I am very thankful to Yoga International for publishing my recent 2-part article “Does Traditional Yoga Lead to Muscular Imbalance?” The piece received enthusiastic support from much of the yoga community, but there was also a significant amount of disagreement and negative reaction to the article that was quite surprising. I’d like to highlight some of this negative feedback today because it reveals the degree to which many in our yoga community are attached to beliefs about the practice which are not necessarily science-based.
If you haven’t read the article in question (here are links to Part 1 and Part 2), I’ll give you a quick synopsis to bring you up to speed. The main idea is that while yoga is an amazing practice for us, it isn’t a “complete” one from an anatomical perspective. Yoga includes an abundance of shoulder-pushing movements with no complementary shoulder-pulling movements, and the result is a functional strength imbalance in our shoulders that can lead to injury. This situation is easily remedied, however, by incorporating “pulling” movements like hanging, pull-ups, and seated rowing into our movement repertoire.
I decided to write this article for Yoga International because although yoga’s strength imbalance is a simple anatomical fact rooted in movement science, the majority of the yoga community seems unaware of it. Misinformed claims like “yoga strengthens every muscle of the body” or “yoga is a completely balanced, perfect practice” abound in the yoga world, and these messages encourage people to choose yoga as their sole form of structured movement. I wanted to shed light on the fact that this common notion about yoga is untrue, and that we could all benefit from incorporating some different types of strengthening movements into our lives to balance out our yoga practice.
But my article was not well-received by all of the yogis who read it. The negative reaction came in the form of two main disagreements - one philosophical and the other anatomical. Let’s examine the philosophical issue first.
THAT’S NOT “TRADITIONAL YOGA”
This first complaint was not actually a critique of the content of my article, but of the fact that I used the term “traditional yoga” in the title. These readers took issue with my use of the term because their belief about what constitutes traditional yoga differed from the yoga I was discussing in the article. Here are just a few examples of comments on the article which exemplify this point of view:
“Well perhaps you should stop using the term ‘traditional yoga,’ since it is an incorrect usage. It brings into question whether you know anything at all about Yoga.”
“Real, traditional yoga is a science of consciousness and meditation. Hatha Yoga, a branch of Yoga Science, is the science of preparing the body to sit comfortably for long periods of time, in a perfectly balanced satvic [sic] manner, so that it becomes ‘invisible’ to the mind.”
“Yoga was never meant to build your body. You go to the gym and do other exercises for that. Traditional yoga DOES NOT lead to muscular imbalance.”
“For me it seems that part of the problem is that recently (over the past 20 years especially) yoga classes have centred [sic] on vinyasa-style sun-salutation-based classes. I would prefer not to think of this as traditional (whatever that might mean) rather as a contemporary focus on rajasic asana practice. Asana practice, like any yoga practice, should lead to sattva, and for those that do, the question of ‘pushing' doesn't arise.”
“Totally agree with the other comments that ‘yoga’ is not the problem rather modern asana which is certainly not ‘traditional’.”
And this response came from a message that a reader emailed directly to me:
“Dear Jenni. How surprised I was to read yr part 1 article on shoulder imbalance… It is such a disgrace to the grand teachers of 2000 years ago that people are money making by creating fear around a practice that is pure and simple. Yoga is all to [sic] often nowadays taught as some fancy movement practice without the basic foundations.”
There is a type of logical fallacy called a straw man argument which involves “giving the impression of refuting an opponent's argument, while actually refuting an argument which was not advanced by that opponent” and another called a red herring which is defined as “something that misleads or distracts from a relevant or important issue”. These logical fallacies can be seen in the comments above. Instead of confronting the actual argument I made about yoga’s strength imbalance, these commenters brought in irrelevant information about a completely different topic, thereby distracting attention away from the important issue at hand.
Although I didn’t set out to have a debate about the true meaning of “traditional yoga” when I wrote my article, I’ll offer my perspective on that topic now that the issue has been raised.
Put simply, no one owns the definition of traditional yoga. A “tradition” is in fact always created and re-created as it is passed along from generation to generation. Additionally, it is highly doubtful that most of what we call “yoga” today closely resembles the practices of the distant past. For centuries, there has been a dialog between the East and the West and a mutual influencing of philosophies and practices in both science and spirituality.
The truth is that modern postural yoga dates back only about 100 years or so to the time that T. Krishnamacharya began teaching his blend of hatha yoga, Western gymnastics, and wrestling exercises in Mysore, India. For more on these topics, see Mark Singleton’s book Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice, Sinister Yogis by David Gordon White (whom I was lucky enough to study under for my Religious Studies degree from UC Santa Barbara!), and First There is a Mountain: A Yoga Romance by Elizabeth Kadetsky, who actually spoke on this topic at a reading that I hosted at my yoga store, Drishti, back in 2003.
