Practicing Safe Yoga: Yoga Comes of Age In America
An interview with Ann Bissanti
Spirit of Change publisher Carol Bedrosian receives an alignment adjustment in eka pada rajakoptasana, aka, one legged pigeon pose, from Yoga teacher Ann Bissanti. The blocks allow lengthening of the spine and plenty of space to prevent risk of spinal nerve compression.
I have been blessed in this lifetime with the gift of finding excellent teachers and healing practitioners to work with. When I met Yoga teacher Ann Bissanti at my very first Yoga class in 1995, I was an ambitious, over-scheduled, results-oriented holistic magazine publisher looking to optimize every moment of my precious time. I'd heard and read so much about Yoga over the past eight years publishing Spirit of Change magazine, I was convinced that Yoga would provide the biggest healing benefit per hour of my time invested.
Seventeen years later, I'm glad to report I was absolutely right about the healing power of Yoga, and I'd even go so far as to say that Yoga is responsible for keeping me healthy. I can feel prana — the energy of life transported through breath — surging through meridian pathways in my body during Yoga poses, feeding and flushing as it goes along. I can feel the flexing and toning of tendons and muscles, the wringing of internal organs like a sponge to squeeze out stagnation and restore refreshment and suppleness. Yoga means lots of deep, cleansing breaths and sweeping away mental debris and clutter in order to hold the poses. I can only imagine how quickly disease would set in if I didn't keep up with my internal housekeeping on a regular basis!
While much of this reward is due to my long term efforts in attending class and practicing at home, the gifted teaching skill of 35-year Yoga veteran Ann Bissanti provided the light so I could move steadily along the path without stumbling too much. All the more reason I was so stunned to read the recent scathing articles about yoga in the New York Times claiming "yoga can wreck your body" among other charges of fraud and unethical conduct in the "6-billion dollar a year yoga industry." Just some bad apples in the barrel, I wondered?
Interestingly, I discovered these issues tied to a recent grammatical trend I'd noticed in capitalizing Yoga as a proper noun. As an editor, I felt no differently about the noun yoga than I did about exercise, nutrition or health. However, when I looked up Yoga in the dictionary I found both an upper case "Yoga" — a spiritual philosophy utilizing techniques of physical and mental self-discipline to attain self realization — and a lower case "yoga," a system of physical postures, breathing and mediation derived from Yoga to promote mental and physical well-being, particularly popular in the West.
From this perspective, I could easily see how the Western tradition of instant gratification could result in injury or dysfunction for yoga students eager to gain the advanced health benefits without installing all the safety features first. Delving into this interview opened up exciting new insights for me about Yoga after 17 years of study, and I reaped the physical rewards of that mental expansion in my very next practice.
Yoga is thousands of years old, a simple and highly effective self-care regimen that was never meant to be competitive, speedy or glamorized. However it's not too hard to fathom how America turned it into a trendy 6-billion dollar "industry" practically overnight. Take care to know the giver when you are unwrapping your own amazing gifts of Yoga.
Carol Bedrosian: Can you tell me a little bit about how you started your practice as a Yoga teacher?
Ann Bissanti: I developed an interest in Yoga when I was in graduate school in psychology. I was introduced to a Yoga teacher in one of my classes who got my attention right away. It wasn't so much what she said — she was there to talk about altered states of consciousness — as it was her manner, her presence and her energy. She had come to Yoga herself through reading Autobiography of a Yogi and she went to live in his [Paramhansa Yogananda's] ashram in California and stayed there for about 15 years. So she really immersed herself in it and it showed in her presence.
I started to take some of her classes at a local adult education program; this was in the early 70's. I had some lovely initial experiences just from the way she taught and I was hooked. I ended up moving to Massachusetts from New Jersey and wasn't able to keep in contact with her, but continued taking classes in Massachusetts.
At the same time I developed a serious interference with my back. I just bent over one day and couldn't get up again. I ended up going to a chiropractor but was in extreme pain. I thought that Yoga should be able to help me somehow with this and I'm missing something. At that point I had also signed up and paid for a Yoga workshop by one of Mr. Iyengar's [Yogachara B.K.S. Iyengar] senior teachers who was traveling around. But my back went out really badly.
