WAWADIA Update #22: The Prescriptive Kinesiognomy of Modern Postural Yoga

WAWADIA Update #22: The Prescriptive Kinesiognomy of Modern Postural Yoga

 

 

The IGG campaign to support this coming book is galloping to its conclusion. (Four days left, 3K to go!) Thank you to every contributor so far, and to everyone who’s spread the word. Thank you especially to my crack editorial/promotional team: Jason Hirsch, Carol Horton, Roseanne Harvey, Laura Shaw, and Alix Bemrose.

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Oh chosen one, oh frozen one / Oh tangle of matter and ghost. 

— Leonard Cohen, “The Window”

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I’m about to take some time off from the post-pushing phase of #WAWADIA to plunge into a few corners of quieter research. One of them will be this:

A crucial but mostly-unacknowledged premise that roots the tree of modern postural yoga is the principle of prescriptive kinesiognomy.

Of course, if I make up a term, I have to define it. “Kinesiognomy” would be: The practice of assessing a person’s character from the appearance of their movement. MPY makes this practice prescriptive insofar as it suggests postural and movement solutions for insufficiencies of character. Anxiety, depression and poor self-esteem are presumed to be remedied by altering the architecture and flow of physical poise. Freshly sculpted poise is taken as evidence of moral and emotional change.

I believe that analyzing this premise is crucial to the discussion of why – beyond practicing with poor instruction in biomechanics or receiving harsh adjustments – some people injure themselves in asana. It’s not enough to understand that practitioners can drive towards postures and movements that are constitutionally inappropriate for them. It’s not enough to understand that some are influenced by the charisma of teachers who are actually elite athletes affecting the public personae of therapists without appropriate training. It’s not enough to understand that many hounded by an advertising discourse that relies on as much or more manipulative female bodily objectification as any other industry. Intense drive on the mat is not only provoked by dreams of physical prowess or idealized visions of beauty or sexuality. Driven yogis are also breaking themselves against the physical premise of psychological virtue.

It’s been a common theme in the interviews I’ve conducted so far, but I’ll illustrate with a personal example. Ten years ago, I greatly admired my teacher’s ability to slide into Hanumanasana without warming up. We never talked deeply about the philosophy or psychology of the pose, but we didn’t need to. I unconsciously correlated his psychological openness and emotional intelligence to his postural mobility. So I began to pursue this posture and others like it with conviction, feeling that if I could be that “open” in the pelvis, I would have a renewed inner self. This feeling kept me working at the posture long after it began to tear up my hamstrings. I felt like my pelvis was a tangle, and that using the pose to loosen that material knot would loosen the etheric knot of my soul. Along the way, I surrendered to the fact that it would be painful.

Did the postural work fulfill the expectation with which I burdened it? Not on the surface. Not according to the implicit claims of the Iyengar-influenced teachers I studied with.

But then again, I’ve often wondered whether meditating on the pain of that posture eventually helped to push me towards psychotherapy, where my knots, which were interpersonal in origin, could actually be loosened on their own terms. I gradually understood that my flesh held and perhaps had shaped itself around psychological meaning, but that forcing a new shape upon the flesh would only twist and complicate that meaning.

 

With kinesiognomy, MPY presents a newish take on an idea as old as the hills. Physiognomy was the practice of assessing character according to physical and especially facial characteristics. It held pride of place within many pre-scientific-method medicines from East to West. In Greece, Aristotle set the stage for Galen’s theory of “temperaments” in the Prior Analytics, 2:27 (trans. A.J. Jenkinson):

It is possible to infer character from features, if it is granted that the body and the soul are changed together by the natural affections.

In India, the earliest strains of Ayurveda related bodily proportions and features to predominances of dhātu (the energy-textures of kapha, pitta, and vata), and then those predominances to psychosocial behaviour and affect. In a crude form, this theory remains in active service in today’s global Ayurveda, played out in countless dosha questionnaires and on the blogs of Ayurvedic hobbyists. It provides a way for selves to be diagnosed with a deterministic “constitution” to which specialized products can be marketed. I analyzed this a bit back in the spring with this post.

Although some researchers – like psychologists Jerome Kagan and Hans Eysenck – have broken new ground in relating personality traits with physiological tendencies, physiognomy in both Eastern and Western forms is now mainly regarded as pseudoscience. Yes: we feel we know things about others based upon their stature, features and movements, but these feelings are rife with cultural biases and cognitive fallacies that strip them of every power but that of poetic speculation. Yes: we encounter differences in others, and these differences mean something. They may even lead to rich therapeutic discourse. But we can never give positive definition to these differences in any clinical way. Those who try are playing at the margins of the fascist eugenics that claims that physique equals destiny.

Pseudoscience or not, the physiognomy of archaic medicine has survived, morphed, and thrived through the prescriptive kinesiognomy of modern postural yoga. Today it is ignorant to the point of absurdity to suggest, for example, that a facial or structural (or racial!) feature of a person is evidence for a particular emotional characteristic. Yet we have no hesitation in correlating all kinds of character traits with the achievement of posture. It just seems to feel right, and MPY alignment strategies capitalize upon this primal intuition.

 

My questions are: Do we even know we’re practicing kinesiognomy? How does it impact our assessments of self and other? What embodied voices and needs do we override in light of this hidden premise?

