Monday, April 29, 2019

Osteoporosis and the Benefits of Yoga

by Ram Rao

Osteoporosis (from the Greek terms for "porous bones) is an age-associated degenerative condition characterized by decreased bone mass and increased bone loss resulting in significant weakness of the bone. This heightens the risk of broken bones among the elderly. The bones that are generally more susceptible to fractures include the spinal vertebrae, the hip bone, and the bones of the forearm, wrist, and shoulder. Reduced bone density and augmented bone loss occur to such an extent that a break can happen spontaneously, or due to a simple fall or a minor stress.

Individuals with osteoporosis often complain of chronic pain and a reduced ability to carry out normal activities especially after a broken bone. Osteoporosis is more common in women as they tend to lose more bone density following menopause and associated low levels of estrogen. Additionally, osteoporosis is also associated with other conditions like alcoholism, anorexia, hyperthyroidism, kidney disease, or with certain medications that accelerate the bone loss including, chemotherapy, proton pump inhibitors, certain classes of steroids. Excessive smoking and sedentary lifestyle are also risk factors for osteoporosis.

A dense bone mass does not provide protection against fracture, unless the bone fibers are structurally laid down to provide greater strength and stability. Thus, both density and structure are necessary for bone health. A bone mineral density (BMD) test provides a snapshot of the bone health. The BMD test result is compared to the peak bone mineral density of a healthy 30-year-old adult and is provided as a T-score. T scores between +1 and −1 are considered normal. A T-score between −1 and −2.5 indicates that the individual has a low bone mass (osteopenia) with chances of fractures being high. A T-score of −2.5 or lower indicates that the individual has osteoporosis. The greater the negative number, the more severe the osteoporosis.

The general impression is that if you have osteoporosis, exercise will exacerbate bone loss and increase the risk of fractures. Actually, exercise goes a long way in strengthening and protecting the bones. People who exercise have fewer fractures and have on average less bone loss. In general, aerobics, weight-bearing endurance exercise, resistance exercise, and stability and balance exercises strengthen muscles, improve bone strength and increase BMD in subjects with osteoporosis. Physical exercise compresses, twists, or elongates bone cells and, in the process, the bone cells get stimulated to produce more bone mass. In addition, physical exercise restructures the bone fibers, thereby strengthening and stabilizing the bone. Thus, people with osteoporosis and who have a regular physical exercise program are more stable due to improved bone and muscle strength and are less likely to lose their balance, thereby reducing frequent falls and preventing any osteoporosis complications.

Interestingly, yoga is both an endurance training as well as strength training system. Resistance training or strength training involves a lot of muscular contraction that helps build the strength and size of skeletal muscles thereby providing functional benefits. Breath practice is an integral part of yoga which increases lung capacity. This in turn delivers more oxygen to the body and helps with overall performance and efficiency and also enhances tissue repair.

A sustained yoga practice also loosens the hip flexors, lubricates joints, and stretches the hamstrings — all of which help develop a longer stride and smoother, steadier pace. Holding a certain yoga pose for a long time requires discipline and commitment. This helps in strengthening the bone and skeletal muscles and the practice of simply holding the pose may help to overcome the fear of falling or pain. Yoga also helps to strengthen and protect the spine, shoulders, wrists, and hips by using the body’s own weight as resistance to build strength and balance that may trigger increases in bone mass. Since yoga poses pull and stretch the bones from every conceivable angle, yoga strengthens and stabilizes the bone fibers thereby resisting greater amounts of challenges.

Other important ways in which yoga benefits people with osteoporosis include improving balance, muscular strength, range of motion, and coordination, thereby reducing the risk of falling; yoga practice may also lessen the fear and anxiety about falling. However, people with osteoporosis need to take proper precautions and protect the bones since simple movements done improperly can result in fractures. Private instruction with a qualified yoga teacher will ensure that the poses are done safely, correctly, and with proper alignment. Some of the dos and don’ts regarding yoga for osteoporosis include:

