tech yoga

Why You Need an Assessment Protocol

Possibly the least sexy aspect of your practice, but the most decisive.

I’m a tech consultant and a yoga teacher. In both fields, I consider myself successful when I’ve helped my client address and improve a problematic situation. It’s very tempting when sorting out a problem to rest on expertise and do what you ‘know’ needs to be done.  Because of this temptation, it requires extra diligence to make sure you’re not just seeing what you already know, but treating each situation as fresh.

Because of the underlying tendency to automatize – which we all have – we need a routine to consistently counter our habits.  We also know that the placebo effect will make any intervention look more like it’s working.  That’s why the assessment protocol was invented. Here’s a great example:  a body reading protocol from James Earls and Tom Myers (in Fascial Release for Structural Balance):

1. Describe the skeletal relationships.

2. Assess the soft tissue pattern that creates or holds the pattern in place.

3. Strategise – develop a story about how and why these elements are interrelated, and create a strategy for the order in which those elements will be worked.

4. Intervene – do your work. …

5. Evaluate – when any given intervention is complete, reassess and re-evaluate.

Although the specifics are about the body, a similar protocol works great for tech issues. Before jumping ahead to solving the problem, first clearly describe it and work out its underlying structure. Too often, what’s addressed is superficial or temporary – the underlying pattern hasn’t been changed, and all the new work will quickly get washed away like a sand castle on the beach. Working out the dependencies and order of operations is key – and clarity here will allow your client to trust your work even if it involves things getting messier before they resolve.

I hope the people I work with pick up not just short-term fixes or even long-term solutions, but also inspiration to assess and re-evaluate what they’re doing on an ongoing basis. It’s so tempting to take the course that sounds like a good idea, or is just the way it’s done. The only way to counteract that is to check that each measure is actually tuned to address what you intend to address. Establishing a diligent evaluation routine is the difference between claiming objectivity and actually practicing it.


A History of Yoga in 5 Big Steps

With yoga’s surging popularity comes increased interest in its origins. Several popular histories have recently been published (some of which I’ve written about on this blog). The scholarly consensus is that, while yoga draws from a very old set of traditions, the ancient practices are quite different from modern yoga. Despite what NPR says, there is no “huge scholarly debate about yoga’s origins.” There is a movement to “take back yoga for Hinduism,” a position that meshes with the mainstream story about yoga’s origins. But that story is more informed by cultural politics than by accurate historiography.


Step 1: Sramana Asceticism

As early as 3000 BCE there are depictions of people or gods sitting in what look like yoga poses. The earliest textual evidence we have, dating to 1200 BCE, mentions yogis as forest-dwelling, world-renouncing magicians. Vedic (what would later be called Hindu) sources tell of the god Rudra, an outsider like a wild beast, a hunter and cause of disease. We know that there was an experiential and oral tradition of asceticism among sramanas who were outside normal society. But we don’t know what these people were doing, or more importantly, why.


The Origins of Yoga and Tantra

As I’ve written previously, the only feature of yoga that seems consistent from ancient times to the present is its ability to incorporate different perspectives and approaches under a single heading.  Rather than being a meaningless catch-all term, or simply reinventing itself when socially or politically convenient, I’ve argued that yoga has adapted to practitioners’ changing needs and situations.

Geoffrey Samuel’s dense, scholarly 2008 history, The Origins of Yoga and Tantra, takes that type of argument to where the rubber hits the road – historical evidence of changes in the material, social, political, and philosophical situations of Indian spiritual practitioners.  If changes in practice corresponded with changes in situation, it makes sense to guess that the practice adapted to reflect those changes.  This history of change begins around 2600 BCE, with the Indus Valley civilization.  Artifacts depict ceremonial deity worship, but without textual evidence to explain the art, it is unclear whether these deities became the later Hindu gods or were superseded by them.  Whether a horn-headed deity is “proto-Shiva,” and whether his seat is a yoga pose, are debatable.

With the decline of this first urban civilization around 1900 BCE, the record again goes silent until the second urbanization, somewhere between 750-450 BCE.  As people again gathered and traded in cities, new spiritual practices emerged.  The Vedic-Brahmanical tradition’s ritualized offerings to the gods, burnt in a literal fire, became a small household flame, or even more abstract, austerities directed to an internal fire.  The forest-dwelling sramana ascetic traditions, once a way for young men to play out heroic roles in the hunt or in battle, became less a matter of physical separation from everyday life and more an abstract philosophical or ideological separation.  Buddhist and Jain schools of thought offered methods of achieving spiritual insight without the mediation of professional clergy.  Local gods were brought into pantheons where they served as underlings to, or incarnations of, more universal deities.