The roots of the phenomenon make sense. Early MPY figures — Krishnamacharya, Ghosh, Yogendra, and Kuvalyananda, among others — sympathized with the anti-colonialist Indian physical education ideals of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which viewed postural strength as being essential to the reclamation of moral, spiritual, and cultural power in a land yearning for freedom and dignity. (See Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body for more on this.) But today, kinesiognomy has reached far beyond this early revolutionary thrust.

Beyond its obvious display on the magazine stands, the elision between form and virtue is now pervasive in most globalized branches of MPY, with the possible exceptions of the Sivananda brand. It’s as prominent on the vinyasa side of things — represented by the teachings of Jois and his students — as it is on the alignment side, held by the legacy of B.K.S. Iyengar. Brad Ramsey, senior student of Jois, says (in Stern and Donahaye, 2012): “The series is just a mold toward a body that meets the requirements for spiritual advancement, I believe.” Iyengar says, while demonstrating a ramrod Tadasana (time cue 5:08 in this video): “All of these practices make us into a true human being, because we are still not fit for the divine level.” Beyond the hallowed halls of Mysore and Pune, this attitude lurks in every studio where the air is thick with the teacher’s adjusting gaze, where at times it feels that you are there to be corrected more than you’re there to explore your uniqueness, or to simply play.

To see how this premise has been furthered refined while being stripped of overt religious content, consider the marketing of David Regelin, which is taking the form = equals virtue meme to new and dizzying heights. For Regelin, virtue and posture combine at the horizon of geometrical abstraction. A few months ago he released this promotional video for his alignment-based method, which he calls “Vesica”. The video is called the “Geometry of Yoga.”

Oh boy. There’s so much to say here in terms of culture, aesthetics, and politics.

The boutique-y feel. The incredible wealth of a private lesson taking place in a two thousand square-foot repurposed working-class space that no working-class person can now afford to enter. The predictable assortment of physiques, belonging to (it seems, for this is how it is presented) slightly stiff guys who want to be softer men, and bendy yoga-model women who seem intent on obsessing over their perfections.

Everybody is white. This accentuates one of the most interesting ironies of cultural appropriation in MPY: the majority of folks who are employing the kenesiognomic technique are not using it to rise up out of the cultural humiliation of colonization, but rather to exercise the surplus meaning of privilege.

Everything is impeccably clean, yet somehow not good enough. Every body part is be placed just-so through an endless series of micro-adjustments, addressing flaws undetectable to the uninitiated. The corrections are so subtle, they must be referring to esoteric aims, visible only to some divine eye. The filming gives David this eye. His good looks are exalted to Greek-god levels by his magical finger-wand that traces post-production Euclidean forms over his student’s leggings and feet in a fantasy of symmetrical flesh. The graphics are phallocentric: if circular forms exist, they emerge in perfection from a priori vertical lines.

 

The optics are mesmerizing, but it’s what Regelin says that’s crucial to understanding the zeitgeist of kinesiognomy today:

In any given posture my goal is to help the student find the centre of themselves. and from that centre you create a circumference, and you develop a radius from centre to circumference. This becomes a skill you develop, an imagery that you develop… that you can superimpose over your whole practice.

The body is designed to fit together, and there are certain proportions that can be measured from left to right and from top to bottom…

When you have a basic sense of this design, and you approach all of the postures with this in mind, you’re looking for a good fit in any given posture. You wouldn’t settle for a compromise. Yoga means to join to unite to link to bond things together. Art is the practice of putting things together. The word “vinyasa” means to put together in a special way…

People tend to use one hemisphere of the mind over the other. One hand over the other, ear over the other, one eye over the other. You start to actually use your mind in a different way. You see things differently, you hear things differently you consider yourself differently. And interestingly, people consider you differently. I believe that everyone is reacting to one another’s posture, and you learn to read by reading yourself, by examining yourself. Once you see the relationship between yourself and your own posture, you see it in other people, and I believe that this develops empathy and compassion. (0:44 to 3:51)

And:

Our body’s language is the transcription of our consciousness. So our particular posture is an articulation of our own personal narrative. Yoga offers an archetypal framework, a formal method based on universal ideals. Yoga postures are universal forms, which we as practitioners attempt to join, unite, and bind our personal form with. The role of a teacher is to leave people in a better position with regard to themselves and their surroundings. To guide, tune, and adjust them so they are more stable, well-adjusted, inspired, and insightful.

When a musician has mastery over their instrument, it is a joy to play. Mastery, however, is attained effort precision, skill, grace, and inspired, intelligent practice. Yoga is an art, a science, a discipline, a path to self-knowledge, a means by which someone can reform and ultimately transform themselves.

How one fits one’s body together with one’s mind: this is what it means to be ‘well-adjusted’. (4:29 to 5:33)

Here are the ideas, paraphrased:

  1. The “centre” of the body is correlated to the “centre” of the self. An asana teacher finds this centre and extends the student’s self, through the body, from that centre, and encourages them to overlay their bodies with the fantasy of perfected forms. Until one does this, one’s not fully alive.
  2. The body has a design, or is a designed object. If you learn this design you will be more able to exercise the artistry of yoga, I mean the science of yoga, which we can see inthese artsy-sciency  diagrams. If you are aware of the design, you will understand and value symmetry, and your world will change. It will begin to appear well-designed. So will you. People will know your truer self by how you hold yourself and how you move.
  3. Postures are universal ideals, Platonic Forms, to which the disciplined student moulds her own body. This process reveals personhood. The change happens through a discourse of mastery. Teachers adjust students towards revelation.