So I went to the workshop and said, "I can't take the workshop because my back is killing me, but I've paid for it so I'd like to watch."
And the teacher said, "No, you can't watch, but come over here."
So he had me hanging from this pole — somehow I trusted him and I wanted to see what he was going to do — and he did a little thing with a bit of traction. I think that's pretty much what the essence of it was. After that I felt better and he said, "Just do what you can do." I took the workshop that day and was pretty surprised by that.
That's when I started to study Iyengar's style of approaching Yoga. I continued with that based on my desire to be pain-free. My initial desire to do Yoga was much more to experience a shift in my energy. I was somewhat of a hyper person and I wanted to learn how to relax like my first teacher had been so relaxed. But the back problem is really what drove me because it was so painful.
It was only when I kept doing Iyengar's way of approaching Yoga that I was able to become pain-free. So that kept me going and largely influenced how I was going to approach Yoga, because to be out of pain when you have been in pain is a really big deal. All those beautiful words and ideas that Yoga presents weren't going to mean too much if I couldn't get myself out of pain. I kept it up over the years and then I finally went to see Mr. Iyengar at his institute in Pune, India.
Teacher Training in India
Carol Bedrosian: How long did you stay there?
Ann Bissanti: I went several times, staying about 6 or 8 weeks at a stretch at his establishment. I also traveled in India to some other ashrams.
At the time, there were very few places to study Yoga in this country. There was an institute out in San Francisco that bore his [Iyengar's] name with some of his senior teachers that he had trained. At times some of them would take groups of people who were either serious teachers or students and do what would be the equivalent of a teacher training or an intense way of studying. But the idea was that if you really wanted to know about Iyengar Yoga the best thing to do was go and see him, so that was what many people did at that time.
Carol Bedrosian: What was studying from the master like?
Ann Bissanti: It was very intense. It was a few hours in the morning and a few hours in the evening of very heavy duty practice. Then he would sometimes stop and demonstrate on people what was going on in the body to try to show us why we were going to move this part of the body like this or that — a lot of detail, a lot of precision and observation and then we would go and try to do it ourselves.
It was international, people from all over the world, and of course the room was packed — maybe 60 people taking a teacher intensive at a time. His personality is sort of fiery and he's a very dynamic teacher. What was interesting was what he's now famous for — a lot of props all over the room, like these wooden benches that he had created for certain poses to be done on and ropes on the wall. This was a new thing for a lot of people who came; they were taking down measurements and trying to recreate these things at home.
Now, in contrast, when I had done some traveling before landing myself in Pune, I was at an ashram where they had a hatha Yoga practice going on and it had all the other aspects of Yoga that are maybe under appreciated in this country. They had chanting, they had meditation and they had what's called seva, where they would clean and do good deeds around the ashram just to keep it nice and tidy.
When I went to the hatha Yoga class it was this Indian yogi who was up on a little bit of a platform. He didn't speak at all and he just started performing his personal practice, like a little Gumby doll. He was just this long, tall, lanky, stretchy rubber band, basically.
He was doing very advanced poses, one right after the other, and the people who were in the class were expected to simply imitate him. I just started laughing because it was totally impossible to get any kind of a handle on how to follow him, what to do. There was no instruction whatsoever, which I found out was a fairly typical way of teaching in the past. You'd just have to try to pick it up on the fly and to stay there for years probably to try to get anything out of it without any verbal communication.
When I went to Mr. Iyengar's, of course, it was not like that. He had had so many western students over the years that he realized it was very necessary to use as many verbal instructions as possible to get his students to the experience of what the Yoga poses were about. So he became famous for giving technical details that were almost to the extreme.
Carol Bedrosian: Can you give an example?
Ann Bissanti: Move your big toe in relationship to your 4th toe. And move this muscle here. But sometimes he would show us. He would say, "Look at this person and how they're standing." He would bring a person up and have them be the model and he'd say, ‘Now when she moves her left shoulder like this, can you see how it goes back and makes an influence on her right leg over here? And do you see this arch at the same time is happening on the back over here?"
