We evolve: our knowledge grows and new understandings dawn. What used to be considered commonsense and the way things are done are revised. This happens in all fields of human enquiry and certainly is happening in the domain of yoga. Twenty years ago the mainstream focus was on how asanas looked, on how to shape the student to match the postures, on aesthetics and enhancing flexibility. Today a growing chorus of teachers and writers has spread the new understanding that a functional approach to yoga asana is both healthier and safer. One strong voice for this intelligent approach to yoga practice is Peter Blackaby.
Peter’s new edition of his 2012 book of the same name, Intelligent Yoga, is filled not only with wisdom and guidance but also with a philosophy that I whole-heartedly endorse. Health is wholeness, and there is no point in trying to isolate one part of the body, whether through using a specific posture or a specific movement, because our body is whole. As Peter says, “…we need to take into account how freely a person moves, how much of a person is involved, and how it makes the person feel…” He explains the dangers of the mereological fallacy, which he describes as “the tendency to ascribe to a part of a thing the quality of the whole.” This means, we tend to focus on the bits, like the hamstrings, instead of the whole…the relationship of the parts are important rather than the parts per se.
With this view of the whole and an understanding of the intention of a yoga practice being wellness rather than flexibility, Peter offers much practical advice. His guidance is especially valuable when he continually reminds us to pay attention, to “re-notice” what our senses are presenting to us. This practical advice often begins with the feet, where Peter invites us to notice what they are sensing. But, in each of his described postures he offers several areas to focus our enquiry. Indeed, after laying the philosophical groundwork for adopting a functional approach to yoga, Peter ends his book with a series of functional asanas. His selection covers almost 50 asanas involving flexion, extensions, side-bends as well as rotation, but also includes tension reducing, sitting and standing positions. None of these asanas require extreme flexibility or strength and are accessible to almost all students, especially when his options are considered.
While Peter is well trained in anatomy and the bits and pieces of the body through his clinical practice as an osteopath, Intelligent Yoga draws on broader understandings of the whole and how we evolved. For example, he discusses the current views of the nervous system and how and when pain arises. Yoga is not just about the muscles or even anatomy or biomechanics. While it can be useful to adopt a reductionist approach to understanding our physical bodies and learn about these parts of ourselves, we must never lose sight of the whole person, which includes the mind, our memories, psychological attitudes and even our social environment. Everything is interconnected.
When one writer reviews the work of another writer, there are always a few times when one goes “Hmmm, I would have said that differently.” And, I am no exception to this urge. Peter has a few poses that he would like to see abandoned, such as wide-legged, seated forward folds, which I find quite delightful. On the other hand, he includes Headstand and Shoulderstand (although with appropriate caveats), which I consider to be high-risk/low-reward postures. I feel there are better ways to receive their purported benefits. Also, several times he warns against allowing compression to arise, such as in the lower back during Pigeon pose: I would agree, but only if the compression resulted in pain. Compression by itself is not a problem and is in fact necessary to maintain tissue health. Too much is not good, but neither is too much tension or stretching. But, overall these are minor nits to pick: the book as a whole is well worth the time to not only read but to follow as a practice guide.
Intelligent Yoga is aptly named. Check it out! Try the postures in the prescribed manner with a sense of enquiry and openness to what you are experiencing. Honing your senses in this way is far more valuable than mindlessly enhancing range of motion or flexibility. This book will help your own yoga, whatever style it is, evolve intelligently.