Is this what we believe? At what cost to the variability and eccentricity of the body? To what extent can we really know ourselves and each other through our shapes?

 

No one would never deny that general mobility or stability-improving movements, along with easy breathing, have substantial and immediate impacts upon one’s moment-to-moment psychology. No one would deny that these simple changes can have a cumulative effect upon emotional resilience. Countless practitioners feel the enormous benefit of standing a little taller, or being able to roll their arms just a little more outwards to relieve shoulder and neck tension. There are limitless movements — gentle and strong, balancing and asymmetrical, assertive and receptive — that obviously release stress, impart confidence and ease, and seem to naturally if fleetingly create the contemplative state that asana is supposed to invite. Some people benefit from a lot of formal guidance in exploring these movements, while others need less. Still others — including most of Krishnamacharya’s legacy students — seem to figure them these movements on their own, or make them up.

So much to ponder as the interviews continue.

How much farther are we going to push the importance of postural finesse? Is the level of prescriptive kinesiognomy expressed by Regelin the natural outcome of a market-saturated physicalist culture that cannot be satisfied with asana as preparation for contemplation, or simply an adjunct to a functional life? Are we watching MPY paint itself into a highly artful corner? How much stress is involved in the micromanagement of posture? Where else could postural concern and refinement progress after this video, this aesthetic?

The kinesiognomy of MPY projects a silent but grandiose claim: that form is a key to unlocking the value of the person. John Friend called it “finding the optimal blueprint”, by which the person can be bootstrapped into a higher realm. The blueprint may be a paradox of uniqueness and universality, but — glory be! — the teacher can see it clearly, a shimmering destiny, and they can encourage the student’s body to build it. But perhaps more importantly — to hold it, so that it expresses an embodied teleology towards enlightenment. The reformed body that remembers its progress is on the path.

And what happens with improvements that are held? Can we stiffen into improvements we believe must continually reflect the permanence of ideal forms? Is the internalized monologue of a thousand postural tweaks the MPY superego — sculpting and moulding, whining and harping, convinced of its pious mission, even when the body complains or simply wants to dance?

 

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27 Comments

  1. Well there are two perspectives to this whole “ideal form” phenomena: one is that the form is “imposed” on the body from an external ideal—which we understandably rail against when it is put so directly. The other is that practice REVEALS the INDIVIDUAL’s “ideal form”—that is, not somebody else’s form, not somebody else’s trikonasana, but the individual’s BEST trikonasana.

    I think of both asana practice and teaching as being like a gem-cutter: The gem cutter must study the rough gem—its weaknesses, its purities and impurities, the places where it is soft, and the place where it is dense, the characteristics unique to that family of gemstones, and the anomalies that particular specimen exhibits.

    From there, if the gem-cutter attempts to shape the gem into a prescribed, ideal form set for “all rubies” or “all diamonds” (read: “all trikonasanas,” or “all vatas”) then at best the resultant gem will be true-to-form, but will lack lustre. Literally. At worst, the gem-cutter will completely destroy the gem to dust and perhaps a few smaller, but recoverable pieces. This is the problem with prescriptive physiognomy.

    If, however, the gem-cutter—after studying the gem at hand (here, gem can be read interchangeably as both asana or practitioner, since they are inexorably interrelated)—uses that information combined with his/her experience, knowledge, and expertise to reveal the inherent beauty that already exists within the rough gem, then the stone will shine and it will be resilient to both the cutting/polishing process, and any further processing down the road.

    In other words, the “ideal” is individual and internal, and so the “goal” (if there is one at all) of Modern Postural Yoga is, or should be, revealing each person’s individual best through the expression of asana, not imposing asana on an individual to create some abstract ideal person. The problem, in my opinion, is not the concept of an ideal (even if that ideal may never be actualized) but instead is the direction in which that ideal concept is applied.

    • Wow! Very, very close; but, imho, no cigar!

      You get it totally from “If, however, the gem-cutter–after studying the gem at hand (here, gem can be read interchangeably as both asana or practitioner, since they are inexorably interrelated)–uses that information […] revealing each person’s individual best through the expression of asana, not imposing asana on an individual to create some abstract ideal person.

      You really should have stopped right there. It would have been perfect!

      But mbdy, you went right ahead and continued that there is a problem with that. That the problem represents to all (edge-pushing) schools of yoga and presents an “opportunity” for the opportunistic yoga instructors not to honor and respect that there is a middle-path in life, and that the gem is all right just as it is!

      If the gem wants to (see, the gem is a living organism with a will of its own), it can be led.

      If not, let the gem be.

  2. Matthew, that’s a bullseye! This fake culture, which is an obstacle to the aims of Yoga in fact, needs to be exposed.

    When I was teaching classes, I would ask people to remember that people who are immobile are just as fit for illumination as bendy ones. According to this posture-virtue pseudo connection a person who is limited to a wheelchair could not access this specialness… however, what it is, is the seeking of perfection over balance. This is where Ayurveda is a ground study for Yoga. Very much looking forward to your further reports and the book… best of luck.

