Why After Ten Years of Teaching Yoga We Became Physiotherapists

By Simon Borg-Olivier

Fit, healthy and natural people move easily without the heart racing and while hardly breathing and move without sensations of  stretching or tensing muscles as they move easily during their activities. This is what defines them as fit and healthy and also is part of what allows them to feel connected physically and energetically in a state we could call ‘yoga’ (union). However, many people practicing modern yoga do it in a way that could suggest they are trying to mimic an unfit person with lots of injuries. By intentional breathing more and restricting the flow of blood they over-breathe and unnecessarily increase heart rate to compensate for lack of circulation like an unfit person. By intentionally feeling stretch and tension many people mimic the sensations of having an injured region in the body. Imagine if you felt a stretch or felt tension when you want to cross your arms of take a few steps – you would immediately know something was wrong with you. Natural yogis dont feel stretch or tension when they come into postures. Over-tensing, over-stretching, over-breathing all block yoga and lead to injury and illness. Five things block the flow of circulation and the energetic connection within the body that is yoga. These things are

1. Over-tensing

2. Over-stretching

3. Over-breathing

4. Over-thinking

5. Over-eating

Understanding this as the key to good yoga and yoga therapy (which are in a way the same thing). What we should look for in our physical practice is to:

  • improve flexibility without feeling intense stretch
  • improve strength without feeling tense or stressed
  • become more relaxed without needing to be completely passive
  • improve energy levels and circulation without having to breathe more than normal or make the heart beat faster
  • improve the intelligence of my body cells without having to over-think
  • satiate appetite and feel nourished and rejuvenated without having to over-eat

But how can we do this. This involves a deep understanding not just of traditional hatha yoga, but it also needs a deep understanding of applied anatomy and physiology and also a deep understanding of how the modern body differs from the body of person who lives a traditional lifestyle such as that which is still being lived in some parts of the world including some villages in India.

Bianca Machliss & Simon Borg-Olivier (Yoga Synergy) practicing together on Bondi Beach (photo courtesy Newspix)

Figure 1: Bianca Machliss & Simon Borg-Olivier (Yoga Synergy) practicing together on Bondi Beach (photo courtesy Newspix)

Why we became physiotherapist after ten years of teaching yoga:

People often ask us why after ten years of ‘successfully’ teaching yoga and managing to get 60-80 people in most of my classes in the early 1990’s why did we bother to go back to university and spend another four intense years of studying to become physiotherapists.

The truth was that even most of our classes were packed we were simply not happy with the results we was getting from all the people in our classes. I had been teaching since 1982, like most teachers’ classes, my classes were small to begin with but within ten years they had increased significantly, and by all reckonings I was a successful yoga teacher. However, I was repeatedly noticing that not everyone was happy with the yoga I was offering.

I was not alone. Every yoga teacher I knew was saying the same story then (and many say the same thing today). The statistics then were about the same as they are today. About 50%  of people who tried their first yoga class never came back to yoga, another 45% of people never continued past about one year and only 5% continued practicing more than one year. I was so passionate about my practice, but I had to ask why was it that only one person in twenty (5%)  finds yoga worth continuing after one year and and ten out of twenty people are not interested enough to come back after the first class. After many years of interviewing students and ex students I came to the following conclusions.

  • Most people who don’t  come back after their first physical yoga class or leave before the end of one year either because it did not feel good (or even felt painful or caused injury) or that it was ineffective.
  • Many  people who remain after their first class but leave before the end of their first year actually sustained injuries from practicing physical yoga.

There was something missing in the yoga that we were practicing and teaching. Why was it that not everyone was getting the benefits, why many people were getting injured and why not everyone had the same passion for yoga that we had.


In 1992 I decided along with my business partner, Bianca Machliss, that we didn’t really know enough about the human body to teach yoga in a safe and/or effective manner for everyone. We both decided we needed to go back to the University of Sydney, where we had first met, and study to become physiotherapists.