As Samuel explains, the reason more abstract, complex versions of older traditions became current must be that they were particularly appealing to the new city dwellers as they came into contact with various different lifestyles and foreign traditions.  Since their lives no longer followed hereditary paths, their traditional rituals no longer served.  It became clear that spiritual practices were not set in stone but reflected the lives of their practitioners.  When people could no longer follow the literal rituals of their parents, they chose practices that abstractly accomplished the same things.

At the same time, the expansion of central state government coincided with the idea of subsidiary deities – for instance, Buddhist mandalas placing the Buddha-form at the center and fierce gods in the four cardinal directions.  Tolerating local beliefs while subordinating them to a greater universal order was an approach that central government could appreciate. Ascetic Buddhists and Saivas found a role as ‘professional outsiders,’ dealing with death and burial and therefore performing a service for the society they distanced themselves from.  Brahmins were regarded as hereditarily qualified to perform magical rituals for state functions.  Thus the ideas of separate realms of professional vs. lay practice, and of hereditary vs. self-selecting practitioners, became accepted.  While there is no evidence of direct political influence on theology or ideology, Samuel argues that affinity with current politics must have contributed to the expansion of some spiritual practices and the contraction of others.

By 700 CE, death-related rituals began to mix with sexual rituals in the intentionally transgressive kapalika Saiva practices.  By taking actions that would usually be sinful – such as eating meat, disturbing a grave, or having sex with a prostitute – with pious intentions, these practitioners meant to subvert and undo the power those actions held.  There is evidence of religious communities using sexual initiation rituals under the same logic.  The use of transgression and sexual practices was not unheard of in Mahayana Buddhism as well.  However, both Buddhist and Saiva traditions were suddenly transformed by a surge in popularity of Tantra.

“A new set of techniques, closely related to and perhaps influenced by the Chinese qi cultivation and ‘inner alchemy’ practices, started to spread throughout South Asia in the seventh or early eighth century.  The Indic versions of these internal practices involve the movement of prana through the channels of the body and are closely linked to the conscious control of bodily processes during intercourse, and so to the practices of sexual yoga.  … These new techniques allowed for an internalisation of the deity practices.  They were adopted both by kapalika-style Saiva ascetics and by Buddhist practitioners of mahayoga Tantra, who were beginning to incorporate increasingly transgressive elements within their own practices.” (p. 341)

These practices were not so much a new religion as a new set of technical means.  They were adapted into both Saiva and Buddhist traditions, though in large part abstracted and applied to the internal desire to transgress rather than to literal transgressive behavior.  By 1000 CE, Tantra techniques were an accepted part of several traditions, and the idea that spiritual suffering and liberation were embodied (even if not literally but in an ‘energy body’) was on its way to inspiring classical Hatha Yoga.

I want to point out that inspiring classical yoga is one thing, and underpinning its validity with years of practice is quite another.  This tradition, again, is discontinuous – it adapts to new realities in the political, practical, and spiritual lives of its practitioners.  Just as the modern version of postural yoga that emerged in the middle of the 20th century, and which is now practiced around the world, involved a radical shift from the classical Hatha Yoga which the textual tradition documents, there is no evidence that the origins of yoga and tantra contain continuous functional features with the classical or modern practices.  The consistency of yoga remains its thoroughgoing adaptability.


Existential Tech: Ernest Becker

In my essay on the historical development of yoga, I found that the value of practicing yoga is not derived from any continuity with ancient wisdom.  The value of the practice lies not in its content per se, but in its function:  its ability to address the needs of its users.  I made the distinction between a ritual and a technology – a ritual must be done according to tradition, or a rigid formula, because how it works is unclear, magical.  A technology has “moving parts,” is understandable in terms of its effects and not just what its originator intended.

We all need to define ourselves and our place in the universe; to feel that what we are doing is worthwhile and meaningful.  The same needs drive people to religion, ideological and group affiliation, and all sorts of ways of feeling connected, a part of something larger.  Understanding these cultural practices in terms of their function has allowed us to see inside their stories about themselves, and into their “moving parts,” into how they are effective.