  1. Start slowly with simple yoga poses, and gradually build up length of practice and level of difficulty. Be careful to not push yourself beyond your limits.
  2. To successfully build bone mass, consistently practice yoga for osteoporosis for a minimum of 30 minutes a day, five days a week.
  3. Backbends like the Cobra, Sphinx and Bridge strengthen the spine in the elderly. For people with osteoporosis, backbends need to be done gently without overarching the back. Supported backbends are not only safe, they provide the same benefits. This is supported by empirical studies.
  4. Bridge pose and Shoulderstand not only stretch the spine but also stimulate the thyroid gland, which regulates the endocrine system and encourages bone growth.
  5. Warrior poses strengthen the thigh bones and muscles thereby providing more stability.
  6. If you have some disk issues or other spine problems, twists are contraindicated. If it is just osteoporosis, gentle twists using simple movements without force, not combined with forward bending of the spine, are helpful to strengthen and stimulate vertebral bone growth. Simple twist pose (Parvirtta Sukasana) is an example of a safe pose twisting pose.
  7. Avoid certain bends. Forward bends increase the risk of fracture of the thoracic spine. Instead, tip forward from the hip joints while bending the knees and keep the spine straight. Supine poses such as reclined leg stretch are great ways of stretching the hamstrings and gluteal muscles without damaging the spinal vertebrae. Side bends that require supporting the entire body weight with hands can be damaging to the wrist bones. Using proper supports like the block or belt, mudras and gentle arm movements are more useful as they help build shoulders, arm, and wrist muscles and keep the joints mobile.
  8. Inversions need to be avoided. Instead, restorative poses such as the Legs Up the Wall pose provide similar benefits.
  9. Alignment is key when teaching people with osteoporosis to get the best and safest results.

For more on yoga for osteoporosis, please refer to Dr Loren Fishman’s research papers in which he has written extensively about yoga as an adjunct to medical treatment of osteoporosis (

Rammohan (Ram) Rao comes from a family of Ayurvedic practitioners and Vedic teachers in India tracing back to the illustrious Vedic-acharya Rishi Kaundinya (although Ram admits he cannot do the Eka pada or Dwi pada Kaundinyasana). With a doctorate in Neuroscience, Ram was a Research Associate Professor at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging. He focused on various aspects of age-associated neurodegenerative diseases with emphasis on Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, Ram completed the academic training at the California College of Ayurveda (CCA) and received his certification as Clinical Ayurvedic Specialist. He has been a faculty member of the California College of Ayurveda and teaches in their Nevada City location. Ram is also a dedicated Hatha yoga practitioner and is a Registered Yoga Teacher from Yoga Alliance USA. In his spare time he offers consultations in YAMP techniques (Yoga, Ayurveda, Meditation & Pranayama). Ram has published several articles in major Yoga/Ayurveda magazines and has been a featured speaker in several national and international meetings and symposia. He is a member of the National Ayurvedic Medical Association (NAMA) and is on the Research Board of the Association of Ayurvedic Professionals of North America (AAPNA).

This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, co-editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

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Thursday, April 25, 2019

Thursday Math Lesson

Thanks to Danielle Nardi for this meme. 😀

Danielle Nardi is a yoga teacher and physical therapist on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Her personal mission is to make yoga accessible to as many individuals as possible and to integrate yoga into her work as a PT for overall mind-body wellness. You can find her at @DanielleNardiYoga and @adaPTedYoga.

This post was edited by Nina Zolotow, co-editor of the Accessible Yoga blog and Editor in Chief of Yoga for Healthy Aging.

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Monday, April 22, 2019

The Aging Yoga Body

by Kimberly Dark

Kimberly Dark will be presenting at the Accessible Yoga Conference in St. Louis, May 31-June 2, 2019.

Three times this week, I witnessed yoga students, over age fifty, struggling into poses that likely sent them searching for the ice-pack later. One man and two women. I’m guessing about their ages; over fifty is erring on the side of youth. The first student was new to my class and based on the way she scrutinized my posture and gaped with disbelief when she couldn’t do what I was doing, I would put her in the category of “people who think they’re failing if the fat lady does something they can’t.” During my decades of yoga practice, that’s become a sturdy category. And hey, mostly I have compassion because I used to think that way too. Our culture has taught us that bodies line up along a hierarchy of worth, and fat bodies are among the most devalued. If the fat yogi or the old yogi or the disabled yogi can do something you consider “advanced,” chances are, you’re pretty impressed.

The man I witnessed was also straining in an easy-to-categorize way. It was a yin class. To some, this is “the easy class,” and his hamstrings were tight. He resisted the props and continued struggling into the pose despite my cues to support and surrender. The two women were also struggling, though with spinal flexibility rather than hamstrings.

