[DRAFT] What Makes Yoga Yoga? Addressing Boundaries, Authenticity, & Social Media Critics in the Yoga World

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What makes yoga yoga? Many people claim to know real yoga when they see it. In fact, the act of calling people out for not doing “real yoga” is becoming more and more common these days. If you follow my work at all or the work of my yoga teacher colleagues in my online class library, you’ve likely seen this happen with respect to what we offer as well.

After seeing enough yogis accused of doing something that “shouldn’t be called yoga” in social media videos and posts, I thought we could take a moment to pause, quiet our minds, and think this issue through a bit together.

What are the boundaries around the category of “yoga”, and what does it mean for a yoga practice to be authentic?


AUTHENTICITY

Before diving specifically into the subject of yoga, I thought it would be helpful to look at the concept of authenticity in a broader context, because debates about authenticity are not limited to the yoga world alone. In fact, almost everywhere you look with regard to culture and tradition, there are active arguments about what makes something authentic. From Mexican food to African art to bourbon (“it’s not authentic if it wasn’t made in Kentucky!”) to country western music, fierce debates abound.

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As one compelling example, back in April of this year, the musician Lil Nas X had a country song that was on its way to the coveted number one spot on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, but it was pulled from the category just before that happened because the powers that be decided that the song wasn’t “country enough”. Lil Nas X happens to be black and his song included some rap. The whole incident was quite controversial and was shrouded in accusations of racism and bigotry. (And in support of those allegations, it’s interesting to note that white country stars in the past have included raps in their songs and they were still allowed to stay on the country songs chart.)

In any case, I mention these examples simply to point out that arguments about authenticity are nothing new, and they are often quite tricky to navigate because the standards by which something is considered “authentic” are generally subjective, arbitrary, and a matter of opinion. The reality is that no tradition - whether it be traditional yoga, traditional wine making, traditional religious celebrations, or traditional country music (did you know that the banjo is an African instrument, for example?) - developed in a bubble. All traditions have always been exposed to a myriad of outside influences, and have continually evolved and changed throughout the entirety of their existence.

There are often people who are considered the “gatekeepers” of authenticity of certain kinds of categories, cultures, and practices. These gatekeepers are usually self-appointed, and their motivation typically includes enhancing their own reputation and power within the culture or tradition in which they operate based on their proclaimed connection to what is “authentic”.

With this broader perspective on culture and authenticity in mind, let’s turn our attention to our shared tradition of yoga.


WHAT IS YOGA?

At its core, the definition of yoga is encapsulated in Yoga Sutra 1.2: “Yoga chitta vrtti nirodha”. The English translation of this classic Sanskrit line is “yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind”.

When it comes to a movement practice, yoga consists of a focus on connecting with the breath and calming the mind in the midst of any movements that are being done.

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Less than 100 years ago, the “grandfather” of modern yoga, Sri T. Krishnamacharya, blended the practices of Hatha Yoga, Western gymnastics, and wrestling exercises to create the practice that we recognize as modern postural yoga today. We therefore know that yoga, as with all traditions, developed within a sea of influences from varying cultures and practices, both from within its native country and without. The notion of what makes something “authentically” yoga is therefore flawed from the very outset because yoga was never a “pure” tradition to begin with.

Additionally, Krishnamacharya’s teaching style itself changed significantly over the years that he taught. Three of his most influential students all learned from him at different times, and each went on to establish their own branch of modern yoga that is completely distinct from the others. Ashtanga Yoga is a vigorous, fast-paced practice; Iyengar Yoga focuses on long-held asanas utilizing many props; and Viniyoga focuses on individually-tailored practices. This is further testament to the fact that modern postural yoga evolved over the years since its inception - just as it continues to evolve today.

In fact, if Krishnamacharya were alive and creating postural yoga today, we can be assured that it would not look the same as the yoga he invented back in the 1920s. Today he would have a very different set of influences to inspire him, from the modern fitness industry to popular sports to the countless branded “movement systems” that exist such as Pilates, Gyrotonic, FRC, MovNat, Animal Flow, and so many more. (Not to mention the huge advances that have been made in our understanding of the science of the human body as compared to early 20th century India!)

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However, while it is true that what yoga looks like has naturally changed and evolved over time, this fact is actually quite arbitrary, because the physical postures themselves are not the yoga. As we established earlier, yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. The familiar shapes that we refer to as “yoga” today are simply the postures that Krishnamacharya chose as vehicles to this goal of stilling the mind.

These physical postures have certainly demonstrated themselves to be effective vehicles for the mental discipline that is yoga, but they are not the only physical movements that can be used for this goal. Ultimately, any practice done with the intention of quieting our thoughts and paying attention to our body while it moves fits the definition of yoga.

It is therefore literally impossible for someone to look at a person doing a movement on social media and declare whether what they are doing is yoga or not. Anyone who claims to have the authority to make such decisions has very little understanding of what the core of yoga truly is. Yoga is not a prescribed set of physical postures that we can see externally and it never has been; yoga is a mental discipline that resides in the awareness of the practitioner within their shapes and movements.