Ernest Becker’s classic 1973 book The Denial of Death is a masterpiece of functional analysis, asserting that every system of meaning to which people subscribe, every mythology about their origin and place in the universe, serves basically to prevent people from fully acknowledging that the universe is far vaster than humanity and is plainly not organized around human concerns.  Any animal, in order to survive and prosper, needs a sort of reflexive self-importance.  An animal that didn’t assume it was the most important thing in the picture wouldn’t take care of itself as a matter of course.  The trouble with this reflex, Becker argues, is that it is not justified by any evidence in the world – the inevitability of death and the overwhelming irrelevance of one animal, or one species, in the larger scale, argues that this belief in our own importance is fundamentally an illusion.

In order to perpetuate this “vital lie,” we need to pay attention to only a subset of the universe, the important stuff.  By evaluating our lives in relation to principles, groups of people, ideologies, etc., we become part of a larger reality.  Larger, but not too large, or our insignificance is again revealed; small enough to understand, but not too small, e.g. getting fixated on the approval of just one person, or we become neurotic.  The difference between the neurotic or psychotic and the normal functioning person, according to Becker, is not that one is illusioned about the universe and the other is not.  The neurotic or psychotic person has a poorly functioning illusion, one which doesn’t adequately protect them from perceiving the meaninglessness of their life; “healthy” people have robust, acceptable illusions.  The neurotic or psychotic is overcome by their fear of death or of experiencing life; “healthy” people repress these fears.

“What would the average man do with a full consciousness of absurdity?  He has fashioned his character for the precise purpose of putting it between himself and the facts of life; it is his special tour-de-force that allows him to ignore incongruities, to nourish himself on impossibilities, to thrive on blindness.  He accomplishes thereby a peculiarly human victory:  the ability to be smug about terror.”

Becker concludes that while most people choose a “safe beyond,” a larger reality that is still known territory where one can assume a culturally given identity and walk a path others have found, some people have the skill and determination to take on larger and larger “beyonds” as they negotiate their own relationships with the universe.  Eventually, such a genius or artist or visionary has basically created their own religion.

While Becker, and the psychoanalysts and philosophers he references, argue that the human condition is one of insoluble conflict between reality and this necessary illusion, I wonder if that is the case.  Someone (not necessarily a visionary) who is constantly reconciling her understanding of the universe with new information is not defining herself in terms of her current mythology in the same heavy way of someone who never changes views.

In fact, if one can practice continual displacement of worldviews and challenging of assumptions, that process can destabilize the personality without descending into fear or dysfunction.  If someone practices this sort of existential shifting with continuous discipline, that practice itself may provide the feeling of security necessary to let go of any fixed definition of one’s importance in terms of an illusion about the universe.  While Becker views the process of shifting mythologies as a sort of progression from smaller to larger visions, the content of those mythologies is not as relevant as their function.  As they shift, the feeling that each one is real and solid must be undermined as well.

When we view the process of understanding one’s place in the universe as a technology, rather than a ritual, we can be critical about the choices we make in deciding what’s important.  If someone can reevaluate their most fundamental beliefs, I call that less illusioned, less afraid, and more honest.


The Discontinuity of Yoga

This essay represents a year-long research project I completed for my advanced yoga teacher training at OM Yoga.  It is currently fairly narrow and technical, but I intend to publish another draft for more general audiences.  Any comments or questions would be much appreciated!

Click through to Google Docs for the full document.


What are we doing when we take a yoga class? The name ‘yoga’ ties the modern practice to an ancient Indian system of belief and practice designed to address human suffering. But is 21st- century Hatha Yoga actually a continuation of an ancient tradition? If we are doing the ‘same thing’ as ancient yogis, we might expect that we can move toward the ‘same results’, making progress toward the physical, mental, or spiritual enlightenment proclaimed in the oral and written traditions of yoga.

