My first yoga teacher gathered us at the end of class and asked us questions, one of them being to guess how old she was? We thought she was in her mid-50's and she said she was 87. We were in awe. She exuded this glow and this presence that was palatable. Every time we would meet with her she had this constant presence. A few years ago I researched into her whereabouts and when I contacted my old undergrad campus to inquire about her I was told that she had retired a few years ago and died within the past couple years. She kept teaching until she was 103. Amazing! She lifted the bar, of what had inspired me to pursue yoga, to a whole other level.
I am passionately driven to write this article based on the many patients I have seen in my practice, and the individuals I have seen outside of it, that are yoga teachers but imbalanced.
You would think that this wouldn't be the case but unfortunately, yoga has gone far and wide in this culture and there has been a dilution of the practice. I have worked with many teachers who have been burning themselves out, suffering from digestive issues, rupturing or causing bulging discs, sleep issues, join issues, skin issues, mental unrest, and other ailments. I would ask myself "how can this be?"
Just because you might be flexy-bendy, or have tighter abs and gluts as you're doing yoga doesn't mean that you're actually balanced internally. If anything, such physical transformations, though not guaranteed for everyone, are sometimes the by-products of the practice but not the designed goal. The yoga practice was originally a way to become intimate with ourselves, not create a more competitive model, nor comparative one.
I remember doing one of my clinical's in India many years ago and the other Ayurvedic doctors were laughing at how yoga has made its way to the west and that it has been causing an increase in yoga-related diseases and imbalances. I also learned that in recent times, a new chapter has been added to the materia medica of Ayurveda that addresses such diseases. Never has this been an issue before. So, how amazing is it that after thousands of years that such a holistic medical practice has existed and now there is a new chapter to address something that wasn't an issue before?
Yoga practices were designed to support the health of the body so that an individual can develop a sense of connection between body-mind-spirit. In tandem, Ayurveda assisted the side of yoga with diet, per and individuals constitution, along with understanding what the best asana, pranayama, meditation practices, for each individual. Originally, yoga and Ayurveda were not systems rooted in the mentality of one size fits all. Additionally, Ayurveda made sure of this. Ayurveda has been making its way west for the past 30 plus years, after yoga, but in India, they were born together and mainly practiced together. This provided the ultimate holistic approach and protocol to healthcare, disease prevention, disease management, and overall balance.
When I was learning the integration of Ayurveda and yoga, it was repeated over and over again that yoga practiced without Ayurveda is only half a science, and Ayurveda practiced without yoga is half a science. I don't know any Ayurvedic practitioners that aren't versed in yoga but I know many yoga teachers not versed in Ayurveda.
That being said, it would make sense that these yoga teachers that I mentioned above are imbalanced. They tend to teach 20-30 classes of yoga a week. How? Where does the shakti (energy) come from? Yet, digestion is disrupted, and sleep is disturbed, at least.
There is depletion. Ayurveda qualifies the energetic properties of yoga asanas and pranayama practices according to Prana, Tejas, and Ojas. Prana is the principle that governs the energy, life-force, air, chi, and inspiration. Tejas is the principle of illumination, fire, and clarity. Ojas is the principle that governs overall vitality, immunity, strength, earth, and groundedness. The overall intention of a balanced practice is to cultivate all three evenly but too often it is the case that yoga practitioners, not just teachers but also students, that they have High Prana, High Tejas, and Low ojas. Without ojas, there's no point to the practice. High prana suggests too much air which is drying, stimulating, and depleting. High Tejas suggests too much fire, which is drying, stimulating, and depleting. Low Ojas suggests ungrounded, low immunity, and lower quality tissues and cellular quality due to stress.
Without being grounded there's no point in thinking integration when someone is burning up their life-force and increasing too much heat. How do we know when this is happening? Simple, these yoga practitioners are tearing tendons, stressing, straining, and injuring cartilage. They are having insomnia. They have imbalanced digestion. They have dry skin, and lackluster. These are all signs of depletion. I had one yoga teacher that was around the age of 25 and he taught 25 classes a week, was driving around a lot to go from studio to studio, had burning indigestion and was staying up late. He said he loved to teach. I wondered where he was actually getting the energy from since these symptoms were all signs of an imbalanced lifestyle. How can a yoga teacher/practitioner be inspiring and depleted at the same time? I remember telling him that traditionally when a mantra was being passed along it could only be passed along when the energy existed behind it. From there, the energy would sustain and have the ultimate healing properties. Similarly, I said, that teaching yoga is like this mantra practice. We can only give what we have. We can't fake it, though many do or try to. Therefore, how can a yoga teacher pass along such sacred and profound tools of inspiration and transformation when the place that it's coming from, the well is dry?