Of all the things I miss about youth, spinal flexibility tops the list. Honestly, it’s not a huge list. I don’t mind aging as much as most, but then, I already have more body acceptance than most and I’m comfortable with various counter-cultural views. But wow, the spine. I can feel it when I sit too long at the computer. And then there’s this osteoarthritis I’m learning to live with these past few years. First I had a tendon injury that was slow to heal and remains susceptible to irritation. Then the foot pain that wouldn’t heal and seemed irritated by vinyasa yoga. That turned out to be the arthritis. I’m not quite fifty. I’m not saying I feel “old.” I’m just being honest here, in a useful way, about life in this body, while practicing yoga.

A lot of people stop exercising when things start to hurt too much. There are good reasons why people don’t modify their activities and accept their bodies. A lot of them have to do with social privilege, avoiding humiliation, or being given the title “old” sooner than they’d like. So, people keep trying to do the same things they’ve always done. They try to look the same, hide the limp. Sit up straight and soldier on. And then add on the misguided idea that yoga is supposed to keep you young forever. So, what? If I’m showing signs of aging does that mean I’ve been doing the yoga wrong all of these years? Does it mean I’m not doing enough and I just need to push harder? What does it mean to live in the body and the mind? The real body and mind – not the ones we wish we had.

It happens to us at different times in life – some remain active with few aches and little stiffness into their sixties or seventies. Perhaps my body is developing these changes sooner because of genetics, or because I’m fat or because I did high impact exercise for many years. It doesn’t actually matter. What matters is accepting the body and using yoga to keep the body healthy and the mind calm.

I often tell students that yoga is for the body you have today, not the one you had yesterday or last month or ten years ago. Not the one you might have in three months after you work out every day, or in a year when you’ve lost some weight, or even in ten years when you’re slowing down. Yoga is for the body you have today. You have to pay attention to know how much it can do. Be neither precious nor reckless with the body. This is the only one with which you can practice. Take a breath. There is no other body.

There is also no other mind than the one you work with today. We live in a youth obsessed culture. And the yoga culture we’ve developed as a microcosm of the broader culture is also obsessed with the mystical youth-preserving magic of yoga. Add those together and it’s pretty tough to age honestly – whether the process becomes noticeable at 30 or 80.

I’m not arguing against the health benefits of yoga – far from it. I’m arguing in favor of honoring the natural process of aging, of healing from injuries. I’m arguing in favor of changing cultural privileges for young, lean, muscular bodies over all others.

Once, when teaching an intensive inversion practice, I commented on the esoteric benefits of “taking a different view” by being upside down. I commented on how frightening inversions can be, even if the body is physically ready to support you in a pose like headstand or full arm balance. I jovially remarked at what a slow learner I am. “I was on the ten year plan with headstand! For the poses that challenge me, I add about one per year.

After class, a student followed up on my remark. He found his own slow progress with certain poses very discouraging. He was pleased by what I’d said but wanted clarification. “You may add one challenging pose per year, but you‘re over forty now right? I mean, once you have them, you never lose them. Right?”

I had never considered my eventual decline in yoga that way before. Indeed, I had not yet lost the ability to do any yoga poses. But logically, I told him, if I live long enough, I will.

I have now lost the ability to do certain poses I could previously do. And maybe I will again have the flexibility to do a drop-back backbend. Maybe it’s not gone forever. But why would that be an interesting goal in my practice? As I age, it becomes more important to me to maintain daily strength, balance and flexibility, live pain-free as much as possible, and develop an enduring partnership with my mind and body that allows me more consistent peace and happiness. Everything in the dominant culture, and media representations of women in particular, is fighting against that goal. And we do well to remember that yoga-media is also largely advertising driven. It preys on our yearning for beauty and privilege.

One of the things I appreciate most about aging is having more practice with loss and dignity, more practice with the folly of seeking privilege rather than authenticity. We can help each other remember what it means to live as allies with our bodies. And eventually, our knees may start to remind us as well.

Kimberly Dark is a writer, professor, yoga teacher, and raconteur, working to reveal the hidden architecture of everyday life one clever essay, poem, and story at a time. She uses humor, surprise, and intimacy to help audiences discover their influences, and reclaim their power as social creators. Kimberly has been practicing yoga for thirty years and teaching since 1998. She hosts two retreats per year in Hawaii: Yoga is for Every Body, which is for anyone hoping to learn more about the stories we carry in our bodies. And the Body Wise Professional Development retreat - for anyone who works with others and seeks to undo harmful bias in our work. Kimberly is the author of Love and Errors, The Daddies, and in 2019, Fat, Pretty and Soon to be Old, a collection of essays about appearance privilege. You can find Kimberly at

"The Aging Yoga Body" was first printed at and is also included in Kimberly's new book Fat, Pretty and Soon to be Old. 

