The Sublime Uselessness of Old-School Asana

“Art is useless because its aim is simply to create a mood. It is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way. It is superbly sterile, and the note of its pleasure is sterility. If the contemplation of a work of art is followed by activity of any kind, the work is either of a very second-rate order, or the spectator has failed to realise the complete artistic impression.” – Oscar Wilde, letter to young artist

“What’s the difference between the ‘functional mover’ and the productive citizen?”Theodora Wildcroft, via Skype

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In this highly polished Iyengar tutorial, the instructor is obviously hyperextending her knees. She leans back, exquisitely, into her ligaments. She rests there for an appropriately penitential interval. Distended and refreshed, she eases out. The students follow suit.

I came across it in a post to the Yoga and Movement Research Community group on Facebook. Commenters with basic biomechanics knowledge asserted that this exercise does not convey functional, healthy, sustainable movement. They pointed out the cumulative danger of distending the back chain of fascia from the soles of the feet on up, and worried about loaded flexion on the spine.

It all seems strange, given that the teaching comes through a brand that positions itself as “therapeutic”.

Let’s just suppose the exercise doesn’t offer verifiably healthy movement beyond the anecdotal. What does it offer? Why do so many people love it? Why will Iyengar people continue to teach and practice it – just like they will keep teaching cervical-load-bearing headstand – over the objections of physiotherapists and kinesiologists? Could it be that they are working with a different understanding of “therapy”?

If we don’t ask these questions, we’ll get bogged down in accusations that unsound movements, defined as such by a specialized few, can’t fulfill the aims of yoga. Whose aims, exactly? And what meaning of yoga? Would the hatha yogis of old be geeking out in Katy Bowman workshops? Would Krishnamacharya be emailing Jules Mitchell for privates?

Nah. Try asking a sadhu standing on his head surrounded by a ring of fire whether he’s into “nutritious” or “functional” movement.

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Many people complain about the degeneration of “traditional”, “classical” or “authentic” yoga in the global era into asana-fixation. They come at it from a number of angles. They worry that the other limbs have been lost in a mirage of bodily concern, that no one knows how to find and serve a guru, that Sanskrit is fading from view, that of the few who know what moksha means, only a fraction commit to it as a goal. These are all worthy points.

But perhaps the greatest shift embodied by the asana-fication of yoga is that which allowed the early modern Indian yogis to evangelize it so effectively to fellow citizens and then beyond. In the 1930s, anticolonial reformers seized upon asana as an indigenous resource for wellness, going on little but myths of the mystical longevity of ancient yogis. Over time, their movement backgrounded discussions of moksha to repurpose an esoteric and socially outcaste artform as a commodity and performance of public health. It sold like hotcakes.

They did this without the benefit of evidence-based medicine, so it’s no surprise that the biomechanics and physiological assumptions might be off, or in some cases downright dangerous.

We don’t know that much about what pre-medieval usages of physical yoga looked like. In the Gita it might have overlapped with martial arts. In the Sutras it positioned the yogi for meditation. Medieval versions are much closer and easier to study – still extant in the roaming sampradayas being researched by the daring scholars of the Hatha Yoga Project at SOAS. We do know enough to say that these are practiced in the context of renunciation. They are performed by people that hold themselves apart from industry and raising children – people who make themselves artfully “useless”, and “superbly sterile”, to use Wilde’s terms.

Bottom line: the 20th century pasted the mandate of social and political utility onto bodily movements once intended to be useful only on their own terms. What had previously been used to simply “create a mood” was now purported to nurture the good citizen. Something beautifully useless was co-opted into the stream of production.

If you’re my age and North American, you might remember seeing this modernization cycle play out in microcosm in the mid-nineties. The first Ashtanga flyers I ever saw in Toronto were stapled on utility poles on the dirty streets of Parkdale beside posters for punk bands and fetish balls. It was a natural mode of marketing for the yogis in question, many of whom were reaching out of the wasteland of clubs and drugs. Their pix fit right in. They were twisted into postures that looked as pained and doleful as the punk-goth fusion taking over the streets.