Think about it: if specific physical shapes and postures were actually what defined yoga, then these social media “gatekeepers” of yoga authenticity would have to believe that someone who is paraplegic or otherwise unable to move their body into these shapes could not possibly practice yoga. And I highly doubt that any of these self-appointed gatekeepers truly believe this. This means that their logic is flawed and inconsistent, which leads me to my next point…


“IF *THAT’S* YOGA, THEN ANYTHING CAN BE YOGA”: THE SLIPPERY SLOPE FALLACY

Whenever I see a social media debate about what is and isn’t yoga, I inevitably see someone state “Well if you’re going to call that yoga, then anything can be yoga.”

Now just to be clear, the argument I’m making in this blog post is that it is impossible to look at someone doing a movement on social media and determine whether what they are doing is yoga. In other words, we can’t judge whether something is yoga based on the way it looks. However, this is not the same as saying that “everything can be yoga”, or suggesting that all physical activities will eventually be lumped into the category of yoga if we don’t hold firm to the current set of traditional postures.

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Additionally, I think it’s important to point out that the “If that’s yoga, anything can be yoga” argument is not actually an argument at all. It is, in fact, a perfect example of something called the slippery slope fallacy. The slippery slope fallacy takes place when someone states “If Y happens, then Z will eventually happen too, so Y should not happen.”

This is the same fallacy that is made when people claim that if gay people are given the right to marry each other, “the next thing we know, people will start marrying animals”. Or the fallacious claim that marijuana is a “gateway” drug that will eventually lead people to start using heroin and other much harder drugs.

Using the slippery slope fallacy is a means of avoiding the actual issue at hand (i.e. can yoga look different from the prescribed set of postures generally called yoga?) and shifting the focus to an extreme hypothetical (“therefore everything will eventually be yoga and yoga will lose all its meaning”) without providing any proof that said hypothetical will occur.

I would encourage our yoga community to avoid making illogical non-arguments like these when discussing the topic of yoga and authenticity.

IN CONCLUSION…

The boundary around what makes yoga yoga is something that is continually being negotiated and will always be open to influence from new ideas. Experimenting with different approaches, unique props, or innovative sequencing in yoga classes is not somehow a threat to the institution of yoga as we know it.

Additionally, calling people out on social media out for doing something that “shouldn’t be called yoga” is fruitless and only demonstrates a lack of understanding of what yoga is all about. If anything, this type of behavior tends to create more fluctuations of the mind, not less. The passion and vitriol I’ve seen behind many of these attacks suggest to me that most of these critics’ time would be better spent doing some actual yoga - however they might want to do that with their physical body, of course. :)

EXPERT Q&A ON YOGA & STRETCHING W/GREG LEHMAN [DRAFT]

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As a member of the yoga community for many years, I have heard numerous claims about how stretching affects the body. These claims vary widely, and I’ve heard everything from “stretching is a magical cure that will heal all of your ailments” to “stretching is damaging for the body, and therefore yoga is bad for us.”

I try to be as evidence-based as possible in my approach to yoga, so I’m naturally skeptical of strong opinions about the body that appear to lack scientific support. In order to help clarify these issues for both myself and the greater yoga community, I decided to consult with an expert who is extremely up-to-date on the most current scientific research on stretching.

Dr. Greg Lehman, BKin, MSc, DC, MScPT, is a Clinical Educator, Physiotherapist, Chiropractor, and Strength and Conditioning Specialist. He travels the world teaching his Reconciling Biomechanics with Pain Science course to health & fitness professionals. He is also the creator of the “Recovery Strategies” pain workbook, which is an amazing, informative, and free resource for anyone in pain. Greg’s work has had a profound impact on the therapeutic, fitness, and yoga/movement worlds, and I am incredibly honored that he said yes to being a part of this Q&A!

YOGA & STRETCHING Q&A W/GREG LEHMAN

QUESTION 1: In the yoga world, there is a widespread claim that stretching can lengthen connective tissues like ligaments & tendons, causing them to become lax and leading to "joint instability". Is this a biologically plausible assertion?

ANSWER: There is no evidence that this actually happens.  Pretty unbelievable, eh? There is certainly more evidence that suggests when you pull (apply tension) to connective tissue it responds by getting stiffer, stronger and sometimes thicker.  Old research by Dr. Woo has shown this consistently.  The only consistent thing that can make connective tissue less stiff is immobilization and injury.  So, it is possible that people who gain massive amounts of flexibility may have at some point damaged their tissue. 

If people feel “lax” because they stretch I would guess that it would be more of muscle or nervous system change.  People may not have the strength in those ranges to control the motion rather than the idea that they lengthened connective tissue constraints.

 

QUESTION 2: What exactly does "stability" mean when it comes to our joints, and is there evidence to support that a lack of joint stability causes pain and/or dysfunction?

ANSWER: A stable joint system just means when it gets perturbed or jostled it comes back to its resting place.  But, people have expanded the definition to mean that a joint just moves a lot when you don’t want it to move.  Joint instability is a problem when a joint pops out of place and does not readily go back into place.  It certainly does happen but I doubt it’s that common.