I did not feel that after ten years of teaching, more than twenty years of self practice, and learning from some of the world’s best teachers (such as Sri BKS Iyengar and a Sri K Pattabhi Jois), that I knew enough to be responsible for, and deal with, people’s bodies. Furthermore, many people who came to physical yoga classes came with specific musculoskeletal problems and medical conditions.

Many people came to yoga because their level of fitness and health made other more conventional exercise such as teams sports, gymnastics, martial arts and dance too difficult to attend or attempt. If I made the class very safe and accessible it was not very effective in developing strength, flexibility and fitness, but if I made the class more challenging so that it could address strength, flexibility and fitness, then the practice became less accessible and the risks  of injury became greater.

Bianca and I decided to go back to Sydney University, where we had met some years before, to enrol in what was to to become my third degree in human biology, a bachelor or applied science in Physiotherapy. Although we had already studied a lot of anatomy and physiology in our previous degrees, we were convinced we still didn’t know enough to give yoga teaching the justice it deserved. So at that time we changed the name of our school to Yoga Synergy. We wanted to create a true synergy between traditional Eastern yoga and modern Western science.

Also, we realised that although it was fine to give yoga to most traditional bodied people such as those living a traditional lifestyle in villages in India, traditional yoga would generally not work for the the modern body. That is the body that sits for 5-15 hours a day in a chair and does many other things to lose its natural nature.

 

Yoga today
The following information is about Yoga Today and the loss of the natural state in the modern body. It explains why it is inappropriate and mostly ineffective to give traditional yoga to the modern body. This forms the basis of Yoga Therapy. Yoga therapy is essentially good yoga practiced sensibly and appropriately for any individual. If you want to learn more about how you can use this information to help yourself and/ or others then come to part or all of my live course on Yoga Therapy in Sydney from 14-23 August 2015 (https://yogasynergy.com/main/yoga-therapy-vinyasa-intensive). This information is adapted from the book to our online course ‘Teacher Training Essentials: Yoga Fundamentals’ (https://yogasynergy.com/shop/advanced-yoga-fundamentals-online-course/).

Sadly, a lot of the yoga is lost in the modern world. In America for example there is 20 million people practising yoga – that is about a tenth of the American population practising yoga of some sorts, and probably about a tenth of the people in Australia and the rest of the world.

However, it seems like a lot of the yoga most people are practising in the world today has been reduced to just physical posture (âsana), movement (vinyâsa) and some type of breath-control (prânâyâma). Unfortunately, many people practice posture (âsana), movement (vinyâsa) ‘breath-control’ (prânâyâma) haphazardly by over-stretching, over tensing and over-breathing and/or over thinking.

Yet when you talk to a person who is established in yoga with years of physical practice, they can tell you that even when they are in difficult postures, once they are established, it doesn’t feel like stretching, it doesn’t feel like tensing, and it usually doesn’t feel like you are breathing at all. Even what seems like a strength position, something that looks like it is gymnastic in nature, such as balancing on one arm, doesn’t feel like tension, it doesn’t feel like stretching – it feels like a focused, yet relaxed and peaceful place.

At times of deep meditation and concentration it is completely natural for your breathing to become invisible, inaudible, natural breath. This description of breathing is the same as is described to be the state of yoga in the old texts on physical yoga such as the hatha yoga pradipika and the gheranda samhita.

Many practitioners of yoga have turned it into a type of gymnastics, which admittedly it can at times resemble, but the essence of yoga is so much deeper than that alone. Even on a physical or physiological level, postures that look like stretches and admittedly have lengthened muscles are in fact facilitating the movement of energy (prâna) and information (citta) through the body.

A general guide when doing physical yoga is to not look for stretch or tension in your practice – look for length (instead of stretch in the muscles) and action (doing something instead of creating unnecessary tension). In other words it is best to look for a good feeling in your body-mind as opposed to a sense of discomfort or pain through stretch and tension.