This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, co-editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

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Monday, April 15, 2019

Core Qualities of Yoga: Part 1

Stanley Whitney, Wonderland, 2009
by Elizabeth Gibbs

This post is part of a series that explores a variety of core qualities and suggested practices to consider for inclusion in your classes and private sessions (whether on a mat, in a chair, or a combination of both).

What are core qualities and how can we integrate them into our yoga classes? A core quality is a specific characteristic, strength, skill, or essence that is already part of one’s being. Examples of these might be clarity, alignment, moderation, openness, endurance, integration, balance, contentment, or surrender.

We may think that these qualities are external and are goals we need to work for but consider this phrase: “To see the world in a grain of sand...” from the poem Auguries of Innocence by Robert Blake. If we are that grain of sand, we are also the world and everything that is in the world, including core qualities in us. Yoga recognizes this and suggests that the way we experience our lives, and its joys and problems, can be attributed to how we realize and activate that understanding.

Qualities can be expressed in positive or unhelpful ways. For instance, openness without boundaries can be unhealthy, surrender without wisdom can be premature, and endurance without balance may lead to exhaustion. However, when consciously realized and viewed through our yoga practice, qualities are more likely to be expressed in positive ways.

Of course, this is easier said than done since the journey to Self-Realization is long and often difficult. Our job as yoga teachers is to find ways of helping ourselves and our students understand this. Linking core qualities to our yoga practices is an effective way to help students experience the deeper aspects of yoga. It brings in elements of the energetic and psychological benefits inherent in all yoga practices. Here are a few examples.

Asana: Anodea Judith, in her book Chakra Yoga, offers Tadasana (Mountain Pose) as a way to embody, sense, and feel the core quality of alignment in both the physical and the energy body. She explains that when the body is vertically aligned from the feet to the crown of the head, our energy anatomy (the chakras, for example) aligns with the physical body. When practitioners find physical ease in holding the pose it is possible to sense the quality of alignment physically and energetically.

Pranayama: In The Breathing Book, Donna Farhi suggests using a four-part breath inquiry, that she calls The Essential Breath, as a way to explore the quality of surrendering into the pauses at the end of inhaling and exhaling. 

Here is how to do it:

1. Come to a comfortable seated position.
2. Bring your awareness to your breath.
3. Notice that at the end of your inhalation there is a slight pause, or gap, before you exhale.
4. Notice that at the end of your exhalation there is a slight pause, or gap, before you inhale.
5. Let your breath come and go naturally---don’t try to change it in any way.

6. Simply observe the ebb and flow of the natural, essential breath.

Mudra: Mudras can be thought of as a global positioning system for realizing a desired quality. In Mudras for Healing and Transformation, Joseph and Lilian LePage highlight the core quality of integration, loosely defined as sensing and feeling that all the separate parts of self are integrated into the whole, which is the ultimate goal of Yoga. Here are instructions on how to do Hakini Mudra (see image at top of post).

1. Sit with your spine comfortably aligned and soften your chest and shoulders.
2. Hold your hands facing each other a few inches away from your solar plexus.
3. Touch the tips of the fingers and thumb of your left hand to the corresponding fingers and thumb of your right hand.
4. Create space between your hands as though you are holding a ball.
5. Relax your hands in your lap, with the pinky sides of your hands, your wrists, and your forearms on your thighs or in your lap.

6. Close your eyes or keep them slightly open and gaze down at the floor.
7. Hold the mudra and sit quietly for 2 - 5 minutes as long as you are comfortable.
8. Focus on your natural breathing process.
9. When you are ready to come out, release the mudra, and stretch your body in any way that your body needs to stretch.

We can add a core quality to classes we design for students of all abilities to help them experience yoga on all levels of being. Introducing a core quality with a clear focus requires creativity and flexibility. As Carey Sims pointed out in his post on this blog "Yoga and Advanced Aging: Teaching in Assisted Living, Skilled Nursing, and Memory Care Spaces, Part 1":

“The majority of my classes take place within a larger communal room and the energy outside of our yoga bubble is often frenzied and chaotic. We may hear the TV blasting from a resident’s room down the hall, or nurses and staff holding conversations within earshot, other times a confused resident roams about anxiously, or a family member arrives to take a loved one out of class for a visit or doctor’s appointment.”