 

QUESTION 3: Can passively stretching a muscle compromise its strength (i.e. decrease its ability to produce force)?

ANSWER: Not significantly, meaning 1-5% of max force production [if stretching immediately before a strength activity].  And since we regularly don’t need to produce max force it’s not really an issue.  And you only get this transient force reduction when you hold a static stretch for 45 or more seconds.  Some research (Blazevich) even suggests that these max force/power losses are mitigated or completely ameliorated provided you do a warm up.

There is no reason to think that long term stretching will make you weak.

 

QUESTION 4: Aside from concerns about lengthening ligaments & tendons that we've already covered here, is it inherently injurious or damaging for the body to spend time in passive end range stretches? What about for someone with a connective tissue disorder such as generalized joint hypermobility (GJH) or Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS)?

ANSWER: I think with EDS it makes sense to limit those movements and get strong instead.  That’s one of those conditions where shit really does pop out of place.  But for other people, who cares if you hang out at end range. You are just applying tensile load to tissue (pretty much what strength training does but at other ROMs) and the tissue will adapt by getting stronger. 

We aren’t made of taffy.  We don’t really “stretch” that way with applied loading like end ROM stretching.  I don’t think it’s injurious but you could certainly argue that there better options to achieve health and mobility – like adding strength training or even resistance throughout the range of motion.

 

QUESTION 5: There is a growing dialog in the yoga world about the distinction between active & passive stretching, with a new emphasis being placed on the benefits of training active strength & control through our ranges of motion ("active stretching") and a de-emphasis being placed on passive stretching. The reasoning goes that if we have more passive ROM available at a joint than active ROM, we are more susceptible to injury because we lack "control" in those end ranges. Would you agree with this line of thought?

ANSWER: I think you should do both.  I wouldn’t be worried about injury though.  I don’t think most people are getting injured because they have lost “control” of the joint.  Further, if you get injured because the joint suddenly goes to end ROM, it’s not strength at end ROM that would have helped you - it’s the strength and control that you needed before you went to end ROM. 

 

QUESTION 6: Many long-term yoga practitioners have discovered through imaging that they have a hip labral tear, and yoga is often blamed as the cause of this tear. Given that yoga is a low-load activity and that a majority of people in general will develop an asymptomatic labral tear as they age [Ref, Ref, Ref, Ref], is a long-term yoga practice a likely cause of a hip labral tear?

ANSWER: Labral tears are common. Heck, they might even be beneficial for performance.  It’s not unreasonable to think that ANY activity can predispose you to joint changes.  They happen and I doubt there is much we can do about it.  You will see labral tears and bony changes in most sports. 

So should we stop physical activity because of the chance of a labral tear? No. There are way too many benefits from a movement practice that far outweigh the negatives of a potential increase in the chance of having a labral tear.

 

QUESTION 7: In terms of stretching physiology, I believe that many people conflate the "muscle spindle stretch reflex" (reflexive muscular contraction during a stretch) with "stretch tolerance" (tolerating the discomfort of stretching) in their minds. Could you describe the difference between these two phenomena? Do they both play a role in stopping us at the end range of a stretch?

ANSWER: I’m not sure to be honest.  Stretch tolerance definitely plays a role as the stretch is stopped (in the experimental studies) when the participant says its too much.  What happens with long term stretching is that you are able to go farther without there being a dramatic change in tissue qualities.  Meaning we assume that the changes in ROM are due to your tolerance or perhaps habituation rather than a structural change.

The muscle spindle stretch reflex is assumed to not be occurring during end ROM stretching because in these studies they monitor muscle activity.  Meaning, they try to make sure there is no measurable muscle activity that occurs at end ROM.  We assume its just a passive resistance to stretch.  However, it is plausible that there is minor amount of activity that isn’t being picked up and this could be “putting on the brakes”.

 

QUESTION 8: Do you believe there are ways in which passive stretching could actually be beneficial for the body on a musculoskeletal level? If so, how?

ANSWER: Yes.  I think long term stretching is just passive tensile force and tension has the ability to create positive structural adaptations in tissue.  Some (Kubo) have argued that passive stretching can make tendon more efficient.  Others suggest that passive stretching influences muscle stiffness which might be good to balance the stiffness changes in a  tendon that can occur with injury.

I certainly don’t view stretching as a negative which I once did.  I think if you argue against stretching you are really not “against” stretching but more pro some other intervention.  So, if you like to stretch and its helpful for you I would encourage you to keep it up. 

THANK YOU AGAIN TO GREG FOR HIS GENEROSITY IN SHARING HIS KNOWLEDGE AND INSIGHT WITH THE YOGA COMMUNITY. I HOPE YOU FOUND THIS INTERVIEW INFORMATIVE AND HELPFUL FOR YOUR YOGA PRACTICE & TEACHING! -JENNI

Learn much more from Greg Lehman on his website here, and follow him on Twitter!