In general, when people attempt to make claims to tradition, they are trying to assert their authority over others on the basis of their connection to what is “authentic”. But assertions of one yoga being more “traditional” than another are pointless and unhelpful because tradition will always be a matter of mere opinion.
For my part, the reason I used “traditional yoga” in the title of my article on strength imbalance was to differentiate the type of modern postural yoga I was discussing from other “hybrid” forms of yoga that are popular today like yoga with weights, etc.
PULLING MOVEMENTS IN YOGA?
The second disagreement with my article was more anatomical in nature. In the article, I explained that yoga consists of an abundance of movements in which we strengthen our shoulders by pushing our body away from the floor (think plank pose, chaturanga, handstand, crow pose, etc.) and no corresponding pulling movements which strengthen our shoulders in the opposite way. Therefore, if yoga is the only form of “exercise” that we do, we will naturally create a non-optimal strength imbalance in our shoulders.
It is tempting to believe that our yoga practice provides everything we need for perfect balance in our body. I understand that this, combined with a lack of a substantial anatomy education, is why so many people were quick to disagree with my article. Here are a few comments which encapsulated the defensive attitude that many held about their practice:
“It’s amazing how you invent this yoga ‘problem’ by ignoring all readily available fact.”
“Totally disagree. True Hatha Yoga, properly taught, is designed to perfectly balance the body, so that it can sit comfortably for meditation, without a hint of discomfort. A properly designed Hatha Yoga sequence given by a Master Teacher will correct all postural imbalance and create perfect alignment allowing the pranic energies to flow.”
If you are participating in classes in which you do not experience perfect balancing of the shoulder girdle, then you are most likely participating in classes with unqualified instructors who cannot possibly represent Hatha Yoga correctly.”
Other commenters expressed their disagreement by pointing out ways they believe we do “pull” in our yoga practice to counterbalance all of the pushing. Here is a list of the “pulling” yoga movements that were cited by various readers in an attempt to disprove my argument:
-uttanasana (standing forward fold) “when we pull up on the toes”
-prasarita padottanasana (standing straddle forward fold) “when we drag our hands back toward our feet to deepen the fold”
-binding the toe in trikonasana (triangle pose) and lifting up
-uttitha hasta padangusthasana (standing big toe pose) “drawing the toes back”
-paschimottanasana “drawing the toes back”
-any pose with reverse prayer
-binding the arms around the back
-upward facing dog
-bow pose (dhanurasana)
-dancer pose (natarajasana)
-the transition from chaturanga to upward facing dog
-“forward folds with big toe holds in all its forms”
-forearm balance (pincha mayurasana)
-tadasana (mountain pose)
-happy baby pose
-pulling your knee in toward your chest
-“a half lotus bind can provide a pulling or lifting action in the arm”
-flowing from down dog to plank to chaturanga to up dog
-**note: several of these examples do not involve any pulling at all
This list of movements put forth by readers demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of what the body is actually doing in yoga and the physical requirements to achieve a strength balance in the shoulders. Unfortunately, not a single movement in this long list contributes in a significant way to balancing out all of the pushing we do in yoga. Yoga’s pushing movements involve pushing the weight of the body away from the floor; in order to counterbalance that, we need to pull the weight of the body toward something - not simply tug on our big toe or pull our knee toward our chest. Although I do think it’s quite amusing to picture someone attempting to pull on their big toe with the same amount of force they use when pushing their whole body away from the floor in crow pose (a classic pushing movement). They might end up with a very unhappy big toe, but they won’t be counterbalancing yoga’s pushing asanas.
Movements which successfully strengthen our shoulders in a pulling way involve the use of an object that we can pull against like a weight, a bar, or a resistance band. This is why I suggested hanging, pull-ups, seated rowing, and rock climbing in Part 2 of my article as some ideal complementary activities to a yoga practice.
THE LIVING TRADITION OF YOGA
In summary, the strength imbalance inherent in yoga is not a threat or something yogis should feel they must defend against. It is a simple anatomical fact. If we resort to unfounded beliefs and “magical thinking” (to borrow a great phrase from my yoga teacher friend Ariana Rabinovitch) to defend the mistaken idea that yoga is perfectly-balanced, we pose more of a threat to the integrity of the practice than simply learning from the new ideas that anatomy has to offer. The truth is that there is no one single activity that could possibly offer everything that one needs on a spiritual, emotional, energetic, and physical level. In my own experience, the practice of yoga has led me away from the desire for easy answers and dogmatic thinking in favor of a deeper appreciation for the complexity of the human body. Let’s continue to evolve the living tradition that is yoga by embracing the wisdom that anatomy and movement science have to offer.