This rang SO true! I teach several of these classes and recently had very different experiences with two separate classes on the same day when I decided to work with the core quality of grounding. I prepared a three-minute presentation that ended with a short poem to inform and hopefully inspire. Here’s how creativity and flexibility showed up.

At the Large Residential Rehab Center: In spite of the distractions, late arrivals, and vocalizations from one resident that might have been a symptom of Tourette’s syndrome, I shared the information and then reinforced the importance of grounding with postures, breathwork, and guided relaxation. One resident acknowledged after class that she needed to work on grounding because often felt distracted and ‘outside’ of herself.

At the Small Nursing Care Center, a half hour later: When I arrived, the energy in the room felt distant and distracted. Taking time to do the educational piece did not feel appropriate. So I internally set an intention and presented the core quality of grounding through my selection of postures, breathwork, verbal comments, and guided relaxation.

Yoga practices can be presented with more than one core quality. It depends on who our students are, what they need, and how we facilitate the class to meet those needs. Let’s take Balasana (Child’s Pose) as an example. Depending on our intention, we can present the posture with the core qualities of grounding, surrender, alignment, support, protection, or restoration. We might ask students to:

  • Hold the pose with prop support to sense grounding, protection, support, or surrender;
  • Facilitate a step-by-step process to enter and exit the pose to sense physical alignment; or
  • Offer several modifications to help students find the one that is most restorative for them.

Placing focus on one or more core qualities offers students an opportunity to deepen their experience of yoga and perhaps move them a bit further along on the path to Self-Realization.

Elizabeth (Beth) Gibbs, MA, C-IAYT, is a certified yoga therapist through the International Association of Yoga Therapists and is a faculty member of the Kripalu School of Integrative Yoga Therapy. Her masters’ degree in Yoga Therapy and Mind/Body Health is from Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. She is the author of Ogi Bogi, The Elephant Yogi, a therapeutic yoga book for children that is available through her website at:

This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, co-editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

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Thursday, April 11, 2019

New Accessible Yoga T-Shirts!

Did you know that we have a selection of Accessible Yoga t-shirts for sale in our online shop? The t-shirts shown above are just our latest design. In fact, there are four different t-shirts: Accessible Yoga logo, Outer Ability ≠ Inner Peace (shown above), which comes in three different styles, Yoga is for Everybody, and I "heart" AY. There is also a Accessible Yoga stainless steel water bottle and fabric tote bag.
You can find all these things at:

Because we're a non-profit, the money we earn from these products is used bring yoga to people who don’t have access to it or who have been underserved, such as people with disabilities, chronic illness, seniors, children with special needs, and anyone who doesn’t feel comfortable in a regular yoga class.

This post was written by Nina Zolotow, co-editor of the Accessible Yoga blog and Editor in Chief of Yoga for Healthy Aging.

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Monday, April 8, 2019

Be a Tree: Yoga For Amputees

Claude Lorrain, Landscape with Shepherds--The Pont Molle, 1645, Oil on Canvas
By Marsha T. Danzig

Marsha will be presenting a workshop on “Wholeness: A Yoga Approach to Working with Amputees” at the Accessible Yoga Conference in St. Louis, May 31-June 2, 2019.

Years ago, I planted a tree in front of my home. It grew quickly, with huge solid branches and thick leaves. One day, after a major wind storm, while I was pulling into my driveway, I suddenly stopped the car, put on the brakes and ran out of the car to my tree. A large branch had been severed from the tree, and the effect was quite tragic for the tree itself. I had this instinct to hug and comfort the tree. As soon as I did, it was as if the tree spoke. “Why are you comforting me? It is the branch who has lost its tree.”

That moment catapulted me into developing a yoga program for amputees, as well as provoking me to dive deep into my story of “losing a limb.” What if me, the tree, has always been intact, in spite of the loss of one of its major branches? What if it is the limb that needs comfort, a time to grieve the loss of its home? What if that limb has been transformed and absorbed into the divine mother to be used to benefit the world in some other way? What if that limb is now part of our collective oneness? As a 'medical kid' with many long term effects on my body, I have faced life-threatening medical situations so often that when I fill out a health form at a doctor's office, I now just write “too many to name.” 

