Words matter. And never more so than in a yoga sales pitch

We were discussing Tadasana, also known as ‘Mountain Pose’ — admittedly at long distance and not even in real time, so my correspondent’s response was somewhat delayed in landing at my door and it took a while to register: ‘Tadasana is neither a dynamic pose nor a balancing pose’. 

Written thus, almost begging that final flourish ‘Discuss’, I’m minded of long-distant school essays, designed to set us thinking, to consider both sides of an argument and demonstrate our knowledge. Had Pavlov himself rung that bell, my fingers couldn’t have leaped to the keyboard any faster.

As part of deepening my yoga teaching offering with a 300-hour Yoga Alliance Professionals (YAP) certification, I’d written a brief biog (sales pitch if you like), detailing what students can expect in my yoga classes, and this particular bit of feedback bothered me because surely this foundational pose is both dynamic AND balancing? 

But we’d had a limited word count and perhaps I’d not explained myself well enough so, blessed now with the luxury of both an unfettered keyboard and restless fingers, here we go. But first, hold onto your yoga horses as I wind back a few steps and explain.

Namaste © Tatyana Chekrygina via Dreamstime

My classes tend not to follow any particular ‘yoga script’, but weave together the different influences that have inspired me: Hatha, Yin and Restorative with a liberal dash of Breath-Body-MindTM (BBM), the ‘evidence-based, breath-centred techniques’ which Drs Richard Brown and Patricia Gerbarg (in their words) use ‘worldwide to relieve stress, depression and trauma in adults and children’. The intention is to connect with our breath — bringing body and mind into a calm alert state — through movement to activate, energise and limber, combined with practices to bring balance physically and mentally. 

I call it ‘Breathe, Yin, Flow, Restore’ but, pushed to condense that into a single descriptive word, I guess ‘restorative’ (lower case initial) covers it best. But that doesn’t say all it is because we also focus on moving the breath and moving the body before settling into our Yin and Restorative poses (capital initial). And before we know it, there we are, back to a four-word descriptor.

Think of the disciplines of either Yin1 or Restorative2 yoga, however, and (if you’re familiar with the words at all) there’s probably an expectation you’ll spend most of the class with your bum not too far from the mat, either seated or lying supine, prone or sideways on — so why were we even discussing Tadasana

Very briefly, for my non-yogi friends — who by now may be wondering what all this fuss is about — in Tadasana we stand with feet either hip-width apart (my own preference) with toes pointing forward, or with feet together with big toes touching. Once our weight is established evenly across both feet, a series of cues brings attention to our posture, alignment and breath.

Recently, I sensed that a student new to class, a regular gym goer who ‘did a lot of stretching’ — and whose only declared prior experience of yoga was limited to watching online videos — thought they weren’t getting enough ‘yoga’ with their yoga. Not enough throwing themselves unprepared into wobbling lunges or strutting warriors perhaps, all the while exhaling heavily through the nose, jaw jutted, lips firmly pressed. (Oh yes, I’ve been there too).

So, in what I now see was a misguided effort to bring them on-side (they left soon after), I introduced a standing meditation to my classes, in the form of Tadasana, explaining that this was the foundation of all standing poses and that finding centre and composure here was the start point for stepping into — and out of — any of the more dynamic postures and movements. 

I know when I’d first attended a yoga class, confident that a long-time work-out habit in gyms and Pilates studios would carry me through anything yoga could possibly ask of me, I was shocked to discover just how wrong I was. Far from carrying me through, me and my ego spent that first hour (and many subsequent hours), desperately trying to catch up with the flowing sequences, tottering from one posture to the next, never quite catching my breath or balance. Until an already tetchy quadratus lumborum ganged up with her other muscly mates to declare that enough was enough. Cue many months of physiotherapy and, eventually, a more considered approach to yoga (the first step on that path to teacher training).

My point was that often, particularly in a faster-moving class, we don’t have time to really explore the postures. I mean REALLY explore. To understand where our weight is before we launch ourselves into the next posture, how our body feels, whether we’re holding our breath, what the teacher’s cues actually MEAN to US. And then the reverse of all that when we step back into that two-feet-together position from a wide-legged stance or a one-legged balance. So exploring Tadasana seemed like a good idea. And it’s a great standing meditation too.

My intention, I had noted in my biog, was that this might enable my students to ‘better enjoy their more dynamic, faster-moving classes’ but this, came the response, was ‘hard to understand because Tadasana is neither a dynamic pose nor a balancing pose’.

A rose is still a rose…. Image via Pixabay

A rose by any other name… might be something else entirely

Teaching yoga, it’s often said, is about invitational language. So slither with me for a moment down a semantic wormhole, while we reflect together on just how confusing ‘yoga words’ can be. And apologies, in advance, if I ruffle any yogic feathers along the way.

Tadasana, as mentioned, is also known as ‘Mountain Pose’. But then there’s Samasthiti, variously presented as being both interchangeable with and completely different to Tadasana.