On the other hand, if there is no clear historical continuity between ancient and modern yoga, then are the movements and ideas presented in the modern practice really likely to achieve the results that we read about in yoga texts or hear about from yoga teachers? Since its first presentation to the west, yoga has been characterized as a ‘technology of freedom’ – as opposed to a ritual whose effectiveness would be magical. Yoga techniques such as asana and pranayama are valid not because they are traditional, but because they are effective. But if ancient techniques are effective, then fidelity to tradition would be an obvious way of preserving the effectiveness of yoga. Considering yoga a technology implicitly gives us a mental model of how changes to the yoga practice could be beneficial: yoga techniques could have been refined over time to become better at their jobs.

If we admit that yoga has changed and adapted as it has become westernized, the question becomes whether those changes have been cosmetic or functional. Has yoga changed its engine or just its paint job? Debate is basically polarized around this question. The first possibility is that modern yoga bears some essential similarity to authentic ancient yoga. While there is ample evidence that yoga has become adapted to modern a western(ized) group of practitioners, perhaps some of its ancient features remain, and therefore the modern practice benefits from the time-tested refinement of this core feature set. However, as we will see below, historical, textual, and philosophical analysis leave no plausible candidates for what this unchanged core set of features would be.

The second possibility is that modern yoga derives none of its effectiveness from a tradition of refinement stretching back to ancient India – that its functions are not refinements of those described in ancient yoga texts and philosophies. As a health and wellness regime designed to appeal to middle class, western(ized) practitioners, yoga has perhaps been refined over the last 100 years to help those practitioners with the concerns particular to their lifestyles. But modern yoga does not benefit from any refinement over the thousands of years of yoga’s history, nor is it likely to address the radical transformative agenda described in ancient yoga texts and framed by yogic philosophy. Whether modern yoga is effective, according to this view, is something that can only be determined using current evidence like your own practice and modern medical studies. Yoga’s history of development lends no weight to its effectiveness.

Under the assumptions of the debate, these seem to be the only two options.  There is, however, a third possibility: that without a consistent set of essential features, modern yoga has still developed as an effective ‘technology of freedom’. The all-or-nothing choice between continuity/validity and discontinuity/invalidity is built on assumptions about how a technology must develop if it is to benefit from a tradition of refinement. Observers of the internet’s impact have good reason to question whether developing an effective tool requires a stable purpose, set of features, or organizing authority. We now have vivid examples of how effective technology can be built without fidelity to a central authority or continuity of core features. Because yoga techniques are not just static artifacts like a poem or painting, but tools, they can be used for purposes unintended by their originators. Viewing yoga as a ‘crowdsourced’ effort to address changing needs, discontinuity with tradition is not necessarily a detriment, but can serve as evidence that yoga has effectively adapted to meet the current needs of its users.


"Change Your Mind, Change the World"

I often hear in yoga classes the idea that, by changing one’s reaction to the current situation, the situation might subjectively change from suffering to something more like curiosity or contentment.  Clearly, detachment from the biases and subjectivity of everyday perception and thought is a very healthy thing to cultivate.  But it seems to me that an emphasis on awareness, without a subsequent use of that awareness to make changes, leads to a sort of complacency about the actual material problems facing us.  I have no objection to modern yoga’s presentation as a practice that is compatible with everyday life, including having a job and participating in consumer capitalism.  But the implication that the problems of living today are all subjective ignores the real changes that need to happen.

Anthropologist Marvin Harris has written about the myth that modern life is dominated by a rationalist, objectivist, competitive orientation and that the appropriate response is to subjectively snap out of the dominant ideological narrative.  The problem is not that this narrative isn’t wrong; it’s that the narrative isn’t the cause but the effect of the material organization of society.  The stories in our heads are more than just a distraction from the current moment:  they are also persistent ideological roadblocks to addressing socioeconomic issues.  In other words, the powers that be benefit from you being more content with your given material situation.

“Doctrines that prevent people from understanding the causes of their social existence have great social value.  In a society dominated by inequitable modes of production and exchange, lifestyle studies that obscure and distort the nature of the social system are far more common and more highly valued than the mythological ‘objective’ studies dreaded by the counter-culture.  …

“None of the pathologies of contemporary life can be blamed on an overdose of scientific objectivity concerning the causes of lifestyle phenomena. … And what has scientific objectivity got to do with the infinite itch of consumerism, conspicuous consumption, and conspicuous waste, built-in obsolescence, status hunger, the TV wasteland, and all the other weird driving forces of our competitive capitalist economy?  …By struggling to demystify our ordinary consciousness we shall improve the prospects for peace and economic and political justice.”  (Marvin Harris, Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches.  Random House, 1974:  pp.257-266)