Through all my years of both medical care and holistic practices, there has been one constant---my body. My body with one leg missing, my body on dialysis, my body with a new kidney, my body moving, my body healing, my body, my body, my body. What yoga has given me is the truth that my body IS the tree.

The comforter in me can console the missing branches, show them how to be of service to the world, and then send them on their way. Or they can be grafted back in to me in some new way, and their energy can continue to be part of me. My left leg was rattled with bone cancer. Her sacrifice, to willingly be cut off from her home, has kept me alive. And she has served medicine well by offering clues on the treatment of cancer.

A tree is medicine for the world. The private story of my limb loss is a collective story of all beings and our wholeness. We all have losses and ways of addressing those losses. Our broken wide open human journey is our oneness, our connection. Those pieces we feel are cut off from us are actually our seeds being planted. Our own self-perception, our dreamy eyed egos, our sleepy walks through magical days, our judgments of ourselves and others, all are illusions of separation. Like all good illusions, we can sometimes be easily fooled into believing that they are true. But we all know they are not. A tree is always a tree. 

Science has found that in every forest there is one mother tree. She is related to all trees, but she can be of any genus. The trees in her "treedom" receive communications from her. Trees with disabilities and trees without disabilities have equal footing in her forest. As yoga professionals and practitioners, let's see the wholeness within each one of us, and acknowledge that trees thrive best when they are connected to each other.

Be a tree.

Marsha Therese Danzig, Master of Education, Harvard, is an Advanced Yoga Therapist, Energy Healer, and Speaker. Marsha, a below knee amputee, pediatric cancer survivor, and kidney transplant recipient is the Founder of Yoga for Amputees® by Marsha T Danzig, a yoga program to help amputees move forward in their lives. She is the author of From the Roots, a candid memoir about choosing joy in the face of insurmountable obstacles. Yoga for Amputees: The Essential Guide to Finding Wholeness After Limb Loss has recently been published. Marsha has been featured in Good Housekeeping, Yoga Journal, Huffington Post, PopSugar, and Oprah Magazine. She is a lifelong flamenco dancer. Marsha’s mission is to show people how to find beauty in all circumstances. She is passionate about imparting her lived experience of bridging the chasm between suffering and joy through yoga and embodied movement. Her website is

This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, co-editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

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Thursday, April 4, 2019

Featured Video: Pigeon Pose Variations by Amber Karnes

This video was originally posted on Body Positive Yoga.

Amber made this video to help people who are having trouble with classic Pigeon pose due to knee pain or pressure, who feel unstable in the pose because the hip of the bent leg not touching the floor, or who are uncomfortable or unable to be on hands on knees to set up for those pose. She provides several modifications for the pose, on both the floor and a chair. We think that all these options will make the pose accessible to a very, very wide range of people!

Amber Karnes is the founder of Body Positive Yoga and the creator of the Body Positive Clubhouse. She works with humans who want to make peace with their bodies and build unshakable confidence. For her, yoga has been an integral part of a decade-long journey toward self-acceptance and body positivity—a journey of making peace with my body and helping others to do the same. See for more information.

This post was edited by Nina Zolotow, co-editor of the Accessible Yoga blog and Editor in Chief of Yoga for Healthy Aging.

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Monday, April 1, 2019

Dharma: It Ain't What It Used To Be, Says Mark Singleton

Mark Singleton, March 2019, at Nest Yoga, Oakland, California
by Patrice Priya Wagner

A few days ago, I had the good fortune to hear Mark Singleton, author of Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice and Senior Research Fellow at School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, speak about dharma and its role in contemporary society. The lecture delivered all that was promised and more; concepts were accessible to the new yogi as well as long-time teacher familiar with ancient yogic texts. The material presented was full of suggestions of books for further study and more ideas than there is room to include in an overview of the main points raised during the two and a half hours. But I thought I would share some of the highlights with you today.

To most modern yoga practitioners, dharma refers to your purpose in life and how you embody that. Finding your dharma has become an “industry” that is so relevant, successful, and promises to show you what life is for and where you're going because there's no steady ground under our feet. You can find books on dharma for your golfing, parenting, your dog, and many other things. Singleton asked: How do we know what life is about in this confusing world where truth is lies and lies are truth, fake news abounds, and climate catastrophe is in full tilt?