But the messaging said something that punk-goth didn’t. This is good for you. This is healthy. It may have looked weird, but unlike the fetish ball, it would cathartically lead you back to normalcy, to enlightened functionality. It was an art that promised scientific progress and moral virtue.

And here we are. Mainstream postural yoga is now a staple activity in the neoliberal project of enlightened consumerism. A way to find balance within the chaos of technocapitalism – not resist it. A way to make the body receptive amidst concrete and steel. A kind of spiritual parkour. People don’t do yoga to drop out, but to fit in. Both the gritty urban studio and body of the grungy renunciate have been gentrified. The studio avoids closure by renovating to spa standards and offering wine tastings. Ex-punks are running tech companies, and they offer yoga breaks at lunch to enhance productivity.

Where can yoga still resist the illusory tide of upward mobility, including nouveau-riche aspirations for always-better, always-more refined health?

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Before we junk the video as “unhealthy”, let’s try to understand the territory it might be exploring at the threshold between health and spirituality – the territory where modern yoga thrives.

Iyengar people will position the knee-torturing exercise of the video within a whole series of related tasks purported to “wake up” the body and imbue unknown parts — like the backs of the knees in this case — with “intelligence”, which is synonymous with “health”, via intense sensation. The teacher first says that the purpose of the posture is to subject the calf to an intense stretch. The implication is that this produces wellness. All calves need to be intensely stretched, right? But later, she says that if you feel that stretch, “you know you have a calf”. She makes wellness synonymous with awareness.

I’ve heard the same statement from a dozen such teachers. I heard it from Lindsey Clennell about the opening scene in the trailer for his upcoming homage film, “Sadhaka”. Iyengar is shown toiling over his granddaughter’s legs with straps and pieces of dowel. I asked Clennell what the guru was correcting or improving for her. How the manipulations are improving the health of her legs.

The filmmaker and devotee rejected the notion that Iyengar was correcting her. “Really what he’s doing with Abijhata is probably teaching her that she has got legs.”

(As if she doesn’t know. As if her own understanding of her legs is deficient. As if her legs would become real because her grandfather sees and disciplines them.)

Iyengar ideology is saying that until you feel the quickening strangeness of new stress in a particular region, that region is asleep. Its postural syllabus is comprehensive in the attempt to apply new stresses to every sinew. The teacher examines the student’s body for stress-free zones, and lets nothing remain asleep. The premise is that if any part of your body disappears to your awareness, you are forfeiting divine potential.

This thinking may help a ton of people who experience disembodiment all the way up to dissociation. But the body also disappears from awareness when it is doing its work perfectly well. What if my calf is absent from my executive mind because it is holding and carrying me with ease? Why would I have to seek it out, prod it, distend it? What kind of conversation do I need to have with myself? How intrusive need I be?

I can attest to these “awakening” effects from my experience of Iyengar. I did wake up to unknown parts of myself, usually along the lines of the back body. Some teachers said that “opening” the back body afforded greater access to the unconscious. I wanted that, and so I kept working until I got looser and looser in my back body, until finally I was in constant pain, which only went away when I tightened up my back chain in the gym.

There were moments of that pain, however, that prompted deep consideration about the nature of my body, its purpose, and existence itself. I wonder if there are some like me who were reluctant to give up the physical dysfunction of asana because they were unconsciously squeezing contemplation out of it.

When I was practicing, I didn’t consider the long-term effects of joint laxity via hyperextension. Hadn’t even heard the word, “hyperextension”. My assumption was that the sensation of coming to my end-range of motion, and pressing further, and waiting there, and tolerating it by down-regulating my response to it, and feeling the sunburn of it go numb — was healing. I was making an unconscious trade-off between normal mobility and a sensation that would take me beyond myself.

