Monday, February 28, 2011

How useful are yoga DVDs to yoga practice?

I just read this article on Elephant Journal about the (dis)value of yoga DVDs in cultivating a yoga practice. The writer argues that effective yoga instruction is characterized by three components:

1.      Intimacy: Yoga is more than a technique. It is a way of being. And that way of being can only be learned by being in proximity to it. You don’t learn yoga so much as you absorb it.
2.     Interactivity: Yoga requires feedback. As students of yoga, we cannot see ourselves clearly. Mirrors provide only a reflection. Only a teacher can see us as we are help us align with our true nature.
3.     Individuality: Yoga is adaptable in order to meet the needs of different people in different contexts.  Muscle-bound manual laborers in the Yukon perform postures differently, have different needs, and require different instructions than lithe ex-dancers in New York City.

DVDs, by their very nature, fail to deliver any of these three components. Therefore, DVDs fail as a mode of yoga instruction. 
I think the writer is correct in his observations, and I suppose for most seasoned Ashtangis, this whole issue is moot anyway. Whether you practice in a shala or by yourself at home, you are working with a preset sequence of postures (primary, second, third, fourth, or beyond), and if you're trying to maintain drishti, the last thing you need is to be distracted by somebody with a big voice on a TV screen :-)

But as with many other things, I think the answer you get regarding a particular issue depends very much on the question you ask. If the question is: Are yoga DVDs a good mode of yoga instruction? The answer would be no (for the reasons stated above). However, if the question is: Can yoga DVDs serve a positive function within the yoga practice? Then the answer is more complicated.This is so, because even if yoga DVDs are not in themselves a good mode of yoga instruction, there are other things they can do. Here are a few:

(1) They can get somebody who is new to yoga interested in yoga, and become motivated to delve deeper. While this is not in itself a substitute for working with a teacher, it can get the curious individual started on a path which would eventually lead to him or her finding the yoga style and/or teacher that works for him or her. As a matter of fact, we have a living example of this: In her latest post, Christine talks about how it was a yoga video that got her started on her yoga journey.

(2) They can give somebody who is new to yoga an idea of the different styles, teachers and possibilities out there. When I first started doing yoga in grad school, I was a "yoga sponge": I went to all the yoga classes I could afford, which was not that many, considering my budget. Later on, I became a yoga teacher at the local yoga studio, despite my total lack of certification (flashes mental birdie at Yoga Alliance here :-)), and was able to go to all the classes there for free. But this is another story for another post. But as I was saying, when I first started doing yoga, I was a sponge trying to soak in everything that could possibly be learnt about every school of yoga under the sun. Since I couldn't afford that many classes at that time, DVDs were a useful way for me to get a sampling of the different major styles out there.

(3) They are a way for people who don't have the time and/or money to take classes to continue to do yoga. Especially in these economically challenging times, this is very vital. Yes, there are the three pitfalls listed earlier, but I believe that some yoga (no matter where it comes from) is better than no yoga. Actually, I also believe that the only cure for yoga is more yoga, but this for another post :-)

(4) They are a way for people who are self-conscious (because of their perceived body size, because of their perceived lack of flexibility, or whatever) to get started on the yoga path. Again, the three pitfalls apply, but again, I also believe that some yoga is better than no yoga.

(5) They can help one to stay connected with one's teacher if one cannot meet the teacher regularly. I'm speaking from personal experience here. Somewhere around the beginning of 2007, I decided that just going to any yoga class I could go to and practicing from DVDs just wasn't cutting it. I had to study with a "real" teacher. So that summer (2007), I went to Maui to study with Eddie Modestini and Nicki Doane for three weeks. In my less-than-desirable financial situation at that time, I had to ask my dad for help with the airfare, and I lived on a farm for $10 a day in exchange for helping out with stuff around the farm. It was a very eye-opening experience in many ways (more material for another post :-)), and I learnt many many things from Eddie and Nicki. But I can't afford to fly to Maui too often (I still haven't been back there, to this day). A few months after Maui, I stumbled upon Nicki's Intro to Ashtanga DVD at the local Border's. I immediately bought it. When I played it in my apartment, I couldn't help smiling the moment her voice came on: It totally felt like I was back on Maui. A little update: I did manage to go to Nicki's workshop in Indianapolis last winter (2009). I hope to make it back to Maui one day :-)