And he would point these things out, but for me, as a novice, I couldn't see what he was talking about. Once in a while I'd see something, but most of the time I couldn't see it. It took me years, years, years of my own practice to really see the connections that he was trying to get us to have while we were there. I think this was one of the reasons that he actually encouraged people to come and go. When you went back home you could digest the intense experience, but you had to digest it little by little; it wasn't just going to all come together suddenly.
And I did get that. My back was feeling great. I developed a real love of Yoga and I fell upon teaching in an almost accidental way. Someone was looking for somebody to teach an adult education class and had heard that I was certified, so I started with one course and then I gradually took on more.
So my personal practice developed out of my experiences in India. Eventually I started seeing that Yoga was actually helping me deal with more psychological and emotional issues that were coming up in my life. Difficult things that we all have to face. I started to see that it was helping me to manage stress, would be the simple way of putting it. I was enchanted by the philosophy at its core.
Carol Bedrosian: What is the philosophy?
Ann Bissanti: The philosophy of Yoga is to unite. Yoga means "union." The simple understanding that's out there all over the place in the mainstream would be to unite the mind, body and spirit.
But Yoga really means a path to self-understanding and ultimately to liberation or enlightenment. And that comes about when there's a reconciliation of opposites and polarities in the energies of the body, and the individual has united all its fragmented pieces of body, mind, spirit and psyche.
The ultimate essential philosophy of Yoga is really nothing about postures as such; its essence is to get us into the state of unity consciousness where the individual no longer perceives him/her self as separate from the cosmic whole and identifies fully with the Source of all being. This is true freedom. Yoga's premise is that this is everyone's eventual destiny.
Hatha Yoga [postures and breathing] is the preparation for meditation that can bring us to this state. The fact that it has many health benefits is a wonderful thing that happens on the way to the body being prepared for meditation. The body won't be able to meditate until certain purification has taken place, until certain strengthening of all bodily systems — especially the nervous system — has taken place. Hatha Yoga would be the means to get there.
The 8-Limbed Yoga Path
Carol Bedrosian: I've heard of the 8-limbed path of Yoga. Is that what you're referring to?
Ann Bissanti: The 8-limbed path — also called Ashtanga — is the classic model of what Yoga is about. It was Patanjali who, in the second century A.D., codified Yoga and put it into simple aphorisms that described what is needed to have enlightenment take place.
These include the yamas, which are the ethical principles of non-harming or non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, right relationship or proper use of sexual energy, and non-hoarding or taking just what you need and not any more. The niyamas are practices that include purity or cleanliness of body and mind, contentment, simplicity, the study of the Yogic texts or science of the self, and devotion or surrender. The five yamas and five niyamas are limbs one and two on the path. The third would be asana.
Carol Bedrosian: What is asana?
Ann Bissanti: That's what we're mostly familiar with. Patanjali doesn't talk about the postures; he's talking about Raja Yoga, or basically the Yoga of meditation leading to liberation. Pantanjali says that asana is just being able to be in a comfortable seated position. But because we're now living way beyond the second century, asana now includes poses that need to be done in order to strengthen or purify the body to make it fit for meditation.
Pranayama, the fourth limb, is control of the breath, which also means control of the prana or the life force energy that exists in everything. By using the breath in specific ways we can learn to manipulate and ultimately train the mind. On the beginning level this would just be learning to take deep breaths and the awareness of breathing.
Pratyahara would be the next limb, which is translated oftentimes as the withdrawal of the senses. So even if we do any kind of small Yoga practice at least we're trying to pull away from answering phones, feeling hungry or whatever we try not to do at the moment. It's also been interpreted as just witnessing the senses so that we appreciate the senses without being led by them. The senses are there to help us but not to let them carry us away into all these indulgences.
The next one is dharana, which is concentration. When we concentrate the mind on something like a hatha Yoga practice, we can concentrate on the breath or concentrate on sensations going on within the body. You can concentrate on energy centers in the body, on the chakras, on thoughts, on emotions. When this concentration takes place and the autonomic nervous system becomes balanced, that's an important limb.
And that leads to dhyana, meditation. What happens in meditation is actually a result of these other limbs that came before it to a certain degree. In the state of meditation we finally get to a place where the mind starts to rest in its natural state, what the ideal would be. Since a resting spot is the natural state of the mind, it will actually be drawn to meditation at some point.