  3. David Regelin

    This was filmed in Ulm Germany in an old Tai Kwon Do space that was being converted into a yoga studio. The models were women and men from a training I had just taught, and one persons stepfather. Everyone was “working class”.Yes it would have been nice to have more of a variety of shape and color but I only found white people in Ulm :). We had limited time and I had a limited budget.
    The adjustments are meant to be felt foremost by the practitioner, they come to their own conclusions. Nobody is encouraged to obsess about any of it, there is no body shaming, no suggestion of perfection, no claim that any type of body is superior. What the student takes away is that many small details add up to a whole posture, and that the body helps access
    the mind and vice versa.
    No one is encouraged to have the straight limbs if iyengar: quite the opposite. No one is pushed into a posture in spite of pain. I teach ways of modifying ones asanas as a means to living in a functional body.

    Are there not any dancy flow vinyasa classes for you to take in your area remski?

    Ps: I get what you don’t teach, it’s hard to pin down what you do teach.
    And why not reach out to me directly and ask me what I intended here?

    • Hi David — Thanks for filling in some details. I did have the feeling that the production may have been overly seduced by its concept, and may not represent what actually happens in the training. But I stand by the analysis of the video as a cultural artifact. My assumption was that you intended what you produced. So if it differs from your actual presentation, that might be something to look at. You can’t use super-talented models and Euclidean imagery in the optics and then say in the captions that there’s “no suggestion of perfection”. It doesn’t compute.

      What the student takes away is that many small details add up to a whole posture, and that the body helps access
      the mind and vice versa.

      This is a lot more plain-spoken than the script in the video, for example.

      As for what I teach in asana now — I’m not so sure anymore. I’m on hiatus except for restorative classes while I write this book, which is continually showing me how little I know.

    • Jamie

      David – Matthew’s critique of your video is right on the mark. Never once in the incredibly abstract script do you refer to the personal situation of the bodies you are forcing into “symmetrical” shapes. So why do you expect us to intuit your 1) [actually pretty privileged] excuse for creating a video full of white people or 2) what you “intended” here? If you intended something so easily articulated in this comment, why weren’t you clear in your presentation about it?

      • David

        At which moment do u see forcing?
        Every participant was happy to take part. The adjustments were given with minimal effort.
        It says more about you than the video that you see perfection. The students and I know there is no such thing. With regard to Mathews inquiry into yoga injury, how many of the interviewees were injured from being to centered?
        I feel no need to make any excuse for using white people. Let’s find out how many people who read this blog are other than white.
        I’m not sure if you or Remski intend to come of as smug or judgmental but you do.
        Priveledged yes, like you I am priveleged.

        • Thanks David. Many injuries sustained by long-term, dedicated practitioners who have been at it for longer than you occur even as they pay close attention to alignment and centring and symmetry. The problem is that there is a growing body of evidence that symmetry — especially geometrical symmetry — is not as helpful in biomechanics as the Iyengar-inspired yogis would have us believe. See the work of Jules Mitchell and Michaelle Edwards for a start.

          If you want to engage this critique, you really have to address the obvious problem of imposing — or visually suggesting that one should impose — abstract geometrical patterns upon the human body. They are images of theoretical perfection: you can’t deny it. The question is: how does this conceptualization effect the bodies of those who practice with it, or view it?

          There’s nothing smug here. Judgmental — yes, but it’s not about you as a person. I don’t know you. I’m challenging the obvious content of your marketing. I’d love to hear what you have to say about it.

          • David

            With regard to the method: The geometry is a visualization tool first and foremost. There are no straight lines in nature, human body included, I make this clear when I teach.
            I am known for discouraging my students to lock their limbs and otherwise flatten their natural curves.
            I do however teach centering techniques. I’ve watched students I. Advanced iyengar classes hold headstands off centered on their head to one side or almost on their forehead. They might even wince on one side of their face as they do it.
            I see vinyasa/ ashtanga yogis with chronic wrist/shoulder pain putting the majority of their body weight on one shoulder/wrist for an entire practice of
            Jumping arm balancing etc.
            I see people backbend and fold into one part of there back and build up a thick padding of tissue in another.
            The fact is asanas are effective, they are tools, and one should learn to hit the nail on the head, to fold the creases carefully less they get bent out of shape or crumpled up.

            Yoga attracts (it changing) many eccentric bodies and minds and I count myself among them. Yoga can provide a way to moderate oneself of go forward in the way their natural tendencies are propelling them.
            If it’s working for you, great, use it to your advantage. But if you are introverted and imploding, or extroverted and exploding yoga with boundaries gives you a tool to work with.

            In the same way meditation is not wandering and daydreaming, asana also has boundaries.
            How does one get ones body to go where, for whatever reason, it does not want to go, and not go too far where it tends to end up without yoga. We are talking about organs compressed, nerves damaged, minds scattered, vision turned, not asanas one is not ready or right for, not perfection (are pretty blond women always “perfect”?) not straightened, forced, micromanaged. An impinged nerve is a small thing but it’s a big deal.
            The concept of “ideal” is about whatever is ideal for the individual, whatever is helping to adjust them to their circumstance: their scoliosis, their depression, their anxiety, their aging, their tendency to lean on one hip, drag a foot, wince an eye.
            I accept that the wording might not make sense to someone who has not practiced with me, or even one who has, or even me in a year. But that this is whitewashing yoga because there are blond Germans in the video is nonsense.
            I was subtle on purpose. I guide with my hands, I let the student travel the path with their body and intuition. There is communication and dialogue, not in this video, we went another route.
            I tip my hat to anyone searching for a way to offer an effective and safe practice and a dialogue that is more relevant than motivational speak or patanjali/ guruji says so.
            I think neuroscience and phsycholgy will one day legitimize postural yoga.
            I think it’s far too easy to chase ambulances and pick apart people who are sticking there neck out to share what they hold to be true, without actually offering another way except I quit , or everyone should quit.