So yeah, yoga DVDs aren't all bad. For a while, I practiced with them on a more or less regular basis, for the reasons above. However, I did eventually get to the point of "DVD fatigue". I just felt that the postures and sequences in yoga DVDs tend to be either (1) so unchallenging and repetitive that one tends to lose interest after a while, or (2) very challenging, but lacking any systematic way to build up to them. I felt that I needed a practice that would challenge me constructively, that would regularly give me a sense of "constructive failure", if this makes sense. And I felt that the environment at the studio I was teaching at wasn't really giving me this, either. Don't get me wrong: The teachers and students there were all wonderful and supportive people, and I made many wonderful friends there. But I think what sometimes happens when one has been a teacher for too long is that people start seeing you as "the teacher", and consciously or unconsciously become unwilling or unable to challenge your understanding of the practice, and your own practice stagnates as a result. I felt I was at that point. By a fortuituous turn of events, I moved to a new place (Milwaukee) and encountered my teacher, who got me into a regular mysore practice. And it was mysore Ashtanga practice that got me out of this rut. I had "dabbled" in Ashtanga-inspired sequences (and even did the primary series occasionally) before that, but it was regular mysore practice that made me really understand the power and beauty of this practice: This practice that brutally and honestly challenges me everyday. Yet within this brutal honesty lies the seed of real growth.

Huh, another long ranting post. And I started out only intending to talk about yoga DVDs :-)         


  1. Youtube-Kino-grimmly-boodiba-lino-etc
    I'm just sayin...
    Sometimes you watch somebody solve something on video and you get right down on the floor and voila!

  2. I haven't been using DVDs, but I've heard people who prefer practicing at home over going to classes so it's useful for those people. It's also nice to observe demonstration of proper alignment and to be able to pause, rewind, watch again 50 times until I get it.

    I have a friend who bought me a Kino DVD!! I'm so excited! I think I'll be watching that 50 times closely at every pose!

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  4. Well I use yoga DVDs because the nearest yoga studio is at least an hour away and it is not reasonable for me to go there on a daily - or sometimes even weekly basis.

    I would prefer the intimate contact of a class and teacher, but without that option, Baron Baptiste is the next best thing. I find his yoga challenging and his voice very calming.

    I get a lot out of his DVDs and it helps me stay focused, especially when on my own, I might lose the plot or get bored with my own sequences of postures.

  5. Dear Nobel
    I often read your posts and see the Aristotelian method you use (which Aquinas used as well) to present your points, but possibly by your own admission, after you've presented the opposite views, your assessment, and then begin your defense of the assessment, you ramble. That last part is funny. It must be difficult to stay only in the didactic mode from start to finish.

    I'm doing the same here, I guess, digressing from my point. What was my point? haha. Oh, yea, you can put me in the category of one of those who have bought many DVDs and hardly watches them. I get tired or frustrated by them very soon. One of the points is the one you make- there is not enough information on how to get into a difficult pose. On easy poses, I would not like to be going at the pace of the video, which with some teachers might be lightning speed. So, when I was in Miami Life Center, I bought books and a mat and was tempted to buy a DVD but held back, knowing I would not watch it. I must have all of RFs videos and have only watched the first four asanas of the Intermediate series one. He was my teacher's main teacher in the US, and I could see his influence in her style. I bought John Scott's and never watched it past a few poses. The video I enjoyed the most and watched in its entirety was the one Swenson put together in Maui with a group of people doing advanced poses. That was fun to watch six years ago.

  6. uhm, is that first paragraph of mine too philosophical? maybe only you and i can understand what i'm saying...