And then out of meditation comes samadhi, a place where we have a full understanding that resting in this natural state is who we are, this is what we're really about. We are this so-called unity consciousness, a full and integral part of Creation. This experience is very much one of feeling completely free and at ease, with nothing that could possibly be threatening in any way. Samadhi is the eighth limb.
Carol Bedrosian: The more popular image of yoga in the United States is basically doing the poses and breathing, a focus on health benefits, the proper yoga attire and that sort of thing.
Ann Bissanti: That's true. If we look a little bit more at the historical curve, Patanjali's 8-limbed theories came in around the second century. Starting at about the seventh century, the Tantric influence of Yoga came in and is still current today.
This is important because before that, even before Patanjali — Yoga is probably over 5,000 years old — Yoga had a really heavy emphasis on renunciation and extreme behaviors. You basically had to cut yourself off from the world and you probably were going to go meditate in a cave or something. You might have to leave your family, fast, go off barefoot, stand on one leg for a long period of time; you had to have a sincere drive to achieve some kind of understanding of why we're here on the planet and what the real truth is.
Extreme behaviors and renunciation were said to be ways of going beyond the body, by sort of lopping it off and torturing it, since the body was seen as the problem. That's why we believe that people started to go into caves and meditate; out of that, certain postures seemed to have developed in order to allow the body to sit more comfortably to try to figure this stuff out. There's evidence from 5,000-year-old cave drawings of people doing asanas and sitting in especially meditative poses. That's where we think the original postures came from.
All that changed when Tantra came along. There was a shift in viewing the body much more holistically, that the body should be valued and all of life should be included and embraced. In order for a person to continue on their spiritual journey they had to not renounce the body or the world, but take everything together including the emotions and sexuality.
That's why everybody thinks Tantra is all about sexuality, but that's not the whole picture. Tantra gives us a chance to accept the many different aspects ourselves, including sexuality, into a higher understanding of liberation and realization. It's saying, "The body is no longer bad."
Hatha Yoga came about in the Middle Ages when all the postures and purification processes became much bigger. Breathing and the asanas — most of what Yoga is about in this country — is called hatha Yoga. People like to define individual brands of Yoga, but really it's all hatha Yoga.
Carol Bedrosian: What would the individual brands be?
Ann Bissanti: Individual brand names Iyengar Yoga or Bikram Yoga or Kripalu Yoga. Yes, it's a way of drawing attention to a certain emphasis that the so-called style is going to put on Yoga, but if you're doing postures, if you're doing breathing, if you're using the body as the main force, it's hatha Yoga. And hatha Yoga was meant to get the body ready and fit for meditation according to Patanjali's Yoga sutras, which means the 8 limbs.
What's happened is that you don't see them [the 8 limbs] in Yoga practice; they're not so visible anymore. The yamas and the niyamas are the moral code, the ethical code, the practices that don't have anything to do with the postures for the most part.
One school of thought holds that the yamas and niyamas should continue to be taught and followed as the 10 ethical ways of conduct. Another school of thought says there's no sense in teaching the yamas and niyamas because it's going to be either too hard, they won't get it, or it's not going to work. But if you teach them the asanas and start to clean house on the inside, purifying the body, strengthening the nervous system, breathing, then people will automatically start doing those things to improve their behavior because it will come from the inside out.
Carol Bedrosian: Do you see any connection to some high profile scandals that were written about recently in the New York Times: Teacher/student sex scandals, does Yoga wreck your body, Yoga as a 6-billion dollar industry rife with fraud? These all seem to be topics related to ethical behavior.
Ann Bissanti: As a culture we seem to have gotten caught up in Yoga as an industry, that we buy the right clothes, have the perfect Yoga spa or Yoga studio where everything's perfectly beautiful and then you do these asanas and you achieve this perfection of almost an athletic kind. Our culture has turned Yoga on its head a little bit where it wasn't meant to go, so is it really Yoga anymore?
Yes and no. Going back to Patanjali in his Yoga sutras and other Yoga texts as well, there were always warnings that people could be taking energy essentially to be used for moving along a spiritual path and diverting it. It's that same energy that we recognize now as the kundalini energy.