I've had many yoga practitioners/students come to see me and tell me that breathing practices weren't emphasized during the actual practice of the asanas or that there wasn't any actual rhyme or reason for how the breath was connected to the overall practice, let alone have it follow a yoga practice to lead one to meditation. Classical yoga practices such as the design from Patanjali, suggested the Ashtanga Eight Limbs/Model. Ashtanga in the sense of the traditional practice and not the modern-day spin-off or dilution or even style that exists commonly today. Ashtanga (Ash-tan-ga) means eight and the Ashtanga practice consists of the Eight-fold pathway to yoga. Yoga itself means union, merging, oneness. Yoga is the Science of Self-realization. Ayurveda is the Science of Longevity. The eightfold pathway consists of the Yamas (five points of ethical behavior and how we conduct ourselves), Niyamas (five points of self-discipline molding our morality and behavior), Asana (means to sit but is generally stood as the physical exercises associated to yoga), Pranayama (breathing practices), Pratyahara (drawing in of the senses), Dharana (focusing on one point/concentration), Dhyana (meditation), and Samadhi (awakening/enlightenment/absorption). Here's a LINK to read these for more details. Additionally, here's a simple beginners BOOK to learn more about the tradition and integration of these profound teachings.
Yoga teachers that don't understand or aren't interested in practicing per the design of their constitution (according to Ayurveda) are causing harm to their body's and potentially their minds. Yoga teachers that are teaching students without the understanding of this model of constitutional design are causing harm. How do we know? Because when we take a closer look at the students, we can see it. Now, it is important to mention that there is a natural inherent intelligence or wisdom that when we can pay close attention to it it will guide us in choosing what seems best. I've had patients come in and say that they tried a particular yoga but didn't feel good from it or that something didn't seem right, and when I explained the dynamics according to Ayurveda they were like "ah! makes sense." These aha moments are far and few in between. There are also some yoga teachers that are "tapped" in and are "intuitive" and grounded enough in the practice of yoga that are able to inspire and help deepen individuals in an amazing yoga practice. What I would say here is that that's great, but why not go deeper by knowing the foods that are best for their constitutional design? This is lacking still. So many yoga teachers are suggesting cleanses and detoxes but not really understanding who should do it, based on their constitutional design, or the when part. Check out THIS article for more details about diet and detoxification.
Lastly, it is an honor to mention that there is a recently new category of healthcare, aside from the AD (Ayurvedic Doctor) field that is developing in the USA, as per NAMA, the National Ayurveda Medical Association. This new arena which has also been created and defined by NAMA is known as the AYT, Ayurvedic Yoga Therapist. It is the next step from YT, known as the Yoga therapist, created by the IAYT, the International Association of Yoga Therapists. The YT uses a combination of the yogic practices and techniques along with western criteria and management of health issues. The AYT uses not only the yogic techniques and practices but also a larger portion of Ayurveda, not as advanced as the AD or BAMS (Bachelors of Ayurvedic Medicine and Surgery, classically trained doctors of Ayurveda) to make the practice truly a holistic protocol for healthcare, sick care, and prevention. More details can be read HERE on AYT.
Here is a brief summary of categories that are currently present in the USA:
1. AYURVEDIC YOGA THERAPIST: newly developed; has working knowledge of Ayurveda with its application through the usage of Yoga therapy, which involves the usage of asana practices and other yogic techniques, in support of the holistic approach to health and well-being. The AYT has the most advanced training and perspective in support of a total holistic regimen. This field is uncovered by insurance at this time. These practitioners do not diagnose but can work with diagnoses where applicable.
2. YOGA THERAPIST: has been up and coming in recent years; that involves the usage of asana, general dietary considerations rooted in minimal (compared to AYT and AD) Ayurvedic practices, and its application to individuals who have been given a western diagnosis. This field is uncovered by insurance at this time. YT has a more holistic approach to the management of physical and mental imbalances. They can not diagnose but can work with diagnoses where applicable.
3. PHYSICAL THERAPIST: has been around for a few decades and is in alignment with the western and allopathic approach to physical well-being and recovery from physical ailments. The PT practice is covered by insurance. It doesn’t have a holistic approach but there are PT’s that study holistic approaches and integrates them into their own practices. They can use billing codes to determine what somato-dysfunctions are present but directly are not qualified for any other medical diagnosis.
It is important to note that PT’s are also capable of “treating disease”, whereas the AD, AYT, and YT are not qualified. Though, the AD, AYT, and YT have their own qualifications of assessment based on the Ayurvedic/Yogic model.
In conclusion, the intention of this article isn't to make anyone feel bad or create any sort of judgment. The intention is to increase awareness. I understand everyone is doing the best that they can and there is always room for improvement. It is important to look at your yoga teacher and to look at yourself and question whether you are experiencing the long-term benefits that yoga has to offer or are you noticing an increase in symptoms. Are you doing yoga as part of the fad movement or are you doing it because you're seeking to go deeper and tap into a part of life that is calling to you?