The Vinyasa Yoga School in Rishikesh, India asserts that the two are very different, arguing that Tadasana is ‘a pose’, whereas Samasthiti is a ‘command of attention’, and that this should become clear when we examine the Sanskrit roots of both: ‘tada’ meaning ‘mountain’, ‘sama’ meaning ‘same’ or ‘equal’, and ‘sthiti’ meaning to ‘establish’ or ‘stand’. So, when a teacher says ‘Samasthiti‘ while you are standing in Tadasana, you should ‘recognise that what they are asking you to do is to bring your attention to establishing a firm and equal stance’.

On the other hand, Yoga Journal shuffles the same words around the page to reach the opposite conclusion, stating that ‘these poses are not different. They are the same’.

I told you it was a wormhole.

Slithering on, we have Equal Standing Pose (see above for Sanskrit explanation) and even Standing Tall Like a Big Hill. Or maybe that was a crossword clue? 

Elsewhere we find Mountain Pose as an alternative name for Parvatasana or Hill Pose, illustrated as a seated posture with arms reaching above the head, fingertips touching, during which you are invited to hold your breath until you feel like exhaling. 

Or perhaps you prefer to learn that ‘Parvatasana or Mountain Pose is part of the Sun Salutation series of asanas‘? That the Sanskrit ‘parvata’ means ‘mountain’ and the pose is so-called because it ‘looks like a mountain from the sides’. 

And indeed it does, whilst also looking suspiciously like Adho Mukha Svanasana (that’s Downward Facing Dog) except, when you really get down to it, the feet, shoulders, upper back and head are completely different.

In Bikram yoga, Tadasana may also be known as Tree Pose which most of us would recognise as Vrksasana, achieved by standing on one foot with the other tucked into the standing ankle, calf or thigh.

No doubt I could delve further and find more still — and any or all of these references may well be questionable, although all speak with authority, of course. No wonder then that so many yoga teachers appear to contradict each other: different schools and lineages, different interpretations and opinions, different experiences, different levels of willingness to question. The internet, dammit. Words matter — and never more so when it comes to any individual’s understanding of yoga.

Dynamic or balancing? Image via Pixabay

So which is it? Dynamic or balancing? Neither… or both?

Tadasana certainly lacks dynamism in the sense I’d used it in my biog, of moving through a sequence of postures, but there’s still a hell of a lot going on. Even in stillness there is movement — the ebb and flow of our breath moving through us, the body’s constant search for balance, through the proprioceptive messages telling us where we are in space.

And the Oxford English Dictionary definition of ‘dynamic’ when applied to a process or system is just that: ‘characterised by constant change, activity or progress’ which could be as much an internal movement as external. So, what with all that activity going on inside, just to keep us upright, you could argue that it’s no less dynamic than, say, stepping into Warrior Two, or flowing through a sun salutation.

But Tadasana not a ‘balancing pose’?

Tadasana is ‘both physically and mentally grounding’ and ‘a means of promoting stability in body and mind’, says Yogapedia. But if we are attempting to find stability, it must also be true that instability is a possibility? Indeed, a drishti or gaze point is recommended by some schools ‘in order to maintain balance’.

In BKS Iyengar’s ‘Yoga. The Path to Holistic Health’, he notes that ‘most people do not balance perfectly on both legs’ and this posture ‘teaches you the art of standing correctly and increases your awareness of your body’. Practising it gives rise to ‘a sense of firmness, strength, stillness and steadiness’.

According to Wikipedia, quoting from Srivasta Ramaswami’s ‘The Complete Book of Vinyasa Yoga’ (2005), ‘in Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, Tadasana is performed on the toes, while Samasthiti is flat footed’, the two asanas being ‘different’ (and back round the maypole we go with that one). How can Tadasana on tippy toes not be a balancing posture?

Balancing gull. Image vis Pixabay

Having a wobble…

Personally, if I’m having a not-so-good day — recovering from a migraine perhaps or still feeling the effects of a sleepless night — it might be all I can do to stand equally on two feet, let alone lift a leg and make like a ballerina. 

I’ve talked before about the many delights of advancing years, most notably the silently incremental loss of balance but it’s not just age that can make us unsteady on our feet.

I recall one memorable yoga class during which an ear infection — or possibly the energetic after-effects of the 108 Sun Salutation marathon I’d undertaken a couple of weeks earlier — decided to make itself known, causing me to keel over during a forward fold, unable to raise my head above mat level for a good two hours. Lose the ability to stand upright unaided for even the shortest time and you quickly realise how challenging it can be.

Age UK advises the over-65s to exercise to improve posture, coordination and balance but it’s not just the oldies who need to think about this particular triumvirate, despite our own NICE guidelines appearing to focus primarily on balance training for that demographic — not unlike closing the stable door after that horse has bolted.

