Wednesday, December 22, 2010

A Grouchy Ashtangi goes on a Little Moon Day Adventure into Yogaland; or, the possible perils of yoga tourism; or, why I hate plank

I hesitated to write this post, because it kind of borders on talking bad about other styles of yoga (remember ahimsa: non-harming). But, then again, this actually happened; it is what it is, I'm not making anything up. Moreover, I won't name any names.

Just across the street from where I live is a yoga and pilates studio. Essentially, it's the kind of generic mom-and-pop studio that offers pilates and one or two classes in every major style of yoga (hot yoga, candlelight yoga, thai yoga, hatha, beginner's yoga, and there's even an Intro to Ashtanga class).

My girlfriend takes classes there regularly (she has one of those month-long, renewable membership passes). I've taken a couple of classes here and there, but I mostly stick to my own home mysore practice. I suspect this would probably make me a bona fide Ashtanga snob/fundamentalist in many yoga circles, but this is for another post...

Anyway, on Monday evening, I decided to go with my girlfriend to the evening candlelight yoga class; I figured that since the next day was a moon day, I could indulge in some yoga tourism.

Bad idea. The studio was dimly lit by candlelight (hence the name, I think), and there was this guy at the front of the room accompanying the class on his guitar (is this a staple of candlelight yoga classes?). I honestly didn;t care much for the music. I'm used to practicing in silence, but I didn't have any difficulty tuning out the music by focusing on my Ujjayi breath (my girlfriend later complained that she could hear my Darth-Vader breath more clearly than the music. Hmm... backhanded compliment?).

Oh, wait. I still haven't explained why this whole thing was a bad idea. Here's what happened. The teacher had us begin the class lying down and tuning in to the breath. While we were in that position, she started quoting something she had read about love and how believing in the power of love makes everything possible. Maybe it's just me, but why can't people trust the practice more? I mean, if the practice works, it's going to work whether or not you try to embellish it with nice quotes from here, there or God-knows-where. If the practice doesn't work, no amount of quoting from here, there or God-knows-where is going to get you anywhere.

But I haven't gotten to the disastrous part yet. After savasana (after savasana? hmm, seriously...), she got us to come up into downdog. From downdog, she got us to move forward into plank. We held the plank for about 10 breaths, and then she asked us to lower into chaturanga. As I was lowering into chaturanga, I felt this painful twinge in my lower back somewhere around the left SI joint. I still don't know what happened, but I suspect that my alignment was off in plank, and that somehow did something to my SI joint, which I had a prior history of issues with. Anyway, I somehow managed to maintain control of my muscles, and made it through to chaturanga, and then did a vinyasa. She moved us through the same sequence a few more times. Fortunately (and I don't know the explanation for this) the pain lessened with each successive sequence until it went away completely by the time we did the last round of what she calls sun salutations.

As I said, I don't know exactly why what happened happened. But here are a few possible explanations:

(1) My SI joint wasn't in good alignment (I had been sitting for hours in front of a computer before the class), and this particular downdog-plank-chaturanga-updog-downdog sequence made the misalignment painfully obvious (no pun intended).

(2) I wasn't engaging my bandhas enough to protect my lower back while in that sequence (who thought up that sequence, anyway? It's so... never mind.)

(3) Plank is a useless posture that does more harm than good. This is not just my personal opinion. For instance, at an asana intensive a few years ago, Eddie Modestini and Nicki Doane declared that, "Plank does not exist in our dictionary." Their view is that while it is theoretically possible to hold plank with good alignment, it requires too much work and attention to achieve this "perfect plank"; moreover, any deviation from this "perfect plank" puts the lower back at risk (from collapsing). Moreover, they claim, one can attain the same benefits from a properly-executed chaturanga as from a perfect plank. So plank is, strictly speaking, redundant: Why go to the trouble to invent a pose which merely duplicates the benefits of chaturanga (as far as I can remember, neither the Yoga Mala nor Light on Yoga even mentions plank as a distinct posture)? But this is just me quoting "expert opinion." I understand that many people out there swear by plank. And after all, millions of people probably do plank everyday, with no visible ill-effects. So who am I to say anything? So take this for what it's worth (or not).  

But every story has to have a beginning and an end. So back to my story. Fortunately, it ended well (at least as far as I know). We went on to do a few backbends (ustrasana, urdhva dhanurasana), and I used these backbends to get my SI joint back into place (whew!). We then did a few arm-balances, and (yes, this is totally my ego speaking) I had the chance to dazzle the class with my powerful arm-balancing ability: At one point, the teacher was so impressed by my floating into bakasana from downdog that she came over and said, "Nice!" I replied "Thank you" while still in bakasana.

So what's the moral of the story. I'm not sure. Maybe it's this: If, like me, you are an Ashtanga Fundamentalist who is working with SI joint issues, you should be wary of indulging in yoga tourism!