Maybe Iyengar made that trade-off as well. I just interviewed someone who told me that as early as 1994 (a full twenty years before he died) the guru could hardly climb stairs because his knees were in such pain. My source said he would make sure he entered the Pune yogashala last, after everyone was inside, so that students wouldn’t see him struggling up the stairs. They said in the early 2000s, he often had his knees bandaged.

Injury is isolating. It can send you deep inside and make you seem useless to yourself and others. Pain can be a doorway into pratyahara, if it shuts down every other input. As Elaine Scarry shows, it destroys cognition and language. It is a mechanism of anti-sociality. It cannot really be shared. It is the ultimate private experience. In the midst of the roaring city, or the tumult of a famous career, pain can put the body on a silent mountaintop.

Can nutritious movement offer the same thing?

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Does Iyengar yoga, or any yoga, make people any healthier than any other activity? The science to which it so often appeals may never tell us. We’ll ever establish the utility of yoga in the same way we measure the effectiveness of, say, antibiotics. Our ideas about it will always be gut ideas. It will impact us as art does, in ways very difficult to describe.

But we could try.

We could, inspired by Wilde, set these questions of progress aside to ask: What kind of mood does this video convey?

My highly subjective answer is that it evokes a mood of parental orderliness and care, somatized through discipline and stress.

Notice how satisfying it seems for the teacher to roll that mat up, perfectly. Then, the symmetry of the blocks, mirrored outwards in the alignment of mats, ropes, and of course the bodies of students, who, though all shaped differently, are homogenized by this geometrical impulse.

I had one teacher who was so horny about folding blankets they would talk about running a blanket-folding weekend immersion that everyone would have to come to before going on. We laughed and got into it as well. It was like learning how to tie a really neat tie, or earning a brownie badge for your bed-making hospital corners. It was about tidiness more than about support, or finding where the two of these merged in a regression to grade school life.

I remember how all the prop-play scratched a deep itch of groundlessness and the need to contain something. When I practiced this stuff I also had the feeling of over-cleaning, of working away a stain that threatened to darken as I rubbed. The tricky part was deciding to be satisfied when I stopped.

So it was revelatory to go to Uma Dinsmore-Tuli‘s little studio in Stroud to do yoga nidra, and see the blankets and sheepskins scattered higgledy piggledy on the floor. For her, the prop was something that was lived in. It was the mess, not something against the mess. It made me wonder about just how reactionary the Iyengar technique was for its non-Indian students. Trainloads of hippies showed up in Pune in the 70s. They traded weed for cucumber water and doffed their dungarees for the uniform shorts and t-shirts they would have worn in 1950s gym classes. They took drill-sargeant orders and folded those blankets perfectly.

In a gentler translation of Iyengar’s own monitoring, the teacher in the video checks in with everyone, constantly. She singles out the men especially, asking about their homework as if they were schoolboys. Part of the mood here is knowing you’re always being watched. Can you obey the instructions? How long can you hold that hyperextension? Can you transform a stress position into a surrender position? What do you feel as the backs of your knees loosen? What sensory combination of relief and love awaits you as you rise back up out of the hurts-so-good pose?

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Modern postural yoga is such a strange beast. It offers contemporary visions of wellness through medieval tools and rationales. It aspires to be scientific, but practitioners know its effects can’t be measured in any clinic.

Like art, it thrives on contrast and expresses paradox. Like how the quest to gain personal agency might come through devotion to precise instructions. Like how through the wish to make yourself healthy, you might discover a hidden drive to discipline yourself, punish yourself, or make yourself useless.

The old modernizers of yoga did something truly extraordinary. They promised progressive health, public health. They offered civic hope and bodily utility. Kuvalyananda invited Nehru to his lab to examine the fine young lads he was hooking up to his breathing machines. Sivananda proclaimed “Health is wealth, Peace of mind is happiness, Yoga shows the way.”

But through a mixture of biomechanical naivete and the vestiges of older yoga metaphysics, they managed to conceal within their sunny promise the booby-trap of yoga’s self-inquiry, which, as Peter Blackaby says, is not exercise, but a process of exploration without a definable goal. And how can you market that?

