- Diana Thielen
The practice of inquiry
In this blogpost, I'm trying to answer some requests of students who are teaching yoga or who have a regular yoga practice and who have also been studying the Axis Syllabus. A few weeks ago, I got the chance to teach within a yoga-education. Questions and doubts that have been raised during these classes are embedded in this reflection. As ususal, my answers are never fixed in stone. Please consider them part of an on-going process. I see this blogpost as an opportunity for sharing the exploration and also as an invitation for a dialogue - either with me directly, with other teachers of the Axis Syllabus, with yourself, or with your peers* around you. Thank you so much for entering this dialogue- it means alot for me!
In this article, I'm referring to postural yoga - the hatha yoga
vocabulary, which is practiced in the so-called western sphere of the globe -and which carries a heritage of exoticism and colonialism and should therefore also be reflected upon for its cultural appropriation. (Please read further articles by Sri Louise here, or decolonizing yoga here, and here by everyday feminism as a beginning...)
This is an excerpt of a question, sent to me a few days ago. I thought it could be useful as an introduction:
"(...) I'm wondering what the process is of feeding what you have understood from the AS into your yoga practice. i'm wondering if it is more of a felt intuitive body knowing or if you are mentally breaking it down anatomically/functionally. (...)?"
To begin with, I'd like to mention the book of Ben Spatz, "What a Body Can Do: Technique as Knowledge, Practice as Research" (2015). Reading it yesterday almost in one day through, it offers a comprehensive analysis and an inspiring perspective of diverse movement techniques and practices. (In another article I'll come back to this book, as Spatz also compares Gender performativity to movement techniques.)
Spatz cites two reasons why postural yoga is so successful in industrialized nations.
One is the idea of health and the other the achievement of specific postures (which usually require exceptional flexibility and strength) as related to the idea of athletic performance. The two concepts are linked together, as generally an athletic body (often seen as thin, muscular and flexible, but by no means a bigger body - check out articles about fatphobia here) is considered a healthy body.
The "perfect" realization of an asana is on one hand supported by traditions of a specific lineage (in hatha yoga, I would consider the pedagogical lineage of Iyengar, Pattabi Jois and Desikachar as the most influential branches) as well by the commercialization of yoga, feeding the neo-liberal desires of our society. (In another article, I've written about the representation of yoga teachers and practioners, both in their own advertising and in the media in general.
Mostly one sees thin, white women in extra-ordinary positions...how boring and at the same time also excluding. This reveals the discriminating structure we're embedded in...)
In my understanding this creates an idea that the asanas, the postural exercises, need to be first perfectly executed to achieve strength and flexibility and therefore health and self-awareness.
This observation could open us doors now for us to criticize the notion of self-optimization, and I LOVE this critique...but let's get back to the original track:
"(...) I'm wondering what the process is of feeding what you have understood from the AS into your yoga practice.(...)"
Spatz also emphasizes the idea that we could treat yoga schools, brands, and styles of yoga, not as closed and coherent entities, but as research projects. (p. 86) So rather than understanding the asanas as a THING we are all aiming to perform better or worse (an athletic idea), or as SOMETHING we can consume (a commercial idea) to reach or maintain health, we could enter the research, of the asana practice with curiosity:
What is an asana? What is it made of? Can we find some principles to support our investigation?
Finally ...answering the original question!
"i'm wondering if it is more of a felt intuitive body knowing or if you are mentally breaking it down anatomically/functionally. (...)?"
Yes, both! The process is fed both by a somatic approach (in this context understood as self-moving/ self-sensing), as well as, by using the information gathered by the Axis Syllabus.
So in the moment of teaching Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side-Angle Pose) for example, the following considerations are accompany the research:
Which alignment of the spine is encouraged by its function in this situation?
What range of motion is supportive and is respecting the orientation of the articulation surfaces?
The Axis Syllabus offers a comprehensive platform and uses the term of "Motion centres" (besides many other findings) to clarify and bundle biomechanical principles of articulation areas in the human body:
What could be a supportive orientation of the shoulder joint? What is the knee-joint doing at the same moment and what about the hip and the mid-spine?
Rather than understanding the asanas as a shape or a form to master, one could use the lens of the Axis Syllabus to discern the asanas in its fundamental principles. Questions to support this development are easy but far-reaching likewise:
What are we actually doing in a so-called "backbend" in postural Yoga? Are we really bending (...like flexing?) the spine backwards?
If we consider these asanas as an extension of the spine, not a bending, new adaptations will support our practice - as well as new possibilities to apply the extension of the spine in various situations.
I admit that at the beginning of this inquiry, I felt that the asanas became disassembled. But the longer and more detailed this exploration goes, the more holistic is my understanding of the asanas. Rather than achieving positions, it offers adaptable situations. These situations are sharing principles such as extension, flexion, rotation or side-bending in various settings - as standing, sitting, lying etc.
Like a toolbox, the AS allows the practitioner to examine each situation (let's consider the asanas as situations- this allows more negogiation and adaptation than a position) to compose new asanas. This makes the practice more accessable to diverse body types and it reflects the perception of the practice as research- an on-going process.
This little insight could be seen as the point of departure, more questions out of curiosity might arise, both in biomechanical nature as well as in the question of social justice: For whom do I offer yoga classes? Who is represented in my yoga settings? Can I invited a wide range of body shapes?
*I am lucky to have a great peer group around me: Certainly without the AS community this research wouldn't been as enriching