  1. I hate plank too....and its such a pet peeve to see some 'ashtanga' teachers teaching, and even still practicing by landing in plank (ouch) and lowering down into chaturanga. Its wrong as far as I can tell from the mala and other books and it makes no sense as far as coordinating the breath and movements.
    I understand in the beginning its hard to coordinate landing in chaturanga, but that is what students should be encouraged to do because that is the ashtanga system and it saves their lower backs. My two cents anyways.

  2. Annie, whew! I'm so relieved that somebody out there (other than Eddie and Nicki) shares my antipathy to plank. You're right that it totally messes up the vinyasa count (in addition the obvious anatomical hazards).

    Hmm... am I violating ahimsa with my "plank-bashing"? Hey, but plank is not a living being :-) Besides (and this is the Ashtanga Fundamentalist in me speaking) if teaching plank compromises and distorts ashtanga as taught by Guruji in the Yoga Mala, then speaking up against plank would be righting an injustice! I'm feeling so self-righteous now, it's now even funny...

  3. Wow, I appreciate your courage in going to a random class like that...

  4. Dear Nobel
    Happy Holidays. I was a yoga tourist before settling on ashtanga, and now maybe I could be labeled a tourist again, since my practice is not correct for a room. I find all yoga is good. In San Francisco and in Miami I used to take other types of classes on weekends for relaxation. I could see where these poses came from. I may be wrong, but the savasana before practice comes from traditional Iyengar yoga. You might want to check out partner yoga with your girlfriend, even if you might get distracted. hehe. I understand the problem with plank. It causes me to have the same reaction you have. It stresses the lower back.


  5. Nothing makes me more giddy than reading a report on yoga tourism. I think it's wildly entertaining. As people who practice Ashtanga, we're doing something different than most other styles... same practice every day. You float into Bakasana because of your dedication and practice. If you went to a class 3 times a week that changed every time, you'd still be wondering how the hell someone gets into Bakasana.

    I'm a true believer in Ashtanga.
    ONLY. ha ha ha!!!!

    oh- and arm balances by candle light? You must have cat vision. I would have toppled.

  6. Arturo, Happy Holidays to you too! I agree that all yoga is good, but (and this is the Ashtanga Fundamentalist in me speaking) some yoga is better than others :-)

    Don't quote me on this, but I don't think anybody alive today actually knows what Iyengar Yoga is. In fact, a couple of years ago, somebody asked Mr. Iyengar in a Yoga Journal interview what Iyengar Yoga is, and he said that he himself didn't know! How can anybody possibly claim to know what Iyengar yoga is, when even the man himself doesn't know? Don't get me wrong: I have great respect for Mr. Iyengar. Basically, as I understand it, he draws upon his knowledge of yoga to teach different things to different students, according to what he perceives they need for their minds/bodies. That's why there is no one thing or system that can be put into a box called "Iyengar Yoga."

    So, strictly speaking, what passes for Iyengar Yoga in this country (all those props, all those rules about what you can and cannot do, etc., etc.) are just his students' very arbitrary and at best partial interpretations of what Mr. Iyengar is doing. So while I have great respect for Mr. Iyengar and his work (in fact, I did my own Iyengar-inspired practice for a couple of years before I switched over to Ashtanga), I cannot bring myself to practice something that is just some partial interpretation of his work.

    Gee, why am I going to all this length about Iyengar? Well, because it kind of explains why I choose to practice ashtanga. Since I do not have the resources or the time to go to Pune to study in depth with Mr. Iyengar himself, I figured that it is better to practice something that is also from Krishnamachrya, and which is more... systematic. Hence my choosing to practice Ashtanga. Moreover, Ashtanga is really really fun and absorbing (I really can't stand holding headstand for 30 minutes anyway!).

    I apologize for this rant. I'm sure you weren't expecting this.

  7. Arturo, I think the closest major style that comes to doing the savasana-before-practice thing is sivananda (which I can't stand, by the way: Why do you need to go into savasana between every pose?).

    My girlfriend and I have actually tried partner yoga a few times, but I'm either too serious/intense (trying to engage the bandhas and do ujjayi breath all the time, which she finds a little off-putting) or I get all nervous and giggly, and we just collapse in a heap! So it seems that even playfulness requires a certain balance: You can't be too intense, but you can't be totally "not serious" either.

  8. Evelyn, it's so nice to have your presence on this blog again after all thus time. I enjoy reading all about your holiday adventures on your blog.

    Yes, I'm also a true believer in Ashtanga... well, as true as can be, in light of whatever I just related to Arturo above about Iyengar. But seriously, I have realized that Ashtanga has changed me irrevocably, for better or for worse: I just can't go into any random yoga class now and enjoy it!

    Before I started Ashtanga, I thought that doing the same thing everyday was not good, and doing different things everyday is better: I followed the conventional wisdom in sports medicine, which holds that it is better to exercise different muscle groups everyday so that certain muscle groups get to rest. But the more I practice Ashtanga, the more I appreciate the wisdom of my teacher's words: Repetition is necessary for something to really become a part of oneself.

    As for arm-balances by candle-light... hmm, I don't know; I guess my prioproception must be better than I thought it was.