On a simpler scale we might say that some people who do Yoga are charismatic, and that's a bit of power in itself. It develops from their practice and people are drawn to it. That can lead to temptations along the path in the same way that Patanjali was warning, so you have to decide what you're going to do with that.
Can Yoga Wreck Your Body?
Carol Bedrosian: As a Yoga teacher, how do you respond to the January, 2012, New York Times article by William Broad attesting to evidence that no one should practice Yoga regularly because Yoga wrecks your body?
Ann Bissanti: When I hear Yoga can wreck your body, I hear Yoga done incorrectly can wreck your body, Yoga misunderstood can wreck your body. But the poses themselves, if they're done correctly, if the person teaching them knows what they're doing and also if the student doing them agrees to understand that they really have to listen to their body and not even go along with the teacher if they don't think it's the right thing to do…
There's a hierarchy of skills people have to develop when they do Yoga, so you can't just mix poses up in any old order and consider them to be a balanced Yoga practice, or even an appropriate Yoga practice for everyone. A lot of people are not ready to do certain postures, some people should never be doing certain poses. The teacher should have enough experience to be able to guide the student and the student should know that they have some responsibility not to strain. Yoga is not a workout. It's an inner communication with yourself. So the poses themselves are not the culprit, but lack of understanding.
Carol Bedrosian: What would you recommend for people to look for in a Yoga class or a Yoga teacher?
Ann Bissanti: I would recommend that people investigate and do a little research. Sometimes that means going and just taking a class but also asking the teacher about his or her background and philosophy — that's really important.
Generally speaking, the more experience a teacher has, the more likely he or she will be attuned to injury prevention. Teachers must instill in their students the idea of safety first and no forcing or straining.
Yoga practice is a complex process. Over time, it strips away the egoistic tendencies in a Yoga teacher, and sharpens the teacher's ability to see clearly the student's problems, to remediate them, and to help tailor the student's practice more closely to his or her unique needs. Beyond certification, the best way to become a very good Yoga teacher is to become a self aware, dedicated, lifelong Yoga student.
Carol Bedrosian: How does one avoid injury during Yoga? (see sidebar at bottom Avoid These Common Yoga Injuries)
Ann Bissanti: Recognizing one's own physical limitations happens over time, usually with the help of a well-trained teacher. However, in general, don't do anything that feels like it's hurting. The student must take responsibility not to force the pose when the body is not ready to go further. When in doubt, ease off or come out completely. Stop if you feel any sharp, shooting pains, cramping or burning. Drop any need to cross a finish line. Do not compete, not even with yourself. Competition has no place in Yoga.
Also helpful is to cultivate a beginner's mind and start in a beginner's class with a qualified teacher, even if you are an athlete. Approach Yoga as a field of study, rather than a workout. Always tell your teacher about any recent injuries, surgeries or other pertinent medical history, and follow the teacher's modifications to any poses.
Carol Bedrosian: You mentioned that Mr. Iyengar used a lot of props in his style of Yoga. What is the value of props?
Ann Bissanti: Props are tools to make the poses safe and accessible so a person is able to have an experience of what's really going on energetically in the pose much earlier on than having to go through a long, torturous process for years of getting the body to cooperate.
Asanas are trying to get us to feel an interior state, and the props are tools to have that experience. You experience a stimulation of the life force energy and then you have the experience of getting unblocked and the purification process going on. That affects the organ body and you are changed by it in some way. You have an experience of your own life force and a heightened sense of awareness.
So you can use blankets, rug samples, a folding chair. Almost everybody's using a block and a strap now. Even the person who's physically limited can do the poses sitting on a chair, which has been made famous by Yoga teacher Eric Small who has MS. People are in wheelchairs in his classes.
Carol Bedrosian: I am reminded of the winter you broke your arm and demonstrated to our class for six months how someone could still do Yoga with a broken arm.
Ann Bissanti: Yes. It's a myth that people have to be flexible or thin or in good health to do Yoga. Elderly people can start doing Yoga even if they've never done it before. I mean, the earlier you start the more benefits you'll have for your life, but Yoga can be done at any age. Even a little bit of Yoga done with awareness will be beneficial.