It is the combination of length, creating regions of low pressure (tha), and action (via muscle activation) creating regions of higher pressure (ha), that generates force (hatha) within the body to circulate energy and information.

On a physical level it is the movement of energy and information through the body that gives you a much better feeling for what the yoga is going to do for you rather than stretching or tensing muscles. So, as you practice the sequences in this book be aware that whenever you feel that there is a ‘stretching’ feeling, or whenever you feel tense, or when you notice that there is a lot of breathing going on when you could probably breathe less if you relaxed a bit then possibly you are moving further away from the yogic path rather than towards it.


 Simon Borg-Olivier getting into Padmasana (lotus posture) in the traditional manner of not using the hands to help

Figure 2: Simon Borg-Olivier getting into Padmasana (lotus posture) in the traditional manner of not using the hands to help

Figure 2: Active movements: To achieve physical yoga in a ‘Lotus posture’ (Padmasana) you should be able to get into the ‘Lotus posture’ (Padmasana) with as much ease as you would be able to ‘cross your arms’

To understand what is the difference between what is meant by ‘lengthening’ your muscles as opposed to ‘stretching’ your muscles it is useful to appreciate that yoga is trying to re-establish our natural state of being. Therefore, you can get an idea of what physical yoga is meant to feel like by observing those parts of your body that still behave naturally.

For most people their arms are still work relatively naturally in simple behaviours such as ‘crossing the arms’. So, for example, if you ‘cross you arms’ by taking one hand onto the opposite shoulder and do the same with your other hand, for most people it doesn’t feel like your are ‘stretching’ anything. Yet, if you place two fingers on either side of the back of the elbow and then bend and straighten the elbow the fingers move apart and then come closer together as the elbow bends and straightens. This shows that the muscles of the elbow were ‘lengthened’ when you when you did this natural activity of bending the elbow but it didn’t feel like you were ‘stretching’ the elbow.

Similarly, the natural activity of ‘crossing your arms’ allows us to appreciate the difference between ‘tensing’ muscles as opposed to simply ‘activating’ muscles by ‘doing an action’. When you bend your elbow to ‘cross your arms’ it doesn’t feel like your are ‘tensing’ muscles’, but if you touch your biceps brachialis (the muscle on the front of the upper arm) when the elbow bends to cross your arms you can easily feel the biceps muscle working as you make the action of moving the arm into this position. This shows that the muscles of the elbow were ‘activated’ when you when you did this natural activity of bending the elbow but it didn’t feel like you were ‘tensing’ the biceps or any other elbow muscles.

So, a physical yoga practice in a flexible and natural body could be as effortless as ‘crossing your arms’. In fact, for a natural bodied person, for example someone who always squatted and sat cross-legged on the floor, ‘Lotus posture’ (Padmasana) is as ‘effortless as crossing your arms’. Your legs in the ‘Lotus posture’ (Padmasana) should be able to be like your hands – one coming on top of the other. It should not be something where you force or pull the legs into position as many people do in modern yoga, which tends to cause sensations of ‘stretch’ and reflex ‘tension’ (see Figure 1.1).

This principle is reflected morally in the first limb (yama) of astânga (eight-limbed) yoga. It is the very act of moving naturally into a position by ‘activating’ muscles rather than ‘tensing’ muscles that encourages the movement of energy and information through the body. This principle is reflected physiologically in the hatha yoga vidya (the science of physical yoga) and is further explained in Chapter 2 of this book.

 

Âsana and the Modern Western Body

Forcing the body into postures is one of the misunderstandings of modern yoga and often where many mistakes take place in people’s practice. This is because the history of yoga has to be taken into conjunction with the traditional culture prevalent when yoga was being developed.

The biggest danger in the modern interpretation of yoga is that many people look at the final postures and they assume that they are sensible and safe things to do for the modern Western body. The modern Western body is not the same as the traditional, cultural body of ancient times. The traditional Asian body for example, which still exists in many places, is a much more natural body and has different lifestyle features to the modern body, especially the modern Western body.

