, fostering the concept of what many in the yoga community like to call “gym yoga”. After three classes, students are expecting to do handstands and place their legs around their necks. It’s like asking someone who just began jogging to run a marathon tomorrow.
I also strongly feel we would all be better served to adopt a more holistic approach to training and fitness. I for one am so exhausted by the mindset that we only workout for a tight ass and great muscle tone. Exercise should be a complement to life, not another thing to do on our task list. It should enhance what we do and be a source of joy, not struggle.
I am not dismissing cross training or varying one’s fitness routine. I think it is EXTREMELY important, as you mentioned, for a healthy, well rounded approach to exercise. More importantly, including various disciplines into your fitness routine prevents boredom, which can lead to a lifetime practice of health and wellness as opposed to something we do to lose ten pounds.
However, your take on yoga is misguided. Yoga is not a means to a tight ass or extraordinary abs, although, when practiced properly, those ends can certainly be achieved. I agree with you 100% that balance is key. But you will find no better way to achieve a connection between the mind body and spirit than from the timeless and always evolving discipline of yoga.