I’ll end here with a queer appeal to “tradition”. As the biomechanics and functional movement people plow towards perfecting the therapeutic promise of modern yoga, I hope the useless things they’re challenging don’t disappear entirely. But I also hope knee torture and stretching-fetish are transparently lauded for their useless artfulness by the Iyengar people and others who teach and practice them.

If we’re clear about their risks, perhaps we can really appreciate strange asanas for how they help us navigate the problems of existence through the tender body, how they produce nonsensical moods for contemplation, how they make us question the uses of everything, right down to the bone.

8 Comments

  • I could not agree more, Matthew. My practice of the last 5 years (informed by intermittent chronic pain after more than 25 years of Iyengar practice – and predisposition to pain due to recently diagnosed arthritis throughout my spine and hips) has been all about the exploration of existence through movement and discomfort/pain. Somehow we’ve been taught that awareness and pain are concomitant – which they are, I suppose, if pain-creation is embedded in the practice.

  • Great article and dig your podcasts. I am a certified Iyengar Yoga teacher though not a senior one. I went through the system for the integrity of their assessment process. Looking at this I can’t understand why you would do this. For what reason this would ever be okay to do and even if it is in a sequence where it would be that this would be acceptable. Thats where I went. Why? Why would she do this? Was she doing something with the knees that this would be the counterpose? But even there, I can’t justify hyperextension of the knees. I just can’t. But what do I know, I am still teaching vinyasa to music and am not teaching Iyengar classes. 🙂

  • Really appreciate the clarity of your analysis. It has been an interesting four years for me, extracting myself from 10+ years of progress through the ranks of Iyengar certification. What an amazing gift that was – which I so appreciate. But now, like the Chinese story of the frog in the well, it’s great to realize there is so much outside the confines of that rich Pune wellspring. Lets hope that yoga teachers continue to grow with the influences of Katy Bowman, Jules Mitchell and Todd Hargrove rather than hark back to a mythical perfect past of a 1930s India, driven by its nationalist agenda for independence.

  • Thanks for writing this. It seems to me that there are many popular systems of movement where individuals get hurt. When such a system is popular, the voice of one who doesn’t ‘succeed’ gets submerged. They often slink away in shame or try harder to do it right. I think this has happened to many within the Iyengar system and for years their voices were not heard or listened to. Thanks for providing a forum where these claims receive validation without throwing away the whole experience of the method.

  • Love the broadening of this conversation. But: Wilde is dissimulating. He’s trying to convince other artists to make something other than their ‘message’ (usually their metaphysics or ethics) the center of their artistic efforts. He’s right to do that, for the good of fiction, because usually stories that start with a worldview or an ethical precept fall flat–their characters and events cannot create the mood in the reader that Wilde thinks is most important. But it’s pretense–or at least exaggeration–to say that nothing other than the mood should be created. So many other things–ways of telling how the world is and what we should do in it–are generated from a great story. (I’m guessing–I’m no Wilde scholar–that he just doesn’t think a beginning writer should be trying to focus on doing all those things at once.)

    So, too, in the teaching and practice of yoga. If we did focus on nothing but the biomechanics, classes might feel dry and, indeed, mechanical. If we focus only on the mood, of course, then lots of people will feel more physical pain in the long term and in maybe even in the short term.

    We can simultaneously create a mood, foster relationships with others, develop awarenesses of sleepier parts within our own bodies, and so on…it’s just hard to balance those elements, as I imagine it’s hard to balance character, plot, theme, and so on in a story. It’s super-hard because your ‘readers’ are right there and they influence what you think is most important on any given day: biomechanical safety or a steady breath or building bone density or just lightening up a bit because it’s freaking heavy out there (and inside here). I can’t believe I ever try to do it, it’s so complicated.