          • I’m glad to understand a little bit more of where you are coming from, and I resonate with a lot of what you’re saying, especially about the excesses of many MPY lines, and the projection that neuroscience will have much to say about asana processes.

            If you make it clear that there are no straight lines in nature when you teach, you should probably delete that video, because it’s not working for you. If you appreciate and encourage diversity in your classes, you should probably delete that video.

            It’s not that the wording and imagery of the video doesn’t make sense: it actually contradicts what you’re saying here. Maybe best to trash it.
            “There is communication and dialogue, not in this video, we went another route.” Why? What’s the value of that other route?

            Chasing ambulances? Quitting? Telling other people they should quit? That’s all bullshit, David. I’m not doing any of those things, and if you read carefully you’ll see that. All I’ve done here is to say that you produced a video with problematic imagery. I’m happy that you’ve now confirmed this for your students, present and future.

  4. I stand by the analysis of the video as a cultural artifact. [B]My assumption was that you intended what you produced.[/B] So if it differs from your actual presentation, that might be something to look at. You can’t use super-talented models and Euclidean imagery in the optics and then say in the captions that there’s “no suggestion of perfection”. It doesn’t compute.

    Marketing is the intention here.

    What happens in the actual workshop won’t be the marketing, for sure.

    • Exactly. The marketing, however, has a cultural influence that goes far beyond the workshop space. Which is why I think it should be analyzed in its own right.

  5. Patanjali expressly says to seek comfort, not idealized form. Seeking comfort is what Buddha described as the form of his discovery as well, after all sorts of techniques were tried. He said (in the textual records) that he remembered a state of jhana from when he was a toddler, and this was the entry into jhanas. Comfort, not forced, idealized form.

    Herman Hesse in Siddhartha described the extremely graceful, gently flowing movements of the newly enlightened Buddha’s gait, how he held his hands. Now this is the result of being extremely comfortable. Anxiety, worry, confusion, lack of self-knowledge all amount to being uncomfortable, and these cannot be wished away by mimicking some idealized form/movement.

    Finally, self-development as taught in the Dharmic tradition is what makes for comfort. Its reduction into posture practise has led to the current condition of MYP.

    Buddha’s first of the eight fold path is Samma Dhitti (Right View). He goes on to say so much about this, but hinges it on the mind inventing distorted pictures of reality, in which self becomes placed, where it does not belong, or fit. Then, feelings of unease arise, and an agitated desire to seek, to be found or saved.

    In pointing out Right View, he pointed out many wrong views… among them, theism and materialism. But now, we have what the Dharmas have said, being applied in the Materialistic context, as ‘methodologies’. There is much work ahead…

  6. I agree Pankaj. That quote from Brad Ramsey – “The series is just a mold toward a body that meets the requirements for spiritual advancement, I believe.” – well I have just never heard such a bunch of twaddle in all my life.
    I believe my job as a yoga teacher, or I almost prefer to call myself “movement teacher” these days, is to help people find comfort and ease in whatever body they are coming into class with. The body that has been shaped by their life, genetics, happiness, sadness, fear, joy, how they work, how they play. I love the idea of each of us exploring our uniqueness and how we need to move differently from the person next to us. This really is the work of self awareness. How do we as teachers help people become more aware? How do we help them let go of needing to be a certain way? That is the work that I want to continue to do in my classes.

    • Shelly, the words ‘twaddle’ and ‘self awareness’ are perfectly deployed in your comment. Self awareness begins to deepen from wherever it is when distractions are brought down (perhaps with the help of a yoga teacher) and then eventually reaches wholeness (with the help of a yoga teacher, this can be made enjoyable, rather than paradoxical, destabilizing or frightening). Let us carry on with this work. Pleased to make your acquaintance.

  7. Thanks for another thought-provoking installment. Having been “raised” in an Iyengar-style environment, I can relate to so much of this. In workshops 30 years ago, I followed alignment instructions—most or which were coming at us with dizzying speed—and almost always left feeling more stressed and edgy than when I came. But I learned so much, I would reason.

    Some of the alignment instructions gave me an awareness of continuity and how that feels in my body. Those instructions, I think, were helpful. Others just forced my body into positions that were structurally impossible. My joints are feeling those effects now. But in order to be a “good” yogi—i.e., a student who didn’t get singled out and berated—I did as I was told.

    You are absolutely right that “perfection” in form has been conflated with character. I was made to feel, by many, many teachers, that the fact that my backbends were extremely open meant something about me as a person. It made me superior somehow. And it caused me to continue doing things that weren’t good for my joints far longer and more often than I should have.

    I’ve been working very hard to not instill this into my own students. I tell them all the time that how their pose looks has nothing to do with their character. It always gets a laugh, but I say it with all sincerity.

  8. Jhanna wanna be a yogi?

    David’s video is an expression of what he offers his students, and what he could offer you, should you take classes with him, or a private lesson.

    The video tells about David’s beliefs and ideas about what yoga offers to him, and what he thinks yoga has to offer others (with his ideas in there). Maybe this isn’t clear enough, but I think it is for me.

    I don’t find the practice space in this video is ‘a problem’.

    I think there is too much manipulation of the student, but then that’s what he does.
    It’s how he believes he should be sharing what he has to share.

