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. 


Interested in learning about benefit-based approaches to adapting yoga poses for any level of ability?

Join Jivana for a free, virtual mini-workshop to explore basic, effective techniques for making asana accessible, skills to teach to all students, regardless of ability or style of practice, some of the primary techniques covered in the Accessible Yoga Training Online, and more!

Jivana will also offer an overview of the content of the upcoming Accessible Yoga Training Online, which will run from May 9th-25th, and he’ll offer a giveaway for one FREE spot in the course.

How to Adapt Popular Yoga Posts will be held:
Friday, April 29th, 2022
10am -11am Pacific (Los Angeles) / 1pm-2pm Eastern (New York)
Live online via Zoom
Replays available for those who register
Cost: Free

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