Once in the West certain people only used chairs to sit on. In Egypt the history of the chair is long but it was used for Royal purposes. The chair existed all over the world but not for the common person. The common person would sit on the floor, cross-legged, in the ‘Lotus position’ (Padmasana) or sitting in the kneeling position, but very rarely sitting in a chair. A natural bodied spine remains mobile throughout a lifetime. This is partly because the whole spine has to move when you sit on the floor and collect things from either side of you.

Throughout most of history the chair was very rarely used for toilet situations. Its modern use in toilets is reflected by the expression ‘sitting on the throne’, which alludes of course to the royal history of the chair. Natural or traditional people have always squatted for toilet situations from about six months old. Many people in the modern world (‘normal’ people as opposed to ‘natural’) cannot squat at all, especially not comfortably. It is common and normal in India for people to squat for an hour or more while waiting for a train or bus, but even the majority of experienced Western yoga practitioners would find squatting that long very uncomfortable. Also, when a flexible and natural bodied person is in a squat the spine should be able to be straight, while for most ‘normal’ Western people the hips are so stiff that spine has to bend to squat assuming they can squat at all.

It is easy to see then that a ‘natural’ or traditional bodied person who’s able to sit for a long time cross-legged can simply fold their legs into the ‘Lotus posture’ (Padmasana) like ‘normal’ Western people can ‘cross their arms’. A natural bodied person in traditional India can easily lift one leg and bring it behind their head without using their hands. You can even see videos on the internet today of Indian yogi’s bringing the soles of their feet to their chest with both knees on the floor to the ‘Feet to chest posture’ (Kandâsana) (Figure 1.2) without using their hands to help.

Most ‘normal’ (non-traditional) people (the authors included) have to at least use their hands to help them lift their feet if they can even approach this difficult posture. Even, decades of intense physical yoga practice cannot compensate for a non-traditional lifestyle.

D04c (3714) Kandasana

Figure 3: ‘Feet to chest posture’ (Kandâsana) is a posture that is relatively easy to pull your legs as was done for this photo, but a truly natural bodied person should be able to bring their feet into this posture without pulling with the hands.

 

The history of modern yoga and its relationship the chair culture

Most people in the West, unless they have a very physically active job, sit on chairs for most of the day. In fact, research shows that it is quite common for the modern Western body to sit on some sort of chair for 8 to 15 hours per day, and that is usually in a slouching position.

The modern Western world is essentially a chair culture. Even if someone is actually ‘sitting up straight’ in a chair it is probably still not good for their body because their hips neither turn in or turn out and spine hardly needs to move. In a chair the hips can easily move up and down if you move from side to side so the spine does not have to bend much. Whereas, if you are sitting cross-legged on the floor your hips are turned out and so they are less likely to lift off the floor when trunk moves to one side, which means that your spine actually has to bend.

Regular sitting cross-legged on the floor throughout life is an important factor in maintaining spinal mobility. However, most people do not ‘sit up straight’ on chairs but instead they tend to slouch. It is very common for people to slouch while eating, writing, reading, working on a computer or watching television or other presentations. Also, most people rarely travel by walking, which can be a healthy physical yoga practice where your spine moves in all directions when it is done in a natural healthy way.

Instead most people travel (usually slouching) in the chairs of trains, buses cars and even riding a bicycle. So even if a modern Western person is a good yoga practitioner and manages to do a couple of hours of physical yoga everyday they will also commonly have the misfortune of having to sit or slouch in a chair for up to 8 hours per day or more. So, even ‘advanced’ practitioners of physical yoga who live in a modern Western culture, are unlikely to have regained the natural body we were all born with  that is retained by the traditional Indian person for most of their life. This means that when modern Westerners attempt the traditional yoga postures, instead of getting movement of energy and information through their body, which is a primary physiological purpose of yoga, they get knee problems, lower back problems, neck problems, and shoulder problems.

