Great takedown of power yoga, ‘a poor commercial derivative of Ashtanga’

I just happened upon this Times of India piece, “Power yoga earning bad karma,” and its takedown of gym-based power yoga is sort of delightful. Especially if:

  1. You’re steadfast that yoga should be more than just an exercise
  2. You’re a bit of a hard-line Ashtangi
  3. You’re cranky because you feel a bit bullied into contacting a Rolfer

I pass it on because it does define power yoga very specifically as Ashtanga-based; the salient part of that is in the headline, but here’s the full way it is described:

Backed by the likes of Bollywood actresses Kareena Kapoor, Kangana Ranaut and Geeta Basra, power yoga is to today’s urban Indian woman what aerobics was in the ’80s. Practically every gym and fitness centre in the city offers weekly 60 to 90-minute power yoga classes to its members.

What is power yoga?
A poor commercial derivative of Ashtanga yoga, power yoga is essentially an up-tempo aerobic workout, where yoga poses are done faster and in continuation. Apart from temporary weight loss, it has virtually no health benefits. Since power yoga is a widely used term that was never trademarked, individual teachers usually lend their personal interpretation to classes.

I think you can see where this is going. But, to try to alleviate my conscience — no, I didn’t just pass on something entirely devoid of yoga sustenance — I’ll note that the piece, without explicitly doing so, pretty well calls power yoga the perpetrator of yoga injuries.

Remember that debate?

“Power yoga is like any cardiovascular activity, which means that if you stop practicing it you will regain the weight you’ve lost,” says Samanta Duggal, yoga therapist and director at Temperance. In her 20 years of experience, she has seen many cases of people taking up power yoga for quick results and instead sustaining injuries — usually to the neck, shoulder, toes, knees, hips and lower back. “Doing repetitive asanas and 100 surya namaskars with no emphasis on alignment is a sureshot way to injury. So, instead of progressing to better health, they actually regress!

As I think everyone agreed when the yoga injuries book came out, sure, yoga can cause injuries if you go about it in a stupid way. Sort of the same way that doing anything dumbly can hurt you.

I’ll admit that my favorite part of the piece is this:

“Power Yoga was simply a name I came up with in the late ’80s to let people know that ashtanga yoga practice — unlike most of the yoga taught in ’70s America — was a serious workout, designed to build significant strength and concentration as well as flexibility,” says Beryl Bender Birch. He is one of the two American yoga teachers who nearly simultaneously coined the term. Los Angeles-based Bryan Kest is the other. Not coincidentally, both these teachers had studied with Ashtanga master Sri K. Pattabhi Jois. Another name often associated with power yoga is Baron Baptiste who devised his own method in San Francisco, California.

Did you get why? I made sure to double check, but, yes, Birch is in fact a “she.” (She definitely has claim to the power yoga term, though. Her website? More seriously, her quote adds context to my wondering about when yoga got “soft.” Blame the Flower Children, perhaps?

The piece does have a point worth remembering (conscience officially cleared); it’s one I suspect most folks who’d stop by here know, but it’s worth repeating:

Compare that to traditional schools of yoga that lay a good foundation for a long-lasting and all-round fitness and wellbeing. Says Duggal, “Whether it’s Sivananda, Bihar, Iyengar, Vini yoga from the Krishnamacharya lineage, they all have a holistic approach.”

That’s really what we’re getting at, right? Something more than just a good work-out — the “work-in,” as Tim Miller calls one of his workshops.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

6 thoughts on “Great takedown of power yoga, ‘a poor commercial derivative of Ashtanga’”

  1. There’s a whole lotta history behind the “Power Yoga” nomenclature and the kerfuffle it caused in the Ashtanga world at the time (not all of it pretty, so I won’t go into details.)

    Suffice it to say, Beryl coined the term for her 1995 book of the same name, causing a bit of a ruckus amongst the traditionalists. Her reasoning, and that of her publisher, was that the term “Power Yoga” was simply more palatable to the vast majority of ethnocentric Americans at the time. The subject matter of the book is almost completely Ashtanga Primary series, though. It’s a good book. I won’t speculate if she regrets this decision in hindsight; she has been pretty harshly judged for writing the book and using the term “Power Yoga” (and I suspect, is still being judged, based on the article you cite.) Knowing her, I suspect she would now laugh and say it was a good learning experience.

    She was a student of Norman Allen’s, and, while over the years, she has evolved into a non-traditional (i.e. non-Jois) Ashtanga teacher, she is a true Ashtanga Yoga teacher in every sense: compassionate, wise, intelligent, dedicated, and passionate about the practice. She truly loves her students and gives more of herself to them than she gets in return.

    Most importantly, Beryl has brought literally thousands of people to the Ashtanga practice who would otherwise not have found it (i.e. the non-dancer/non-athlete/aging/injured/less fit/etc.) or who would have been discouraged by it’s challenges and difficulty, and intimidated by the standard Ashtanga environment of a intense room full of breathing, sweating, dour, tattooed, lithe, lean and young folks that take to the practice like ducks to water.

    I have a great love and respect for her, and so, since it’s Guru Purima today, I decided to write this, to give some clarity on this subject, and on Beryl, because she is my first teacher.

    Is she teaching true, unadulterated “Ashtanga”? No, not Pattabhi Jois’s Ashtanga (although I have taken many kick-ass Led Ashtanga classes, both Primary and Second, with her over the years.) But, she IS teaching the Eight Limbs – and that is the true Yoga.

    1. And a second thanks (after the Garuda comment). I can’t help but think what the kerfuffle would be like today, with the Internet and bloggers (like me) spotting off about this and that. I suppose the Anusara stuff gives an impression, and we only can imagine that the Vanity Fair article on Ashtanga and Jois Yoga pales in comparison. (It also sounds like Power Yoga might have been for me!)

      So we can count our blessings?

      Hope you have a wonderful Guru Purnima, Michelle. Thanks for all you’re adding here.


      1. My pleasure – and thanks for all that you both do; you have become my clearing house for all things Ashtanga-related on the net. Invaluable!

  2. Lots of Ashtangis are originally introduced to the practice via power/flow/vinyasa classes. I know I was, at a studio run by several very dedicated Ashtangis.

    I have great affection for the ‘dumbed-down’ classes; they were instrumental in my practice.

    And when I go back to my original studio, I recognize how they stay true to the fundamentals of the Ashtanga system – generally they’re nice abbreviated Primary sequences. Most beginners can’t walk into a mysore room and be anything but turned off. Tim, for one, points new students to his abbreviated Intro classes.

    Fundamentally, I think that power/flow/improv/’vinyasa’ classes are great, if the teacher is rooted in their practice. Easy to trash them if you’ve been practicing at a high level for a while.

    1. Hopefully my light approach to the Times piece came across (although in many ways I think it is pretty interesting and insightful). I’m sure the vast majority of Ashtangis start in some power/flow etc. class. And, yes, Tim does send new students to his Intro class.

      I think the point of the Times piece was that many yoga teachers who are marketing themselves as “power yoga” aren’t rooted in much of a practice. And that it seems to have boomeranged back into India.

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