A ‘basic’ yoga posture that’s anything but (and why you should listen to your body rather than your teacher)

Reversed Warrior yoga posture

For all we know, the guy in this photograph is pictured at the very moment of enlightenment, uniting with the wider cosmos via his body. So it goes without saying that there is nothing wrong with what he is doing.

It should be noted, though, that his spine is curved back and to the side at angles way beyond what is considered functional for the human body; similarly his rear leg is extended far beyond natural range, with powerful effects on his hip joint and pelvis. Again, no problem – it’s his body, he can do whatever he wants with it.

What is a problem, however, is that the shape he is producing here is frequently offered in yoga classes as a reasonably standard, basic posture called Reversed Warrior, sprinkled into flowing sequences of poses, or vinyasas, for a bit of variety.

As the teacher – perhaps hypermobile, as many in the yoga game are – arches beautifully into the shape, burbling the instruction “now reverse your Warrior”, mere mortals attempt to do so and swiftly discover the natural limitations of a healthy human spine and hip joint. If this were the point that the posture was being used to demonstrate, that would be a good lesson.

However, the suggestion is more often that if we keep practising our yoga, one day we too will be able to make this shape; this despite the fact that if we were to continue to do so, there’s a reasonable chance that we might never get close – cue potential feelings of inadequacy – and indeed might hurt ourselves somewhere down the road.

But almost worse than the risk of injury, to my mind, is the fact that instead of the practice being a means of exploring what is happening in the body, mind, the universe, right here and now, yoga becomes something that has to chased after, a goal to be achieved in the future, like a mansion, or an expensive car, or £1million in the bank. And the future, as we know, is something that is by no means guaranteed, considering that we do not even know whether we will be alive in a minute’s time.

I am categorically not suggesting that people should stop doing Reversed Warrior, or any number of other modern yoga postures that similarly require joints to be taken far beyond functional range (that for which the body has evolved to be healthy). If this is the kind of yoga you want to do – if making shapes you consider to be aesthetically pleasing is what the practice is all about to you, if striving and goal-setting and achievement are your thing – then by all means go wild.

However, if you simply want to move your body in a functional way, building useful degrees of strength and flexibility while practising the art of being in the present moment – which is what I think yoga is really all about – it is perhaps worth thinking carefully before you start trying to push yourself into positions like this.

(If, by the way, you find positions like this easy to get into, it is probably worth investigating whether you are hypermobile, and how you might adapt what you do for the health of your joints.)

Remember, you do not have to do what any teacher tells you to do – when it comes to your body, they do not know better than you – and if a teacher tries to physically push you into positions like this, remember you absolutely have the power to tell them to back the hell off.

Remember, too, that there is nothing sacred or special about yoga poses – they are mere positions in which to put the body. The postures that are offered in mainstream yoga classes are generally modern, 100-odd years old, and were mainly invented by blokes who knew little about anatomy and who history has often shown to be pretty nasty pieces of work.

This is not to say there is not plenty of value in these poses; they can be excellent body laboratories in which to explore the deeper layers of who you are. But it is important to reinvent them as you will to suit your own body, or to find ones that work better for you. Just make sure they are serving you in a healthy way.

Fortunately, more teachers are coming round to the approach that empowers practitioners rather than the image-based studio industry. A leading figure helping to inspire the process is Alexandra Crow, whose work I particularly recommend if you are a teacher wanting to learn more. I also strongly recommend Peter Blackaby’s book Intelligent Yoga: Listening to the Body’s Innate Wisdom; and if you ever have a spare hour and a quarter, there’s a deeply inspiring talk by Blackaby here.

In my own quiet way, this is the kind of yoga I am trying to teach in my classes in London. If you happen to be near Woodford Green and are interested, please get in touch. Full details on my website.

A note on the photo
The picture with my post was taken from an online repository of open-source stock photos available for anyone to use as they please. I would never pull a picture at random off a yogi’s personal website or social media feeds. I have used this photo under an open-source licence purely as an illustration of a posture as it is often taught and encouraged in yoga classes, not as a comment on the model.

