• Baxter Bell, MD

6 Yoga Things I No Longer Do or Teach

When a good friend of mine sent me the link to an article entitled “6 Things I No Longer Practice or Teach (and Why)”, my reaction, before even thinking about reading it, was “darn!” My friend and I often talk about poses in the modern yoga tradition that we don’t do anymore or teach to our students, and someone has beaten us to the punch. As I have not read the article yet, I thought I’d go ahead and share with you my own list of 6 and why I don’t teach or practice these things any longer. Then, and only then, will I click through to see what the article says and see how many practices we have in common. Here we go:

1&2: The King and Queen are Dead - I no longer teach or practice Headstand or Shoulderstand

When I started doing yoga in the early 1990’s, all of my first teachers were from the Iyengar tradition, which placed a lot of emphasis on these 2 poses, even crowning them with special significance. And I did them a lot back in the day, even holding them for 20 minutes in some classes. At the time, I enjoyed the challenges of these poses and even felt the after-effects as pleasant and worthwhile. However, over time and with greater reflection, I became more concerned with the potential negative impacts of the poses, in particular on the bones and tissues of the neck, which, after all, have evolved to be at the top of our bodies, not bearing all that weight. And with many of my students advancing in age and at risk of osteoporosis, the risks started to outweigh the benefits in my mind (and in my neck!).

I also came to realize that a lot of the purported physiologic benefits (such as lowered blood pressure and heart rate) could be achieved with much safer alternatives, such as Downward Dog, Supported Bridge Pose or Legs Up the Wall. So, for me and my students, the monarchy is over.

3: Lotus Pose

True confessions: I have very tight hamstrings and anything that needs length and flexibility there is really challenging for me. However, I have pretty good external rotation of my hips, so since I first started doing yoga, Lotus pose and similar poses, where one or both legs were in the lotus position, were accessible to me. It was not exactly easy, and it did not feel great to be in it for more than a few minutes before the knees and ankles started to protest, but I could do it. Again, with time, reflection and observation, I came to realize that the majority of my students could not do this pose safely without the risk of straining the hips, knees or ankles, and if they were aggressive and cavalier in their approach, they could really injure themselves significantly. And other than “being able to sit in Lotus,” I could not find any other compelling reason to subject most of my students and even my own gradually aging body to this particular pose.

There are lots of great sitting alternatives to lotus that are much safer and still involve external rotation of the thigh bones, if that is your underlying goal for doing it: Easy Sitting Pose (crossed legs), Cobblers pose, even Siddhasana, even though it, too, can prove challenging if knees and ankles are tight.

4: Advanced Arm Balances

As upright beings, we humans have evolved to have thinner bones in the arms and wrists, as we no longer have to move on all 4s. This has liberated our hands and fingers to be quite dexterous compared to our feet, but also more vulnerable to excessive use and strain. As with Headstand and Shoulderstand, there was quite a bit of emphasis on learning and mastering these poses in my early yoga life, and as I was pretty strong in my upper body and a rock climber at the time, I was able to learn poses like Crow pretty easily. And it is true that weight-bearing exercises on the hands can potentially strengthen the bones of the wrists, which may be particularly important to those at risk for or having thinning of the bones. That acknowledged, these poses put an excessive amount of pressure on the wrist joints, and often take the wrist into a hyper-extended position that increases the chance of aggravating this vital joint. And, unless you are shooting to work for Cirque de Soleil, their value for our activities of daily living is low.

And you can still do safer weight-bearing on the hands and wrists with many other poses in yoga, such as Plank Pose, Downward Facing Dog, modified versions of Side Plank, even good old Cat-Cow!

5: Straight-Legged Standing and Seated Forward Bends (Uttanasana and Paschimottanasana)

You’ve already heard my true confession about the tightness I personally carry in the hamstrings, or more accurately, the posterior superficial myo-fascial plane of my body. So, standing and seated straight-legged forward bends have always been challenging for me. But that does not mean I did not do them and even notice an improvement in my range of motion with forward bending. With time and experience and observing the myriad students in my Yoga for Back Health classes over the years, once again I’ve come to the conclusion that for a large portion of my students and for me personally, doing these poses with straight legs increases the chances of straining the lower back (the most vulnerable area for most people with these poses), and in worst case scenarios, injuring deeper structures such as the spongy discs between the vertebrae.

And the work of Jean Couch and her “Fig Leaf Forward Bend,” as well as a wonderful variation of seated forward bend using a bolster under the knees (thanks, dear Donald Moyer!), has forever changed my need to offer these poses with straight legs. As with all of these poses, for some practitioners, doing them as traditionally taught may work just fine, but for me and my students, I believe I have found a better way!

6: Revolved Triangle

Here is yet another pose that was considered a real badge of achievement back in the day, but which required pretty dramatic flexibility in multiple planes of myofascial tissue in order to be done as pictured by practitioners like Patricia Walden, who I had the great honor of studying with in the early 2000’s. As a family doctor, one of the most common situations leading to lower back strain in my patients was bending forward and twisting to get something out of the trunk of a car. Revolved Triangle seemed to be adding more potential trouble to me by combining a challenging forward bend (for the front leg) with a very deep spinal twist. Just to be clear, we all want to have and preserve some forward bending capacity and twisting capacity in our bodies. However, as I observed my fellow students in class when we were instructed in doing the pose, I noted that only 1-2 out of 20-30 students seemed to have access to the flexibility needed to do the pose safely.

And after traveling to India in 2005 to study with TKV Desikachar and faculty at the KYM in Chennai, I was exposed to alternatives to the variation I had learned originally that was more accessible and less risky, and so I’ve let this pose go, too, and my body and my students have never once complained!

Dynamic Easy Revolved Triangle (TKV style)

Or even safer with no forward bend: Upright Revolved Triangle

Wow, having only 6 to list is somewhat limiting, as I also no longer teach or practice Upward Facing Wheel pose (too much hyperextension of the shoulder joints and spine needed for most normal folks to do safely), regular Pigeon pose without props (oh, that vulnerable front knee and the SI joints!), or Chaturanga Dandasana (low pushup- which tends to wreak havoc on wrists, elbows and shoulders) either.

And now that you have patiently heard how about what I have let go of, I am now ready to ready the article that Perry sent me and see how things stack up. Here is the link to that article if you are curious, too.

I’d also add that although I have focused on the physical risks associated with these 6 poses, when one over-efforts to master poses like these, there are also effects that may be undesirable on the mental-emotional level as well. And if we return to some of the basic goals of yoga, such as the purpose of yoga being to quiet the fluctuations of the mind, or that asana should be both steady and comfortable, you may all find at least 6 poses or practices that are no longer necessary to achieve those goals. What are yours, and why?