Tradition Versus Innovation in Asana

by Jivana Heyman

Most people think that adapting yoga is a very contemporary thing to do, and sometimes I hear concerns that something is lost when we adapt the practice. But it is possible to find examples of adaptive practice in some of the most ancient images of asana that exist. The yogapaṭṭa, or yoga strap, can be found in ancient sculptures of yoga asana from over 2,000 years ago. According to research by yoga historian Seth Powell:

“Many aspects of modern postural yoga are clearly just that: modern innovations. The concept of a large group yoga class, the majority demographic of female teachers and practitioners, and indeed, much of the vinyāsa “flow” style of sequenced postures set to the rhythm of breath has been shown to be a much more recent development than many yogins have previously assumed. One aspect of modern yoga that finds surprising continuity with ancient forms of Indian yoga and asceticism, however, is the use of material “props” to support one’s yogic and meditative practice. In particular, the idea of using a cloth yoga strap or belt to fix one’s body in a posture turns out to be at least two thousand years old!”

The way the yoga strap is used in these sculptures is to support a seated meditation pose. In many ways, this use of a yoga prop is directly in alignment with the historical goal of asana, which was to prepare the body for sitting longer in meditation. Actually the goal of yoga wasn’t to just sit in meditation, but to transcend the body all together by reaching higher levels of consciousness known as samadhi or enlightenment.

In these sculptures, the strap is used to support the legs and hips. It’s placed around the lower back and then outside of the knees and tied tightly. The strap keeps the knees raised which is less strenuous for the hips.

These days it feels like asana has moved beyond just preparation for meditation and has become a science, even a sport, of its own. The real question is, what is the role of asana in yoga? If we can come to an agreement about that, then we can ask whether innovation and adaptation of asana is still in keeping with these overarching goals of the practice. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to come to an agreement about the goals of yoga because these goals have changed greatly over the thousands of years that yoga has been practiced. Plus, yoga is such a dynamic and diverse practice that it has often been used by different people for very different reasons.

Some people still travel what is basically a monastic path towards self-realization, although I think it is rare these days to find a yoga practitioner who is also living as a monk, dedicating their lives to their spiritual evolution. Today, most yoga practitioners are householders who are practicing yoga as a way to reduce their suffering, and to live more fulfilling and healthier lives.

Regardless of which goal you choose for your practice; it seems that adapting asana is an essential part of yoga. You can adapt the practice to your body if you’re working towards enlightenment just as well as you can adapt the practice to your body if you’re simply looking to reduce anxiety and find moments of peace in your otherwise chaotic life.

One of the ways to respect the tradition of yoga is to educate yourself about its history and philosophy, understanding that it’s an indigenous practice from South Asia shared generously with the world. Yoga philosophy focuses on calming the mind, practicing service, or karma yoga, and dedicating our lives and our actions to the benefit of all humanity.

The ancient yoga teachings speak very little about the physical practices, but there is a clear understanding that the body and the mind are essential vehicles for our spiritual journey, and that they should be taken care of in a thoughtful and yet neutral way. Asana offers us embodied spiritual practices that can offer a much more grounded approach to what can often be ethereal and esoteric concepts. That means yoga asana works whether you have a conscious spiritual practice or not. 

Asana can be a moving meditation focusing on energy and breath as we flow through our physical practices. Asana can directly calm the nervous system and quiet the mind in a way that other practices such as mindfulness cannot. The popularity of yoga often rests on the profound efficacy of asana, offering a very physical and accessible way to work with the subtle nervous system and intangible mind. 

To balance tradition and innovation in asana it’s important to keep in mind these basic ideas about yoga‘s past and purpose. Asana is not simply about your own physical health, your strength, or your flexibility. To practice asana in a respectful way means that we connect to the larger spiritual goals of this ancient tradition, either explicitly or implicitly. Having a reverent attitude and being a willing student are the two most essential elements in cultivating a practice that honors the tradition.

When we begin to innovate without regard for the historical lineages of yoga asana, we are more likely to be appropriating a culture and practice that is not ours. Marketing a new brand or style of yoga is typically not in alignment with the tradition and is more rooted in capitalist commodification. Instead, the way forward is to innovate so that you can go deeper yourself, and so that you can share yoga more effectively with your students. As long as the innovation you're doing is based in service—which comes out of care and love, and oriented towards honoring the roots of yoga—then you are more likely to be practicing in alignment with yoga's fundamental ethical teachings.

Adapting asana can also make yoga practice accessible to the most marginalized among us. Simplifying poses, practicing in a chair, or in bed, can make the power of yoga available to a significant number of people who aren’t interested in the athletic asana practice that is so popular these days. Making yoga accessible is directly aligned with yoga’s spiritual essence. Yoga’s most basic message is that we all share the same heart, and by creating ways for us to practice yoga together, we can experience the diversity of our humanity as we simultaneously discover the universality of our spiritual connection. 


Want to learn more? 
Join our upcoming FREE mini-workshops with Jivana! ⤵️

3 Ways to Adapt Sun Salutation to Make It Truly Accessible
January 6, 2023 | 12-1pm PST

In this session, Jivana Heyman will offer a variety of techniques to expand your toolkit and help make your classes accessible, welcoming, and effective. He'll also discuss his upcoming 38-Hour Accessible Yoga Training Online. 

Register here


Plus, FREE 3-Part Mini-Workshop Series!

Are You The Yoga Teacher For Everyone?
On Demand Now!

Jivana Heyman and M Camellia share their thoughts on a big but common question—is it possible to be the yoga teacher for everyone? 


How Do You Plan A Yoga Class?
January 16, 2023 | 10:30-11:30am PST

Join Mukunda Marc Morozumi and Jivana Heyman for discussion and short practices with tips for how to plan a yoga class.


Infusing Yoga Philosophy Into Your Teaching
February 2,2023 | 11am-12pm PST

Join Anjali & Jivana as they share their experience and tips for infusing yoga philosophy into your teaching and practice.

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About the Author

Photograph of Jivana Heyman

Jivana Heyman, C-IAYT, E-RYT500, is the founder and director of the Accessible Yoga Association, an international non-profit organization dedicated to increasing access to the yoga teachings. He’s the author of Accessible Yoga: Poses and Practices for Every Body (Shambhala Publications), as well as the forthcoming book, Yoga Revolution: Building a Practice of Courage & Compassion (Shambhala Publications, Nov. 2021).

Jivana has specialized in teaching yoga to people with disabilities with an emphasis on community building and social engagement. Out of this work, the nonprofit Accessible Yoga Association was created to support education, training, and advocacy with the mission of shifting the public perception of yoga. Accessible Yoga offers Conferences, Community Forums, a Podcast, and a popular Ambassador program.

Jivana coined the phrase, “Accessible Yoga,” over ten years ago, and it has now become the standard appellation for a large cross section of the immense yoga world. He brought the Accessible Yoga community together for the first time in 2015 for the Accessible Yoga Conference, which has gone on to become a focal point for this movement.

Jivana is also the creator of the Accessible Yoga Training and the co-founder of the online Accessible Yoga School with Amber Karnes, which is a platform for continued education for yoga teachers in the field of equity and accessibility. They also created the Accessible Yoga Podcast in 2020.

Over the past 25 years, Jivana has led countless yoga teacher training programs around the world, and dedicates his time to supporting yoga teachers who are working to serve communities that are under-represented in traditional yoga spaces.




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