  7. DVDs definitely have their strengths and weaknesses. Currently, I've been watching DVDs, and that is for the the same reasons you mentioned above. After doing the same routine so many times, your passion sort of goes numb. However, I do combine the routines, expressing a little more creativity.

    Though, as with any method or art, one can always benefit from having a teach. As I have stated many times before, humans are social creatures and social learners. To me, if you haven't met the teacher they come off as a written character, lacking that aspect of interaction.

    @Yyogini That's a very good point. If I don't understand or think I'm doing the pose incorrectly, I can pause the DVD and observe the alignment.

    @Arturo I understood it. :D I think it's especially difficult to hold that form when you're writing a blog.

  8. @sereneflavor, yes, my two favorite youtube videos so far are (1) the one where Kino does this long slow dropback, which is very helpful, because you get to see a lot of alignment details. My backbend really improved by a lot from watching that videa, and (2) the one with Lino going back and forth between navasana and handstand. I've no idea how he does it; he looks so relaxed doing it, while I'm huffing and puffing like a cow (I hope this is PC :-)).

  9. @Yyogini, yes, I do agree that DVDs are good in this way. You can pause/repeat as many times as you like, whereas it might not always be appropriate to try to do this with a real teacher :-)

    I'm so happy you got one of Kino's DVDs. I think she might be one of the few teachers around who understand the art of teaching on video (see her Youtube backbend and Bhujapidasana videos, for instance). I'm actually trying to go to one of her workshops later this spring. I hope this works out.

    @Cathrine, yes, I totally understand what your situation. Moreover, I think Baron Baptiste may be one of the few teachers who understand the art of teaching onscreen (Kino is another one). Many teachers either ramble on and on, or just "do their own thing" and expect you to somehow follow along. Baron strikes a nice balance; he gives a couple of useful alignment tips for every pose, but doesn't overdo it. There's also his very memorable visualizations ("Imagine you are standing in a pan of espresso...")

  10. @Arturo, thank you for comparing me to Aristotle and Aquinas. I feel very flattered and humbled at the same time :-) I guess I write in this method (at least, I start many of my posts this way) because this is how I was trained to write (and think). I think it's also a good way to get my readers to quickly have a sense of the overall picture I'm trying to convey. But I also get the sense that many readers may not have the patience or time to read through a philosophical treatise! So I try to intersperse my posts with a slightly more narrative/storytelling flavor. The "rambling" part of my post is my amateur attempt at injecting such a flavor :-)

    It's interesting to hear about your experience with DVDs. In a sense, my experience is the inverse of yours: Most of my ashtanga experience comes from studying with real teachers and self-practice. To date, I didn;t haven't seen that famous David Swenson DVD you mention (maybe I should). My DVD experiences are with non-Ashtanga teachers (Shiva Rea, Baron Baptiste, and of course, the king of yoga videos, Rodney Yee :-)).

  11. @Chris, yes, DVDs are a good way to start out on the yoga path. Although, as I've been saying ad nauseum :-), it would be a really good idea to seek out a teacher at some point.

  12. @Cathrine, I forgot to mention that, although the nearest yoga studio is at least an hour from where you are, NYC is also an hour from where you are :-) And of course, there are a ton of great yoga teachers and studios in NYC (oh, how I envy your proximity to the Big Apple...). So the next time you are in NYC, you should definitely go to a yoga class or two.

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  14. DVDs, Udemy, Coddy app acted as a great tool for me to get me started in ashtanga yoga. I live in Mauritius and there is no ongoing ashtanga classes.

    I believe if we have been already initiated in yoga and are very sensitive about how our body moves, it serves well. And of course how much we do observe and listen! It does get boring listening to a DVD and think "yea yea got it" and not actually getting the essential point
    There is obviously a lack of interaction and we always need feedback and discuss our experiences.

    I have been recently started documenting my progress in ashtanga yoga by taking videos and photos of me performing primary series on my blog.
    A way to observe myself but more to open it up to more experienced ashtanga students and teachers around to comment and advise!