Dharma, the word and concept, has a history of thousands of years and has transformed over the centuries especially in modern times. As Singleton explained, the prevalent understanding of dharma in Vedic times, 1500-500 BCE, was that it involved primordial laws, emphasized universal stability, maintained lawfulness and regularity of the cosmos, and meant enactment of this eternal lawfulness in the self (svadharma). In Vedic times, there existed a rigid caste system that determined exactly a person's role in society from the moment of birth. For example, a male born into the kṣatrīya caste was a warrior and, as we'll see below, he'd be duty bound to go out and fight to defend his people. Unlike current notions about dharma, it was not something that just happened; you had to perform in order to uphold it.

Singleton pointed out how over the years, the meaning of dharma shifted as religion and rigid societal structure became less dominant in people's lives. Fast forward to the 19th and 20th centuries when the exchange of ideas between the East and West greatly increased, causing many ways of commerce and society to change and transforming the sense of dharma as well.

For example, many people who practice yoga are introduced to dharma by the Bhagavad Gītā: "It is better to follow one's own dharma imperfectly than that of another well; better to die in one's own dharma; the dharma of another brings danger. (3.35)" This verse refers to Arjuna, the main character, questioning his dharma; must he do his duty as a warrior although it means fighting, and possibly killing, people he knows and loves?

But although the passage pertains just to one man born into a societal system with rigid rules to live by, writer Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, 1838-1894, uses it to justify his interpretation of dharma as an individual duty to carry out in the world, not necessarily according to the societal norms he was born into. Chatterjee asks if non-Indians also have a svadharma, concluding that there is a universalization of dharma regardless of nationality.

The Prime Minister of India, Sarvepalli Radhakrishna, 1888-1975, a great thinker, writer, and modernizer of India, wrote "Each individual has his inborn nature, svabhāva, and to make it effective in his life is his duty, svadharma...We should introduce changes today and make the content of Hindu dharma relevant to modern conditions." Radhakrishna asserted that dharma doesn't have an absolute and timeless content as many had been told but "an elastic tissue to enclose the growing body," justifying India to keep in step with the modern world by not sticking an old-fashioned concept of dharma.

As psychology became more widely recognized in both the East and the West, concepts such as Sigmund Freud's (1856-1939) three parts of the human mind, Ego, Super Ego, and Id, came into play. According to Freud, we're strangers to ourselves and may not know who we are unless we explore uncharted parts of our mind. 

Yoga teacher and writer Stephen Cope (1945-) takes this concept of going inward to find ourselves and connects it to dharma. He wrote:"...When we drill down into this issue, we discover that our dharmas...are based...on what is already mysteriously in us at birth: our fingerprints....You can only expect a fulfilling life if you dedicate yourself to finding out who you are." Cope states in The Great Work of Your Life, 2012, that dharma is your unique vocation, admittedly changing the meaning of the word. There are many modern thinkers and writers who added to this notion including Ekhart Tolle (1948-).

Commercial industry became familiar with these concepts in hopes of improving sales of products to consumers. In particular, the idea of people belonging to a type appealed to advertising and marketing executives. American psychologist Abram Maslow (1908-1970) created a Hierarchy of Needs for self-actualization that follows this line of thinking. By categorizing people into types, a company could brand a product according to the specific preferences of each type.

The idea of dharma types, as embraced by some psychotherapists and popular writers, puts people into simplistic and limiting boxes. There appears to be a fundamental contradiction when popular dharma discourse informed by psychology tells us we are individual and idiosyncratic, but at the same time insists we identify with one of a handful of types.

Singleton concluded the lecture with: "I propose that dharma, like freedom, has become an empty signifier that can mean whatever you want it to mean, and to justify whatever action you want it to. Just as freedom can become a justification for your favorite drug, hate speech, or the invasion of Iraq, dharma can justify everything from one's lifestyle choices to military nuclear testing. Today, in the world of global capital, it is intimately bound with the psychological project, all manner of self-help literature, and, arguably, the neo-liberal machine (to use a loaded phrase.)"

Well, this certainly raises a lot of questions for me about the concept of dharma and how it is being used in the modern yoga community. What do you think?

Patrice Priya Wagner, RYT 500, C-IAYT, teaches yoga to people with disabilities in Oakland, California, and has been published in New Mobility Magazine, Works and Conversations, Artweek, and the Accessible Yoga Blog. She is a co-editor of the Accessible Yoga Blog.

This post was edited by Nina Zolotow, co-editor of the Accessible Yoga blog and Editor in Chief of Yoga for Healthy Aging.

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