The benefits of Yoga are extensive. Regular, balanced practice builds bones, tones muscles and nerves, increases flexibility, balance, strength and stamina, supports greater immune function and concentration, and promotes detoxification. Yoga can prevent injury, promote faster healing and enhance existing treatment protocols as an integrative medicine tool for chronic health conditions like asthma, diabetes and multiple sclerosis.
Yoga will take you as far as you want to go. If you just want to get rid of headaches, that's fine, and if you want to go further, you can go when you're ready. Basically Yoga is trying to remind us we have a lot more potential to evolve ourselves.
Ann Bissanti, mother of four and a grandmother, has been a Yoga and meditation practitioner and teacher for over 35 years. She has taught Yoga in hospital wellness programs, colleges, pre-school settings and Yoga centers, with an emphasis on simplifying Yoga to make it both practical and personal, as well as respecting each individual's unique spiritual journey. She currently teaches at Worcester Yoga Center in Worcester, MA. Ann can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (508) 829-6300. Visit Ann’s website at www.worcesteryogacenter.com.
Carol Bedrosian is the publisher of Spirit of Change, New England largest holistic magazine and a 17-year student of Yoga. She can be reached at www.spiritofchange.org.
Avoid These Common Yoga Injuries
All of these Yoga injuries are completely avoidable with the guidance of a well-trained, knowledgeable teacher and the full cooperation of the student to follow the teacher's modifications. Take incremental steps in practicing Yoga; find your baseline where you can hold the pose with effort but not strain. You should be able to breathe comfortably there. Next try going slightly further.
LUMBAR — When hips are not open enough or hamstrings too tight in a forward bend and the student forces the pose, compression of the spinal nerves can cause discs to compress, resulting in sciatica. In back bends, too much lumbar curve can cause compression of nerves and discs there. REMEDY: Apply great patience with forward bends, using a belt over the arch of the foot in sitting poses. In standing forward bends, use a chair or block, which allows the spine to elongate and time for the hamstrings to open. For back bends, start with supported back bends with plenty of support.
NECK — Overarching can cause compression and pain; extreme overaching can cut blood flow to the brain. Inversions, such as shoulder stand and plow can cause over-flattening of the natural n-curve in the neck and can lead to ruptured discs and overstretched ligaments. REMEDY: Shoulder stand and plow should be done with approximately three folded blankets or the equivalent underneath the shoulders so that the neck is not overstretched, but instead, relaxed. Students should do half versions of these poses until graduating to full pose with teacher guidance. The headstand should never be attempted until the shoulder stand/plow have been mastered and may be completely off limits for some students.
ANKLE — Too much weight when sitting on feet or between the feet, or forcing the lotus pose can result in ankle inflammation and twisting. REMEDY: Place padding beneath ankles, ie, a small rolled towel/cloth, and a blanket/rug between the thighs and calves in viransana and child pose. Avoid lotus pose if ankles or hips are too tight.
WRIST — Some students need to avoid too much weight-bearing on the wrists, which can trigger carpal tunnel syndrome. Arm balances are not usually appropriate in a beginner class. REMEDY: Start with poses like downward dog instead of heavier weight-bearing poses and use a wrist elevation prop such as a folded edge of your mat or blanket. Avoid weight-bearing on wrists if you are prone to carpal tunnel.
KNEE — In the lotus pose, the hips may not be open enough so the knee and/or ankle ends up doing the work where strain and tears can result. In some standing poses, over-straightening or locking the knees causes problems. REMEDY: Shift more weight to ball of the foot or more evenly distribute the body's weight over the bottoms of the feet. Never lock the knees. Seek approval of a qualified teacher before attempting lotus pose.
SACROILIAC — Problems here usually happen in those students who are very flexible and may strain this area when the sacrum moves too much and gets ahead of the ilium. REMEDY: In seated forward bends like janu sirsasana with one leg straight and one leg bent, the hyper-flexible students needs to keep a blanket under the bent leg to prevent strain. In twists, the pelvis may need to move in the direction of the twist. Hyper-flexible students need to keep a watchful eye and hold themselves back from the full stretching they may be capable of.
HAMSTRINGS — Tears and strains are common with sudden movements and in flowing sequences. REMEDY: The practice of setubhanda (bridge pose) can help prevent and/or remediate this type of injury.
— Ann Bissanti