The Myth of Style in Yoga by Robert Birnberg

Favoring Function, Forgoing Form: the Myth of Style in Yoga
by Robert Birnberg, for the Krishnamachaya Healing Yoga Foundation

A wise man once said, “There’s no right answer to a wrong question.” These words echo each time someone asks what style of Yoga I teach. I usually explain, “Style’ is ‘a fixed, recognizable form or manner’, while Yoga is a fluid, adaptive healing art….” The questioner, expecting a one-word answer, such as ‘kund-ashtang-usara’, begins to glaze over and fidget impatiently. At the risk of creating an army of glazed, fidgety readers, I will continue.

Yoga is a holistic system of self-care, one of the six formal philosophies (darsanas) extracted from the ancient Indian Vedas. This elegant spiritual psychology offers profound insights and numerous strategies for reducing the discomfort (duhkha) that accompanies daily living.

Yoga’s foundation text, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, maintains that suffering is universal, created by the mind’s clinging to fixed patterns, habits and beliefs, misperceiving the nature of things, and ultimately confusing reality’s changing (though solid) form with it’s ever-enduring essence. Nowhere in the Sutras is there mention of ‘styles’ of Yoga. On the contrary, Sutra III: 6 uses the word ‘viniyoga’ or ‘special application’, to describe the need for individual adaptation and modification.

Historically, the whole notion of fixed-form ‘styles’ is a very recent invention. Traditionally, the closest concepts were Yoga’s four general approaches: Siksana, Raksana, Cikitsa, and Adhyatmika.

Siksana was Yoga for healthy children and young adults. Usually taught in groups, this approach emphasizes vigorous, athletic asana to strengthen the physical body and increase stamina. To improve mental focus, Siksana employed fixed sequences and/or precise classical form. T. Krishnamacharya, the great Yoga Master, introduced this largely asana-based approach to the young BKS Iyengar and K. Pattabhi Jois. Siksana Yoga, though limited in depth, scope, and subtlety, is totally appropriate for the still-developing body and simpler mind of a young person.

Raksana Yoga is for healthy adults. Presented in the context of a dedicated student/teacher relationship this approach is best taught one-on-one. Raksana is a more holistic, interactive Yoga, which respects the student’s age, health, occupation, needs, goals, strengths and weaknesses. The highly individualized, prescriptive practice employs the full range of Yoga’s tools, including asana, pranayama, sound, gesture, visualization, reflection, meditation, ritual, counseling, etc, all integrated into the student’s daily regimen. To remain effective, the practice is continually adapted to accommodate life’s changes and reflect the progress it is helping to create. Rather than perfection in posture, the more sophisticated Raksana is aimed at enhancing the adult student’s relationships and quality of living. As the majority of Yoga practitioners fall into this healthy 20-60-year-old category, Raksana is the appropriate ‘style’ for most modern students.

Cikitsa is Yoga Therapy. Based on a multidimensional model, such as the 5 Mayas or 7 Chakras, Cikitsa uses the interconnections between the body, breath, mind, personality, and emotions to promote wellness. Cikitsa Yoga integrates highly modified asana with pranayama, visualization, sound, ritual, and prayer; as well as diet, herbs, massage and many other tools commonly perceived as Ayurveda. Cikitsa’s aim is to treat specific health problems by increasing the student’s confidence (sraddha) and overall vitality.

Adhyatmika is for students wishing to experience the highest truth or meaning of life. Taught largely to elders, renunciates, and others free from normal daily responsibilities (trust-fund hippies?), this approach is deeply contemplative and emphasizes study, reflection, meditation, prayer and ritual to achieve inner peace and self-realization.

Although these traditional focuses could be called ‘styles’, they are fundamentally different from the ‘styles ‘practiced today The classical approaches were functional, and fluid, changing shape as needed to achieve a specific goal, simultaneously exhibiting deep respect for the needs of the individual. Modern ‘styles’, defined by appearances, promote standardized methods (heated rooms, pre-set sequences or a reliance on props and jargon), and require all students to conform to the ‘style’ to achieve the benefits.

To refine modern Yoga’s perception in this area seems a formidable task. As Yoga becomes more commercial, an identifiable style is equivalent to a copyrightable brand name. Easy visibility is an unquestionable advantage in a marketplace brimming with uninformed neophytes seeking easy answers and a quick fix. So seductive are brand-name styles that ‘viniyoga’, the word T.K.V. Desikachar once used to explain the Yogic principle of appropriate application has itself been perceived as yet another style of Yoga.

But the shift to a richer, more fluid understanding of Yoga is essential and inevitable. Practitioners worldwide are finding that fixed ‘styles’ of Yoga may provide short-term relief, but can, ultimately, deepen the tendency toward physical degradation (thousands of students reporting Yoga-related injuries, long-time teachers needing knee surgery and hip replacements), factional, dogmatic thinking, and emotional rigidity. The attachment to fixed-form ‘styles’ ironically, increases the very restriction (duhkha) Yoga was designed to reduce.

The first step in learning a kinder, more individualized Yoga is emptying our cups of style-centered preconceptions. This is no easy task for teachers (or students) who believe they already know what Yoga is, and are emotionally invested (asmita), and/or financially dependent on their knowledge. Once again, letting go of misperception, becoming teachable, rather than the perfect arm-balance, is the real challenge of Yoga.

Next, we need to establish a relationship with a style-free teacher, preferably one who is a student of such a teacher. There is much we can learn from a teacher who is deeply connected to the Yoga Sutras and immersed in Yoga’s universal principles and the complete range of tools, strategies and their adaptations. With devoted study and diligent practice we will begin to see more clearly and notice what changes and what stays the same. For it is only through this discernment between the unchanging essence and the ever-changing form that Yoga and it’s practitioners can be what they are, free to realize their greatest potential.

One Response to “The Myth of Style in Yoga by Robert Birnberg”

  1. […] Resources page on my this website, written by some of my favorite teachers, explore related themes. […]

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