The ten-year itch: What is a flow class, exactly?

My next episode of “The Ten Year Itch” has been sitting on my desktop for a couple of weeks now.  And it’s not (entirely) due to my usual busi/laziness.  A few weeks ago I have the good fortune to meet Matthew Remski, a yoga and Ayurveda teacher, thinker and critic.  His writing and thinking have really blown me (and a lot of other people) away, and has both helped clarify and confuse what I want to say here.  I’ll explain a little, but I simply can’t recommend reading his essays often enough.

Remski is currently engaged in a project he’s calling “What Are We Actually Doing in Asana?“, interviewing different yogis all over the world, with many different experiences of the yoga practice positive and negative, who have (or believe they have) been seriously injured in a long term asana (postural yoga) practice.  The place he keeps landing that is interesting to me is a nagging paradox that in a movement form being widely promoted as therapeutic, there are a lot of techniques that can’t help but lead to injury, and there is a (usually but not aways) unspoken belief that there is some kind of magic to a yoga practice that will make it all okay.  (This is my description, not his, though I showed it to him before publishing this and he thought it fair.)

Like most yoga teachers these days.  I made my bones as a teacher teaching vinyasa, or “flow” yoga, first specifically power flow, then to a more eclectic brew. And while I’ve broadened what I do as a teacher, it is still the crux of my public teaching.  One of the big national gym chains defines vinyasa as follows, and I think it fairly reflects a popular understanding of vinyasa:

“A vigorous, more athletic approach to yoga techniques characterized by flowing poses and sequences that are linked to the breath. Classes are diverse and sequencing will vary with instructor philosophy.”

As I’m following this line of inquiry that Matthew and others are leading, I’m thinking specifically about how vinyasa yoga, or “the flow” was sold to me and the other students I learned with.

Through many trainings and workshops and classes, these are some memorable descriptions of vinyasa yoga, from teachers, dedicated students, and yoga curmudgeons alike.  (those from a senior teacher or school are marked with a *.  I don’t want to turn this into a post fighting about particular teachers or styles, so I won’t ID them beyond that):

– A series of conscious movements, connected by breath, designed to stretch and strengthen the body, improve mobility and stability.

– A movement metaphor for the life cycle: we start in child’s pose and end in corpse.*

– “A moving meditation”*

– a kick-ass workout.

– Yoga as choreography.

– “a catalyst for transforming old patterns and paradigms of the body, self and
the world to discover the potency and creativity within a way of liberating the natural flow of the spontaneous intelligence”*

– a physical path to a whole life transformation.  A place for breakthroughs.

– “That’s not yoga!  That’s Jane Fonda!”*  (okay, I’ll attribute that one.  That’s Bikram describing Baron Baptiste’s Power Yoga)

– a path to healing.

– a lot of Sun Salutations and really loud music.

– “Yoga church.”

– “Through the integration of body and breath, movement and meditative awareness, we are made aware of the interdependency of all things, to the knowing that we are all here to learn about love, and that God- truth and love- is in all experiences.”*

So just in those eleven descriptions, you have flow yoga imagined as physical fitness, physical therapy, dance rehearsal, psychotherapy, rave, meditation, social activism, and religious ritual. (and maybe catfight)

Add to that the various physical forms that vinyasa yoga liberally borrows from- modern dance, traditional physical therapy, martial arts, pilates, strength training, capoeira, acrobatics, and of course “traditional” asana.  (whatever that is)

And then there are the philosophical schools and systems that various major vinyasa teachers and schools incorporate into their teaching and teacher training beyond just the major yoga texts: Ayurveda, Tantra, several different schools of Buddhism, The “Law of Attraction”, Gestalt therapy techniques, EST, the Tao Te Ching,  The Work of Byron Katie, Astrology Vedic and otherwise, various “new age” propositions, Rumi (who remember, was a Sufi Muslim), and, and, and…

To be clear, I’m don’t want to argue here that flow yoga, or any yoga, should or shouldn’t include any of the movement styles I listed above, or that any of the descriptions are wrong.   I have neither the wisdom nor the chutzpah to start making those judgements.  (I have strong opinions, for sure, especially about philosophy, but another day).

But I don’t think a flow class can be ALL of the things on that list.  Rarely have I seen a “kick-ass workout” in any format that didn’t put the body at risk; it usually involves a speed where safety is easily compromised (power yoga, looking at you).  So can you have a kick-ass workout that is yoga therapy?  Is a yoga class where choreography (i.e. creative sequencing) is the primary focus going to provide adequate stability for the body?  Is it really necessary to (re)enact my whole life on the mat every time I take a flow class?

So what exactly IS vinyasa yoga?  Aerobic Eucharist?  Side plank as therapist’s couch?  Sweat ecstasy?  All, none, some of the above?

Am I using a bit of a rhetorical straw man, probably, but my point is, what are teachers teaching, and students looking for, in flow yoga?  And is what we are looking for best serving us, in mind and body?  I don’t have an answer, but I am going to to continue to explore the question in the broader context of what we’re really doing in asana.  I appreciate thoughts and feedback.

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