Noticing when we are stuck in our heads, living in an idea of reality instead of on actual perceptions of reality, is immensely useful.  But the fact is that those ideas are not only a product of neutral laziness or even neurosis, but also serve to explain and justify the status quo.  Just “dropping out” of the mainstream way of thinking does not erase the socioeconomic organization that it defends.  The way forward is not to trip out on the fact that there is no real justification for modern middle-class lifestyles.  (And from there, to find some other, exotic, source of meaning…)  By the same token, the way forward in dealing with tight shoulders is not to just bask in observing their tightness.  Sticky situations are more difficult precisely because they require vigilant mindfulness to navigate without making things worse.  But if we want to change the world, awareness is only the first step.


Yoga Adjustments for Pregnant Practitioners, with Bec Conant

As a yoga teacher without much experience with pregnancy, I had some hesitation about advising pregnant practitioners.  I had heard various vague, sometimes conflicting, rules about what poses to avoid.  To be sure pregnant practitioners were safe in my class, I would have to stop them from doing most poses.  I felt that it would not be fair to let my ignorance or nervousness stifle their practice.

Bec Conant‘s workshop, Yoga Adjustments for Pregnant Practitioners, covered what I need to know in order to be confident that my instructions are safe.  First and foremost, Bec dispelled many of the myths about what is appropriate for pregnant practitioners by going into the physiology of pregnancy and childbirth.  Yoga can also prepare for the effort and relaxation required in childbirth.  Having a positive mindset about the benefits of yoga during pregnancy — with facts to back it up — allows me to provide support rather than just worrying about safety.

We covered the anatomical demands and effects of pregnancy, common physical experiences and how to adjust for them, and key points for safety and comfort.  We watched videos and discussed empowered, yoga-informed pregnancy.  Finally, we strapped on fake bellies and Bec led us in a prenatal yoga class.  I was surprised to find myself strongly imagining the experience of pregnancy from the perspective of yoga.  While this is no substitute for actually practicing yoga while pregnant, I feel that Bec provided the information I need to accommodate the experiences of pregnant practitioners in my classes.  I would recommend this workshop to any teacher who is not yet comfortable and well-informed about supporting practitioners during pregnancy.


Don't Neglect Your Upper Back

In yoga there is a lot of focus on heart opening, which usually means expanding the upper chest.  This is critical for back bending, in which the easy bend comes from the low back and the challenge is to spread the curve evenly along the spine.  Heart opening also relates to emotional gripping — it’s common to tighten the chest in response to stress or anxiety.  As a result of spending so much effort on opening the front of the upper torso, sometimes the back side of that same region of the spine is compromised and forgotten.

For a lot of us, opening the chest means puffing out the pectorals, rolling the shoulders back, and squeezing the shoulder blades together, like a soldier.  To the contrary, a full opening of the chest has to include softness around the armpits and space for the side ribs, which means that the shoulders get wider and not just driven back.  In child’s pose, sense the breath moving into the back, spreading the shoulder blades and allowing the backs of the armpits to both spread and lengthen toward the crown of the head.

Next, try a more subtle feeling of opening in the upper back.  Stand in tadasana, cross your arms and hold opposite elbows, and allow the forearms to rest fully on the front ribs or solar plexus.  Allow the hands to draw the elbows toward each other as the armpits spread.  Inhale more space between the shoulder blades.  See if you can still lift the sternum here.  The key point is that the opening in the front and back of the chest, while opposite in direction, can coexist.

In fact, when you think about lengthening the spine, or anything else for that matter, you only find the full length when both sides are long — otherwise you’re just bending.  While of course opening the chest maximally is inconsistent with opening the upper back maximally, see if these two movements can support each other like the two sides of an arch.  Taking the fight out of opposition is one of the most joyful reliefs life offers!


Tight Wrists

Do your wrists hurt during or after handstand, bakasana, other arm balances, or even chaturanga dandasana? Tightness in the wrists and forearms is a common cause of pain and injury to the hand and wrist, and it also leads to alignment problems cascading up the arms to the shoulders and back. When the arches of the hands collapse, weight goes into the joint. Proper alignment, working the arches of the hands, and doing some direct wrist openers will go a long way to preventing injury and making your wrists happier!