    The overlay of geometric forms?
    Again, a sharing of what he believes is useful in practicing MPY and ‘linking the body and mind’ (his kind of language).
    ?? Having this overlay is what is taught as a linking tool.
    It’s just a tool, like yoga is a tool.
    — But with that mystical plus-something-else feel….
    Just a tool. But also something special and –beyond– just a tool.
    — In this specialness there may be felt some hubris. I did feel that.

    But so many teachers are ‘guilty’ of the pinch of fairy dust. The feeling that what is being created is a special body and mind. That the practitioner is held in sacred geometry. I always felt the sacred Vedic geometry was more about a cultural and class specific meditation tool…..

    Please do not hover over my perineum.
    — Or I’ll center you with my fist.

  9. A few thoughts:

    I’m a middle aged (58) male Asian-American. I’ve been in several classes and workshops taught by David Regelin and others using a similar model of teaching. I’m definitely not an expert on it and can only offer my own limited view.

    First, although I’ve only been studying/practicing yoga for about 2.5 years, I’ve been in several hundred classes and workshops during that time, taught by numerous local and visiting teachers, and have not noticed many non-white students generally. I don’t think this is a special situation that only occurs in David’s classes/workshops. However, it is common enough that I’m not at all surprised to see yoga videos that mostly (or only) include white people; in fact, I don’t think twice about it usually.

    Also, I personally prefer to practice/study in a clean, bright, open, attractive space and don’t see a problem with a video being filmed in one.

    I was a professional ballet (and modern) dancer and am a longtime martial artist (since 1972; from karate to kali to aikido, taijiquan, and xingyiquan). So, while I’m new to yoga, movement/posture training isn’t new to me.

    I’m well aware of the problems that can be caused by attempting to fit ones body into a ‘Procrustean Bed’ of form (martial arts can be as formal about the shapes one takes as ballet is).

    However, as I understand what David is presenting, he is more stating that alignment is to be found as one understands ones: relationship to gravity, to good bio-mechanics, to anatomical truths. Finding how your body fits together and how that fit relates to how one perceives and acts; this is a crux of the method.

    There is considered to be an ideal form, but that form is related to ones own proportions (how the body fits together) and relating to that ideal form is a personal journey of exploration and decision. This ‘ideal form’ is geometric, but only in relationship to the environment; e.g., an arch is ideal for transferring weight, a pillar is ideal for bearing weight, a triangle is ideally stable, a circle is ideally mobile… We don’t expect our bodies to become literally platonic geometric shapes, but we do work to create the internal geometry that allows healthy, strong, and skillful postures and movements.

    Thank you,

    Douglas Nakamoto

    (P.S.: I do find your blog quite interesting and useful. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and insights.)

    • Thanks for the excellent perspective, Douglas.

  10. adamgrossi

    Prescriptive kinesiognomy seems like a really rich site for you to map, Matthew, and I look forward to reading more.

    When I got to the place in the article where David Regelin’s video is embedded, it seemed like the tone of the piece shifted quite a bit. I wonder if the conversation could have taken place without throwing Regelin under the bus, so to speak. I’m struck by his question, “why not reach out to me directly?” — what if the discussion of the visual spectacle and undertones of his marketing video were presented, at least in part, as a conversation. I know of Regelin only through word of mouth — I know people who’ve taken his class and have said he’s a solid teacher. As you’ve written, “the production may have been overly seduced by its concept” — but when is that not true of a marketing video? The Euclidean geometry post-production is a bit much, but given your intent focus on idealized forms with regard to the subject of this writing, perhaps you’re reading more into them than a majority of viewers would? Maybe I’m too desensitized to silly post-production decisions, and I’m not defending my dull gaze, but. BUT.

    My larger question/concern is about the gulf between critique and practice, the strangely vast distance between yoga scholars / critics and yoga teachers. It seems to be opening up more in the discourse, and I find it frustrating. I want yoga teachers to pay more attention. But I also think the critical work has to be sensitive, if we’re actually interested in improving yoga and not throwing it out. One of the many reasons I enjoy your writing is because you straddle that divide. You write and you teach, and you publicly acknowledge your own personal relationship to yoga practices. My hope is that we can build an effective critical model of yoga pedagogy without alienating those who might be a primary audience for such a model in the first place. I don’t think your piece is smug, but it’s certainly snarky at points. The snark is fun reading, but only if you don’t care about the object of the snark.

    Anyhow, I’m thinking it, so I wrote it.

    Thanks for your continued work,
    Adam

    • Thank you Adam. A dialogue format might have been interesting. I opted for a straight review of the artifact, which is fine according to fair use and the etiquette of basic critical discourse.

      I grew up in part in a literary theory environment with Barthes’ notion that intentionality is constructed a posteriori to the artifact, i.e., authors are unreliable witnesses to their intentions. Any interview would have sidelined the question of “what does the video seem to say” in favour of “what does the author want it to say, now that he’s faced with analysis?” There’s value in both, of course.

      Another thing to consider is that this little post has had 1006 pageviews, while the video has had almost 11,315. This means that the video is already speaking over 10x more loudly than the analysis. The geometry is far more popular than the shadow it casts. So what happens when the analysis is then co-opted into an exploration of the author’s intentionality? It disappears. We live in an overwhelmingly visual culture, running on visual epistemology, quickly losing other forms of literacy. The art of resisting that is not aided by apologizing for or rationalizing what we say and how we say it through a video. The video is already out there, imprinting the audience.

