What are Asanas?
Do you think that your headstand or Downward Dog was handed down from yogi to yogi for centuries, or when you're doing the Sun Salutation, you've joined the ranks of yogis who were practicing those same motions thousands of years ago?
Then think again.
The first is, "Sounds great! I'd love to try it." The second, though a minority, tends to be quite vocal. They sputter, "How dare you tinker with the classical postures of this sacred, ancient practice? Who do you think you are? Krishna?"
It's a good question, and one I'll answer, finally, here.
But first, a little about my perspective on the poses, and why I think it's perfectly fine to do with them as I wish:
In my teacher trainings and classes, I not only give instructions about the classical poses like Triangle or Revolved Half Moon...in some cases I improve upon them. I do this by showing students who might not be flexible or strong enough to look like a Yoga Journal cover model some effective modifications like bending the front knee in Half Moon Pose so the student can reach the ground and the core can be properly activated.
I don't use a block like some instructors would and allow the straight front leg to potentially override the all-important pelvic and spinal placement. I work from the ground up. Some yogis growl when I take away their block, and their flexibility-first mentality...but most of them get the point when they are fully, finally immersed in their fantastic alignment and energetic flow.
Now, this aspect of my teaching is pretty tame, and usually isn't a problem for the Posture Police among us: yogis who think that any deviation from the poses set forth in books like BKS Iyengar's Light on Yoga is tantamount to heresy. They might grumble, but they'll settle down.
It's when I do any one of the next three things that gets them all up in arms. In any given class, I might, and usually do:
1. Add dancelike, wavelike or martial-arts-based movements to (and between) poses in order to unlock stuck places and reconnect the student to their optimal energy and alignment.
2. Teach poses and sequences that I created and named, ranging from Charlie's Angel's Mudra to Fists of Fire Lunges, Shakti Kicks to Fierce Lion-and many more. These poses add benefits I deem to be missing from simply repeating the same poses over and over. Plus, they're fun to do.
I even teach a turbosharged Sun Salutation I call the Core Salutations, which heats students up much faster, burns more calories on average and builds greater upper body and core strength than the traditional sequence.
3. Either encourage students to remove postures from their practice that might not be healthy for them or don't personally teach asanas that may be classical, but also have a high injury potential like headstand, shoulderstand, and (gods forbid!) the lotus.
As a general rule, I've developed a rather punk rock approach to yoga practice: I question everything, my teachers, your teachers...even myself.
Assuming that something (say, the way many of us yank our feet forward in Pigeon Pose, getting the shin parallel like we see in books, but sacrificing the knee into a potentially terrible twist) is the gospel truth because you were taught it, even by someone most people have heard of, is unfortunate.
Letting anyone tell you something is right for you when your knee is screaming and your inner teacher is saying "um, actually, for me...this is very, very wrong" is simply not empowering, nor even safe.
Yet so many students allow themselves to give their power and innate body knowledge over to their teachers, because they must know best. And some do. But many teachers have tunnel vision when it comes to the poses themselves, neglecting to instruct towards joint, muscle, and tissue health and instead just repeat the words their teachers gave them
Under the illusion of an "ancient" practice, they have forgotten to question, to re-create...or maybe they just aren't encouraged to.
So it's important to me to have a realistic view of where these poses actually originated, in order to break through their mystique enough to ask those questions.
If I ever wish to add a new pose or variation to my repertoire, before I offer it to my students, I immediately look at it from a clinical point of view. I allow my knowledge of anatomy to trump the classical poses-which, surprising for many people originated not 3, 500-5, 000 years ago as did many yoga philosophies, but were established much more recently in the early 1800s and were recreated again in the early 1900s.