6 Comments

  1. “mainly invented by blokes who knew little about anatomy and who history has often shown to be pretty nasty pieces of work.”

    I am interested in knowing more about what you meant by this. Thank you.

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    1. Most of the yoga we see in studios was initially developed in India by Tirumalai Krishnamacharya in the 1920s; what he did was inspired by ancient Indian practices as well as by Western exercise systems introduced to India by colonials. He was a well-respected figure, though a man of his time not averse to a little light corporal punishment (he mainly taught young boys).

      Two of his students, Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar, went on to develop what he did and introduce yoga to Westerners on a large scale; these are the guys who have had the biggest influence on modern practice.

      Jois, the father of Ashtanga yoga, regularly sexually abused his female students by inserting his fingers into their bodies while adjusting them, as well as rubbing himself up against them, and was also known for harsh postural “assists” that injured students of both sexes. If you want to know more about this, have a listen to this conversation between one of his victims, Karen Rain, and the yoga scholar and journalist Matthew Remski: https://vimeo.com/268506462 ; there is also an excellent article on the subject by Remski here: https://thewalrus.ca/yogas-culture-of-sexual-abuse-nine-women-tell-their-stories/

      That other Krishnamacharya student Iyengar, meanwhile, was known for hitting his students and being a bit of a brute; take a look at this video of him teaching headstand, starting at 25:45, and you will see him assaulting a woman as his fawning audience laughs: https://youtu.be/2F9uptI0LE0?t=1545 .

      This is controversial stuff, as these guys are much revered by their acolytes. I’m not saying these men’s behaviour means that what they had to teach is bad; they taught some amazing yoga, although clearly because they are of the past, they did not benefit from the growing body of knowledge we have about human anatomy.

      The point I was making in my article is that modern yoga poses were largely invented by very flawed human beings, which most of us tend to be, and are not these sacrosanct positions from the deep past full of spiritual resonance, which is what I believed for a long time. I find it liberating; it emphasises that they are just positions and we can do what we want with them.

      If you want to read more about the development of modern yoga, I’d highly recommend the work of the scholar Mark Singleton (http://www.modernyogaresearch.org/people/n-s/dr-mark-singleton/), whose most important book is Yoga Body, The Origins of Modern Posture Practice (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Yoga-Body-Origins-Posture-Practice/dp/0195395344).

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  2. Very smug. You managed to judge this guy and any yoga teachers or students who value flexibility and challenging their bodies to achieve difficult poses, rather than doing things your way. You even manage to insinuate that they are doing yoga wrong. The tone of this entire article comes across like one big swipe you’re taking at people who can do things you can’t. Yuck.

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  3. Thank you for this brave and important perspective. I feel that, far too often in our world of yoga teaching, outward form and a striving approach take over, with sometimes little regard for the student’s own mindful limitations. In the past i have literally been pushed into poses that my body didn’t naturally want to do, and, as a student, now stay away from a teaching approach that appears to be led primarily by the teacher’s ego and agenda, with few modifications given and no permission to rest or stop if a pose doesn’t feel right. As a yoga teacher of 11 years, i try to teach from the inside out, rather than the outside in, and always bear in mind that this is meditation, not exercise…how does this FEEL right now, for you? Thanks again – I’ve shared on the yoga teachers forum, as I think you cover some hugely important issues that will be less than palatable to many.

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    1. Many thanks; I’m glad you got so much out of my article. I spent a fair while getting off on poses like this because that is what I thought yoga was all about. My body has taught me better. I’ve also been hurt by over-enthusiastic teachers who thought my already-too-deep poses were not deep enough. I don’t practice stuff like this any more, I don’t teach it, and I don’t allow anyone to push me around during yoga. My practice is my practice. I haven’t been teaching anywhere near as long as you, but I am trying to teach in a very similar way to what you describe. As far as I’m concerned, if I do a good job, I make myself redundant by helping students find their own yoga, although I appreciate the energy of a class is part of what people come for. You are right; these views are “less than palatable to many”. Yoga that doesn’t look spectacular doesn’t serve the mass market, which is part of a bigger commercial venture taking in expensive pants and equipment and retreats in exotic locations. I’m happier out of it.

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