      It’s not fun to weather critique of one’s work and it’s hard to understand the difference between that and ad hominem. But no one is under any bus here. We’re talking about a video and the vision of yoga and the body it generates. There are far more people being influenced and bigger issues at stake than the pride of production or of analysis. If we’re professionals about it, we’ll both avoid committing ad hominem and sniffing it out where it isn’t.

      I do agree with you that the gulf between critic and practitioners is vexing. It splits me up everyday! If anyone needs the yoking of yoga, it would be me.

      Best, Matthew

  11. Thanks for this and I have just tweeted the following after reading your text and comments:

    Be in your #aum #breath and feel what Becoming in nonbreath (of stillness & peacefulness) in #yoga, stay in the spaces of #mpy- too as-ana

    Ah this gets me back to former academic dayz -gaze. I’ve always found MPY ‘scientific’ positivist in its externalized understanding of the world. Much of classic yoga is patriarchal in its obsessive control of the body as the yoga teacher gazes/controls bodies. This obsession with a style or approach to yoga is commercialization and McYoga $pa-ce$ — finding a marketing brand. This is universal in East and West in the business of yoga. I can’t quite remember the reference to Barthes but this structuralist was also positivist in interpretations so I’m not sure why the criticism of the David’s Geometry of Yoga.
    Why chose this as the focus of analysis? I found more videos following the McYOga $pa-ce$ more commercialized, exclusionary, etc. You’re reading of the video-as-text as intention is fine as your personal oeuvre of this re-presentation but to state that spins of as this ‘pseudoscience’ and more (I am glossing here) is a bit much. You need to distinguish which theories are ideographic, nominalistic, etc. and which are nomothetic –.MPY and its predecessors in Pantajali etc are clearly the latter. Hatha and Tantra, may be more ‘feminine’ in its approach, more intuitive ideographic etc.

    Prescriptive kinesiognomy is interesting. You added prescriptive – which is not what the author of Geometry labelled. So you criticize his ‘teaching’ which can be applied most teachers in MPY. SO what’s at play? You don’t invite David to the text, conversation, – you appropriate his example for your text/brand/critique. Why wasn’t he given access to the page to check your interpretation? This is fundamental to ethical ideographic research. The power of the critical hierarchic voice?

    So geometry is the problem -circles and centers – rather than the linearity obsession of MPV. A center identifies the spirit/self//heart – you choose your
    philosophical basis. Classic Yoga with atman, Iyender etc MPY is very positicist/nomothetic – no consciousness until get the right line/form/position — talk about reification — and absolute control by the hierarchical top-down -master-guru-lecturer. Now circles and center hint of heart inward exploration, perhaps a spirit, heart metaphor (which goes against the mind as supreme controlling, overcoming the body) – perhaps a hint of hatha, Shiva’s leela, play dance in yoga, tantra and the movement of energies — occasionally static but in flow, in movement in meditation.

    While your McYoga $pa-ce$ are warranted – though not with this example – as he correctly identified your over-reading of the intentional teaching in practice. SO which hierarchies are at play? Yea, ‘whiteness’ and exclusionary politics – ok but most are ‘white’ (myself included) – so if that’s the problem get representation in your research text.

    So is the criticism of non yogic text? As a former kinesiologist and a fitness teaching background, I always found it interesting on how Yoga insists on its own lineage of movement and meditation. Kinesiognomy is an interesting combination of kinesiological principles of movement geometrical shape? Anyway, these ‘artsey-fartsy’ diagrams are displeasing – why? not the obsessive anatomy currently vogue? If you look at any yoga text, you can easily see circles and line – and these are great metaphors warrens to have the body move in 360 degrees. SO perhaps these circles hint of a non-masculineized practice? From a kines. perspective there is nothing inherent in body positions – asana – it all comes down to meaning assigned/felt. They are positions to breath, meditate, grow body, awareness, release. Ideogrpahic Yoga gets to this focus.

    Interesting that this this project developed as an exploration of injury. Same for me except I came to this from hurting my self in fitness and came to yoga as a healing art – much self practice before hitting yoga studios. (I have had 2 hip replacements) You came to realization that the pain will always hurt in your hip. Do different yogas as feel as worthy in a simple hatha flow as ashtanga, etc. ‘Chooses’ depending on temperment are ego drive rather than open to new variations, possibilities.

    In injury, fitness people went through this as no one wanted to admit injury (concussions etc.). How it’s MPY’s turn. The rationale are all to similar — there is some external relationship that the body meets and will hurt damage the body no ‘matter what it takes’. The problem is over use repetitive strain with the obsession of set routines and limited styles of yoga. That’s why we promote diverse yogas.
    Get out a specific as-ana marketed style and seek diversity in yogas – yes dance and flow in yoga routines. I use a step latter is some classes. (This is very difficult as there is this Toronto studio seriousness of MPY and all its branding.) (yes i brand diversity in yoga practices.)

    Anyway back to the studio – have to teach 🙂 thanks for this textual dialogue but I have to get into my yoga body.

    • Thanks Walter.

      I happened upon the video through a colleague, and hadn’t seen such positivist refinement in marketing before, or since. I really don’t understand the appropriation argument here, or what the ethical problem is, or how beyond leaving the post open to comment, and responding to Regelin, I’m “not giving access”. If someone wants to review my book I don’t expect an invitation to discussion beforehand. Why should this be different for any other cultural artifact? It’s analysis, not ad hominem, and the former has no “hierarchical voice” in MPY. Most of the time it’s crickets.

