Yoga asana evolves andtakes new forms with aerial and Bowspring
by Linda Mura O’Toole
“Now comes Asana, posture. Until you can get a firm seat you cannot practise the breathing and other exercises. Firmness of seat means that you do not feel the body at all. In the ordinary way, you will find that as soon as you sit for a few minutes all sorts of disturbances come into the body; but when you have got beyond the idea of a concrete body, you will lose all sense of the body…When you have succeeded in conquering the body and keeping it firm, your practice will remain firm, but while you are disturbed by the body, your nerves become disturbed, and you cannot concentrate the mind.”
– Swami Vivekananda,
The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda
In his captivating lectures at the parliament of World Religions in Chicago, Swami Vivekananda was one of the first to introduce Western audiences to the philosophy of yoga in 1893. Nearly a century later, in the mid-1980s, Chicago witnessed the rise of the yoga studio. Today, you can find one studio, or even two, on any major city street, with a wide variety of classes offered daily.
How has this growth affected the practice and teaching of asana? On the one hand, more people coming to their mats has resulted in greater research on safety and alignment. At the same time, the popularity of asana practice among mainstream fitness buffs has created concerns among long-time practitioners on how to preserve the philosophical history of yoga.
Understanding that “one size does not fit all” has been the biggest change with teaching asana, according to Pam Udell, founder of Healing Power Yoga in Highland Park and co-director of House of Shanti Teacher Training. “When I started teaching, we went through teacher training, read a book or watched a video that explained how to teach a pose. Today there are many more studies on yoga safety and alignment about what’s safe and what’s not.”
Noah Mazé, owner of YogaMazé in Los Angeles and former prominent Anusara teacher, also points to the increase in articles and books with evidence-based studies. “I want to read evidence-based studies, not something that comes through on Facebook. If a writer isn’t a physical therapist or doesn’t have a Ph.D. in biomechanics, I don’t want to read the article,” he says.
Mazé grew up in Boulder, Colorado and began his yoga practice at age 14. He credits his parents’ interest in South Asian spirituality for making the philosophies and practice of the yoga tradition part of his upbringing. Richard Freeman, a nationally recognized yoga teacher, was Mazé’s first hatha yoga teacher. In fact, Mazé received high school credit for taking yoga classes with his mom at Freeman’s studio.
Early on, Mazé was classically trained in the Krishnamacharya lineage of Ashtanga. Then he met John Friend, who was a certified Iyengar instructor and founder of Anusara. “Fifteen years ago it was a creative time, partly because I was positioned so closely to the conception of Anusara,” says Mazé. “We were not just trying to preserve an established lineage, we were interested in evolving the conversation. We were updating things about the presentation of yoga to make it more fun, make it an uplifting celebration rather than something a bit more like a discipline—something much less serious.”
Mazé says his practice has shifted quite a bit and believes that’s natural as an individual’s interests shift. “What I like about the practice of asana is that the more we learn about our bodies, we adapt the asana to our bodies as much as we are training and adapting our bodies to the asana,” he says.
“When people hear ‘yoga,’ they think of postural practice, which is certainly not the case historically,” he says, pointing out that in the Yoga Sutras, asana prepared students to sit in meditation. Mazé views the changes in asana as exciting but expresses concerns that some people lack the facts about yoga’s origins and history. “As we are updating the asana practice and doing something different, I’m passionate about educating people about where it has come from. The yoga tradition, lineage and philosophical movements are so important that we don’t want to lose them,” he says.
Gabriel Halpern, founder of Yoga Circle in Chicago, expresses the same concerns. Halpern, who studied with B.K.S. Iyengar and was trained at the Iyengar Yoga Institutes in San Francisco and Pune, India, points out that Iyengar viewed asana as a stepping stone to a higher place.
In his book Light On Yoga, Iyengar explains that the asana practice is important but is not the end goal. “The purpose of asana is to align and harmonize the physical body and all the layers, or sheaths of the subtle emotional, mental and spiritual body. This is integration. But how does one align these layers and experience integration? How does one find such profound transformation in what from the outside may look simply like stretching or twisting the body into unusual positions?” Iyengar writes.
Halpern believes transformation begins with awareness. “It’s the integration that has to do with relationships in your life. You ask, ‘How can I be a better parent, husband, wife, father, daughter?’”
Having practiced yoga for 45 years, Halpern notes that his asana practice is not the same as it was in his 30s or 40s. “Thinking you’re going to be a yoga hatha practice master, for instance do all the poses in Light On Yoga, shows the greed and exhibitionism of Western students,” he says. “The long-range goal of yoga isn’t the pose you can do, how fancy it is, what I call the ‘Hollywood façade.’ It is much more about the realization that comes through asana.”
THE BOWSPRING METHOD TAKES SHAPE
After 20 years of practicing asana, Mitchel Bleier began to question how asana is practiced and taught. “Yoga is so highly personalized and requires such a guidance or self-awareness to understand how asana is impacting youin a healthy or unhealthy way,” he says.