A 2016 study, testing 775 North Carolina adults aged 30 to 90+ on physical performance measures including balance, gait speed, aerobic endurance and the ability to repeatedly stand and sit, suggested that while physical decline in function and activity were ‘much greater during late adulthood than during the younger years’, their results ‘lent further support for interventions in younger cohorts, targeting the risk factors for late-life disability earlier in the life span in an effort to prevent, attenuate or delay functional decline’. 

Of course, as I discovered in that earlier yoga class, there may be many contributory factors to falls in older people, some clinical, some due to physical, mental and neurological decline, and some simply down to ill-fitting shoes, slippers snagging on carpet, or the failure to think about how we place one foot in front of another (a problem definitely not confined to the over-65s!)

The NHS outlines various exercises to improve balance, such as sideways and heel-to-toe walking, ‘simple grapevine’ (crossing the feet as you walk sideways), and standing on one leg with hands against a wall or chair. 

In fact, how long a person can stand on one leg is recognised as an indicator of overall brain health. In 2014, a Japanese study published in the American Heart Association’s journal Stroke suggested that ‘struggling to stand on one leg for less than 20 seconds was linked to an increased risk for stroke, small blood vessel damage in the brain, and reduced cognitive function in otherwise healthy people’. 

Unfortunately, no evidence appears to exist that the reverse is true: that if you practice standing on one leg for longer, your risk of stroke would diminish. But that shouldn’t stop us seeking to improve our posture, coordination and balance — and giving our bodies the best chance they have of staying fall-free. 

And to do that, we need to explore how we stand on two feet, in order to understand how we can shift weight from one foot to the other without falling over.

Words, words, words. Image via Pixabay

Bringing it all into balance

The blessed internet, as you might expect, is chock full of yoga teachers filming instructional videos, writing authoritative blogs, and even possibly whole books, about how to do this wonderful pose — page after page after page of terribly serious Tadasana faces (although I note that’s usually the grainy monochrome male yogis. I guess those purposefully pursed lips and firmly furrowed brows were all part of the charm). 

So if you came this far expecting the same from me, I probably should apologise. It’s a crowded market and I’m still at the greener end of the yoga teacher continuum that runs between enthusiastic, wide-eyed trainee and the lofty experiential heights that only thirty-plus years of yoga teaching graft can bring.

So when a teacher who’s way ahead of me on that continuum queries my words, it gives me pause for thought. And what made this all the more confusing was that the comment had come from Barrie Risman, best-selling author of ‘Evolving Your Yoga: Ten Principles for Enlightened Practice’. Barrie’s workshops on ‘finding your authentic voice as a yoga teacher’ had been inspirational, culminating in the homework to submit the 250-word biog for her appraisal. So it was with some trepidation I sought clarification from Barrie herself.

‘You are absolutely right,’ came the reply. 

Phew. 

Tadasana can be practiced dynamically — there is a lot going on as you say — and it can also help and challenge balancing. However, when people think about balance in yoga they are thinking about poses like Tree or Baby Dancer, or Eagle or Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (Standing Big Toe Hold) where you are balancing on one foot. 

‘So while Tadasana can definitely be a pose to help one explore balance, it isn’t considered a balancing pose typically, and someone reading that might be confused without further explanation… a general reader might not understand without more context. 

‘Same with dynamic. Certainly Tadasana can be practiced dynamically, but without the context of how to do that, it wouldn’t be clear to the general reader.’

In other words, it’s all about the words

Which brings me back to the student who first inspired the more in-depth exploration of Tadasana in my classes, and my realisation that everyone has a different idea of what ‘yoga’ actually is and what they want to take from it. Maybe they’ve never heard the word ‘yin’. Maybe the word ‘flow’ was all they saw? Or that all-encompassing ‘yoga’, heavy with the weight of preconception?

But it’s also about the intention we bring to our teaching, and if a student’s idea of what ‘yoga’ is prevents them engaging with that intention, there may be little I can do to change their mind. If I’m teaching Tadasana as both balancing and dynamic then, in that moment, that’s exactly what it is, those are the qualities we are exploring, whatever pigeonhole you might have previously popped it in.

My conclusion then, in true ‘school essay’ style, is that Tadasana may indeed be neither balancing nor dynamic, but it is also both of those things. All I need do now, is squeeze this almost 3000-word explanation into a 250-word biog. Don’t wait up… I could be here a while.

With thanks to Barrie Risman for the inspiration to write this piece in the first instance, and her further input into the finished item. And also to Howard Smedley, retired consultant oncologist, who kindly supplied advice and research references about the possible links between balance and stroke risk.

1 ‘Yin Yoga is a slower-paced, more meditative version of the popular physical and spiritual discipline of yoga. In Yin yoga, the poses are held for a long period of time (typically three to five minutes or longer) to target the connective tissues (such as the ligaments) rather than focusing on the muscles. As a result, the asanas are more passive holds, with little muscular engagement.’ Yogapedia

2 ‘Restorative yoga is a type of yoga known for its relaxing, calming and healing effect… considered an ideal balance to hectic and stressful modern lifestyles’. Yogapedia

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