      Yes, the critique can be extrapolated, which is the point of the whole project here, which strives for broad representation amongst 150+ respondents at this point — but you’re right, it’s a challenge. With a post like this I’m asking people why they think formal idealizations — geometrical or otherwise (I criticize linearity much more often) — are a good idea, and whether they reflect any need beyond the teacher’s or culture’s need for a particular control. It’s prescriptive because it’s meant to happen, and happen just-so, as in the video. The general spectacle has deep consistency in this.

      Sounds like your classes are really cool and diverse. Thanks again.

  12. Hi Mathew
    It’s appropriation of ‘cultural artifact’ for you as an author/researcher. That fine – you put yourself into public discourse and that’s great. I take a more dialogic view of knowledge – hence calling for ‘inter- intra-cultural artifact (maybe better as ‘art-as-fact’?) Much of the commentary identifies social exclusions. To me cultural artifact is socially constructed, and not some ‘objective free standing fact) — the foundation of positivism as ‘reality is ‘out there’). Anyway, too much sociology here…:-) My claim of appropriation is the representation of the chosen sample-gaze for analysis. Yes, you give voice/space in the comments – but that’s not in the controlled page. Would be better to be in text. As noted, the ‘practice’ is often different from it’s textual re-presentation. It’s your interpretation, not a ‘fact’ of ‘what’s out there’ as representative of the ills of yoga.

    I personally am disquieted by the term MPY – and i see very little difference in the obsession of ‘striking a pose’ as some god-goddess manifestation. Too McYoga or voguish madonna with an self-glorifying impulse of materialI$tIc ‘perfectIon’ – (it’s all about I/me/ego/image). Yes Capitali$m spins this ‘McYoga purpose. ‘I can’t change the system, so best to work on my purity instead’.
    I can’t see any difference in the chosen video and what MPY. Teachers are ‘control-ling’ agents in both settings. This leads to many students being ‘impatient’ or feel they need this constant command to breath here and there and move this and that — too celebral controlling and not enough ‘breath’/now in body/spirit for me. I was focused on the overlay of imagery and why that might be taken for critique. I’m sure you have taken any ‘celebrity’ perhaps US marketing video and make similar claims of its McYoga $pa-ce$ and exclusion, etc.
    How about questioning the cultural artifact of MPY itself. Circles & centers (metaphors that challenge MPY) was my focus and wondering why these were deemed ‘troublesome’ – yes if would have been ‘better’ if the model were discovering these within themselves – and perhaps they are in a full class – but then this is the representation of controlling the body with the teaching gaze/control – following the MPY protocols and its marketing.

    • Thanks — you still have to explain why this is different from a review of a book that doesn’t interview the author. If I interviewed the author of the video what would I have better access to? His intention? Its intention? The whole school of lit-crit I grew up in for better or worse said that a discourse on intention is just another artifact, and that there’s no reason to believe that the author has more insight into the meaning of a work than the reader. But I agree, too much sociology, and French stuff. But I didn’t present the video as a record of practice. I presented it as an expression of values.

      I am interested in the strange problems of MPY, especially the gaze/control. I don’t think visualizing circles and centres really challenge it. My focus was on the abstraction of geometry itself, which can dissociate through either linearity and circularity, as we can feel while walking through IKEA. Thanks again.

  13. hi again. I agree that a reading of a cultural artifact is a reading/interpretation by the critic and your interpretation and the video’s author have ‘equal’ weight. Including the author in a more dialogic text opens up more possibilities for analysis, knowledge (my social constructionist bias). I would prefer to say meaningS of the work – and when I read his comments I got another understanding of the video. This was not in your reading. Also, you cannot imply that your reading is a ‘values’ reading – suggesting your reading of the video’s intention. A criticism of teacher/external/control as discourse/pedagogy in yoga teaching makes sense, but not values.

    I guess the situatedness of the video as a consumer McYoga example is not present in your analysis and that is how I would see this video-artifact as part of that discourse. It is curious why a North American video and its slickness was not presented. I guess it’s the selective representation of this video as exemplar of teacher control.

    I’ve been rethinking the issue of gaze and control – that is not pandemic to teacher (as in the video) — MPY is performative to the audience of participants as much as it is to the teacher. Again, I would contextualize this again as part of McYoga $-pace-$. Injuries arise when people are performing to the audience and losing the inner connection with breath and awareness. The Olympic ‘higher,faster, stronger’ push/burn is ingrained in fitness, gymnastic/Mysore, Hindu nationalism (in yoga’s modernist ascension) as it was in ‘muscular Christianity’. This is a ‘drive’ to injury where someone might pop a knee joint, tear this and that. Perhaps, as you suggested also, an aspect of self-hate as one’s yogic gaze is externalized, bringing in the envy, stare, judgement, of others into a practice.

    I was trying to figure out why your criticism of the geometry and symbolism.I still like these metaphors in yoga.

    Ikea example, I could understand this as an example of the standardized criticisms of Consumerism and globalization. Why not use particularized and localized examples of this in a yoga studio. Eg. Lululemon and free yoga among the merchandise. Would this class feel like an Ikea experience- then your examples make more sense to me anyway. How about yoga chains and their branding? When we chose a example of an artifact, the question remains how representative this is and how was it chosen to the exclusion of others. Same not inviting the video-author into your text… ah, I’m losing it again in the sociology etc…. enjoy your stuff.

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