Also, this physical set of problems is made worse because of the lifestyle that we live in terms of how we breathe and how that relates to the food we eat.

 

‘Natural’ breathing in modern life

The oldest forms of traditional yoga are mainly focused on meditation. Breathing in meditation is completely naturally. Many scientific studies have agreed with ancient texts that the more someone meditates, the less they breathe. However, studies of natural breathing done repeatedly over the last century have shown that the average ‘normal’ person is actually breathing about twice as much more now than the average person was 80 or 90 years ago.

We can speculate that the reasons for this are as follows. Over the last century our diet has changed significantly by becoming more processed, and there are more pollutants in the air that we breathe. A lot of the pollutants in the air are very acidic. A lot of the food that people eat now contains many acidic residues. The acidic residues in food are primarily from things such as high protein foods and foods that are chemical in nature, such as the additives and flavourings in foods.

Our body can only tolerate so much acid before it complains. When we retain carbon dioxide inside ourselves it becomes carbonic acid. If we have too much acid inside us from things like processed foods and pollutants our body tends to compensate for this by breathing more in order to reduce acid levels but breathing out carbon dioxide. According to physiology textbooks the average person needs to breathe about 4 to 6 litres per minute. However, this figure is based on studies done about 90 years ago. Recent studies suggest that the average people today needs to breathe about 10 – 12 litres per minute at rest to feel normal for themselves.

The mythology of modern everyday life says we should breathe more. The mythology of modern everyday life says we should exercise to make our heart go faster. This is the opposite of what the mythology of traditional yoga says. In yoga philosophy, it is said that the Yogi measures their life not by the number of years they live, but in how many breaths they take and the number of beats their heart makes. So the aim in yoga is to do more things while making the heart beat less and by breathing less. On a physiological level breathing less than normal (hypoventilation) actually brings greater amounts of oxygen to your cells than breathing more than normal.

Learning how to breathe less than normal is the art of prânâyâma – the art of ‘breath-control’. Sadly, much of then modern yoga being taught today is emphasising the opposite type of breathing, over-breathing, rather than breathing less. In the beginning, the best type of breathing people can do is in meditation. In meditation, you find that your natural breath starts to come back. Natural breathing is invisible and inaudible breathing at rest. It is the closest thing to natural prânâyâma. Breath-control in its ultimate state is meditation. Many people try to control their breath physically by doing what they perceive to be slow and deep breaths but in this practice unless they are breathing less than one full breath a minute they are usually doing the opposite of prânâyâma and actually breathing more than normal (hyperventilation).

So modern yoga has become problematic. There are physical problems caused by lack of understanding of what the natural body used to be in the natural culture of historical Asia and how the modern body differs from it. There are physiological problems because of the notion that we have to breathe more and make our heart beat faster, which over stimulates the nervous system, creating stress and causing less oxygen to be transported to our cells.

 

YOGA THERAPY:

Once you appreciate that traditional yoga has to be modified to take into account the features of the modern body that have lost their natural state due to the unnatural lifestyle modern people have, then you also can see the main things that have to be applied for effective Yoga Therapy.

If you want to learn more about how you can use this information to help yourself and/ or others then come to part or all of my live course on Yoga Therapy in Sydney from 14-23 August 2015 (https://yogasynergy.com/main/yoga-therapy-vinyasa-intensive).

If you cannot come to see us live you can also join our award winning online courses ‘Applied Anatomy and Physiology of Yoga’ (https://yogasynergy.com/shop/anatomy-physiology-yoga-online-course/) and ‘Teacher Training Essentials: Yoga Fundamentals’ (https://yogasynergy.com/shop/advanced-yoga-fundamentals-online-course/).

If possible please come to our 200 hour Teacher Training Courses in Sydney (over 9 weekends starting in August 2015 and finishing in May 2016), or for one intensive amazing month in Goa India from 19 March – 17 April 2016 (https://yogasynergy.com/training)

 

 

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