    And like writers’ words, teachers’ words will be interpreted in ways they don’t mean to–for good and for bad. We can only learn from those miscommunications and false starts and redouble our efforts to be clear. We have to allow for that (apparent) gap between us and others that both enables and obstructs communication. This is part of not becoming discouraged by what happens to yoga (and everything) in late capitalism. Despite authoritarian personalities, despite our tendencies to seek answers from systems, despite the monetization of every little blessed task that might have once been an opportunity to serve one’s neighbors. Despite it all, there’s something there in the doing of yoga that works for me, that has eased my tiny, infinitesimal piece of the suffering we all experience, and I hope to pass what works along to someone else.

    • Also: You most certainly can market “a process of exploration without a definable goal,” but only to the classes with leisure time.

      We might explore the parallels between what has happened to yoga and what has happened to talk therapy (from daily psychoanalysis for years, with no ‘cure’ in sight, to cognitive behavioral therapy, restricted to 12 or 20 sessions with homework and assessments and a strict timeline of progress). Class systems have a lot to do with who can indulge in a long-term useless project. Democratization of yoga may necessitate its ‘usefulness’ for people even to make time for it, when we need three part-time jobs to keep our kids fed and housed.

      Though both yoga and talk therapy might have clearly defined objectives or ‘uses’ at their start, they both may still take a trajectory that is unexpected, veering into ‘useless’ territory in either one way (‘this doesn’t work for my original intentions, so I’ll quit’) or another (‘this doesn’t work for my original intentions–or it works too well and look at all this other stuff happening!–but I’ll keep doing it even though I don’t know now what will happen or where it’s going’).

      We might even realize at some point that once we realize the practice is useless, truly pointless, we are actually ‘getting more out of it’.

      And then we’re face-to-face with our own self-deception–we hadn’t really accepted the uselessness of the practice at all. We’re still monitoring what we get from it. Start over.

      Thanks again for taking this discussion into a bigger arena so we can see the good, the bad, and the ugly. It gets me all riled up, but in a good way.

  • I’m afraid I’m not an intellectual, and my yogic journey has been far more visceral, profound and infinite than any “intellectualising” I am capable of would do credit to.

    However Mathew’s musings on the subject are extremely interesting and full of very poignant observations which need to be discussed and come to terms with, especially as this area is so full of charlatans.

    I think that the highlighted video of a senior Iyengar Teacher who hyper-extends her legs, is unfortunate and even possibly representative. However taken in context, if you look at the students, they are probably people who go to class once or twice a week and are all pretty stiff, the chances of serious injury with this level of practice or even get close to “opening up” their legs like the teacher are minimal.

    So basically, they go to class, gain a bit of flexibility, learn a bit about their bodies, probably sleep better, get rid of their aches and pains, constipation or whatever and possibly develop an interest for self study, and philosophy… It’s all good. They look like a bunch of “normal” people who understand the teacher student dynamics within the class and are willing to put up with once a week because it does them good.

    I mean “normal” in the best possible way, people who “have a life” a family, friends, are content with their jobs and have interests in things outside the tiny “Yoga World”

    However, as Mathew has highlighted in his work and as I can attest in my 30 year yogic journey, the problems start with over-charismatic teachers on a power trip and over zealous (read gullible) students.

    I am an artist, and have always thought of Oscar Wilde’s work as a “bluff,” thankfully, I don’t know anyone who could stand in front of the great early Flemish masters, Patinir for example, or, experience first hand, say, works by Velazquez or Goya or stand before Picasso’s “Gurnica” and be unmoved, and to say that experience would be useless…

    Anyway, as such, I have many passionate artist friends and once during a particularly memorable dinner I once asked a friend who has always spurned yoga:

    “Why don’t you try Yoga”

    His answer was:

    “People who do Yoga are uncontent with who they are, they are lacking something and have to look for themselves elsewhere”

    So, if you have a “lost” type of person hook up with and power freak teacher you have the recipe for physical and psychological disaster. Perhaps this should understood in context, I think is was Robert Anton Wilson who wrote: “A devotee is a piece of sh•t looking for an ass••le to cling onto…” Should a student not gauge the teacher in the same way a teacher gages the student, or are unbalanced relationships made by unbalanced people the norm?

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