This realization led him to question his practice andcaused him to take a “radical departure” from the teaching of traditional Vinyasa. Along with Desi Springer and John Friend, co-founders of the Bowspring method, Bleier is at the forefront of a form of yoga that he describes as “a dynamic posture that helps selfregulate the body’s natural balance.”
“The practice is new, but the shape of the Bowspring is primordial,” explains Desi Springer. “It is the way we naturally align when we experience joy, beauty, freedom, love and triumph. The heart and ribcage are instinctively full and whole. The Bowspring is curved rather thanstraight, and open as opposed to closed.”
Throughout the practice, each posture becomes a dynamic expansion of the Bowspring in which the spine is actively decompressed and lengthened. “Bowspring works on many different levels,” says Bleier. “It’s strongly based on biology working closely with the nervous system. Internal biology is water, external is air. Bowspring works to balance the two.”
One of the most pronounced differences between Bowspring and Hatha yoga is the fact that the knees are bent. “After practicing Bowspring, my injuries started to go away,” says Bleier. “I couldn’t ignore how good I felt. I wasn’t sore, my hips stopped hurting and I lost 30 pounds.”
In the two years he’s been teaching Bowspring, Bleier hasn’t experienced any hamstring injuries, and his students who had previously complained about back issues appear to be pain-free. “I’m not saying Bowspring is the only way, but it’s my awakening into my habits. It’s made me focus and pay attention,” he says.
ASANA TAKES FLIGHT WITH AERIAL YOGA
While Bowspring focuses on finding the body’s natural balance, another new take on asana seeks to challenge that balance by taking traditional yoga asanas off the mat and into the air, using silk hammocks. It’s called aerial yoga.
The hammock might be the ultimate yoga prop. Able to hold up to 300 pounds, it acts like a swing, holding the hips for forward folds or back bends. It can also work to support certain body parts when performing standing poses like Warrior II.
Jessica Gonzales, founder and co-owner of Yogi Barre in Winnetka, says brightly colored hammocks draw students in. “It lifts you off the ground, and that experience gives you a new perspective,” says Gonzales, who completed aerial yoga teacher training at Air in Chicago.
The hammock can act to support or challenge, so it works for both beginners and advanced students,making certain poses more accessible, she says. “I love it because I think some people are fearful of doing inversions. In the hammock you’re close to the ground, and in our studio there are rubber mats lining the floors,just like carpet, throughout the studio.” The rubber mats provide a safe, cushioned flooring for getting in and out of poses in the aerial hammocks.
MILLENNIALS CONNECT WITH ASANA
The intensity of aerial yoga could be the perfect fit for millennials, the next generation of yoga practitionersand teachers. Futurecast, a millennial marketing firm, explains that millennials are an active generation that values experiences and adventure, and as a result, they are moving away from traditional gym memberships.
But how does the millennial generation view asana? Will they help to preserve the philosophical and historical integrity of the practice? Lisa Pickert began practicing yoga 13 years ago while she was still in college to manage her chronic anxiety. “College was a pretty dark time. I didn’t feel very alive,” she says. “I tried a variety of anti-anxiety techniques and nothing seemed to work, but I always felt good on my yoga mat. I felt more alive on my yoga mat than anywhere else.”
After college, Pickert began working at yogaview in Chicago, completing two teaching trainings to deepen her practice. “It showed me how to become more deeply connected with myself and with others around me,” she says. “I wanted to share that connection, so I began teaching.”
Pickert thinks her generation lives a technology focused lifestyle with much of their connection coming from a handheld device. “We need to get up out of our chairs and reconnect with ourselves and the real world,” she says. “I have people come into my class and say I just need to learn to meditate, how to sit still and calm down.”
Students come to class to become more flexible, but then discover the spiritual aspects of the practice, Pickert observes. “As their physical being is awakened, so too are other layers of their being. They might not even be aware until they find their own thoughts and habits have been shifted.”
Pickert would like to see more studios and teachers teach pranayama and meditation. “Students might learn asana, but if they don’t know how to sit still or they don’t have an understanding of breath and breathing technique, they won’t feel the full benefits,” she says. “This will give students more access to more than a physical practice. It becomes emotional and philosophical.”
With millions of Americans practicing yoga, can we reflect and examine these changes taking place with a sense of non-possessiveness or non-attachment? Halpern is hopeful. “The younger generation has better ideas than I have. I hope they come to me, see my kind of commitment, listen to what I have to say and then find it in themselves to take it to a higher level,” says Halpern. “The future is open. I’m doing my part to share my view, but there is room for a lot of different approachesand interpretation.”
Visit illuminemagazine.net for aerial yoga resources, and learn more about Bowspring Practice at
Linda Mura O’Toole is a registered yoga teacher and received her certificate of training from House of Shanti. She has been practicing yoga for more than 15 years, and she currently teaches at Reach Yoga in Glencoe.