I’ve gone to enough Yoga trainings from different traditions to know each time I will learn something new that bumps up against my current way of thinking or contradicts what I’ve learned previously. This is not unique to Yoga, as I see the same thing when I look at, for instance, nutritional information or medical advice. Is wine good or not? Are eggs healthy or not? Is this medication more effective than dangerous?
When bumping up against information that challenges one’s world view, I normally see a few different responses.
First, there’s resistance. This is healthy, in my opinion, if done for the right reasons. Resistance helps the individual buy time to consider their previously held views and how they look in the light of this new information. Resistance out of an inability to change is not healthy, and may result in people holding onto old beliefs that are at best irrelevant, or at worst, harmful.
After further consideration, sometimes we find that the new information is true but not universally in all situations and for all people. For instance, the debate about breathing from your belly up vs. from your chest down. Supporters of breathing from the belly up (inhaling from the belly, then mid torso, to chest and on the exhale just the reverse) say belly breathing is very relaxing and grounding and most people in today’s society are stressed/anxious and could benefit from bottom-up belly breathing.
Supporters of the top-down breath (breathing into the chest, then mid-ribs, then belly and on the exhale contracting the belly, then drawing the mid ribs in, then softening at the chest) say this type of breath better supports one’s structure. Expanding first into the chest on each inhale reminds the student on each in-breath to broaden their front body and by only moving into the belly at the bottom of the inhale, the abdomen stays contracted and supports the lower back for a longer period of time.
Both are true, depending on your focus and needs.
This is what can be challenging in a group class and is one of the arguments for individualized one-on-one Yoga Therapy – to tailor a practice of movement, breathwork, meditation and relaxation for each individual’s needs.
There is also new information that appears to conflict, and yet both appear to be true. The paradox. These are hard to wrap your mind around, in my opinion.
Then there is new information that comes to light because people and lifestyles change and the old ways of doing things are no longer relevant. For instance, the recommendation that people sit cross-legged for meditation. This information was fine for people who grew up in India and never stopped sitting cross-legged all their lives. But for the rest of us who grew up in chairs, sitting cross-legged puts too much strain in the lower-back, hips, knees and is thus not the best meditation position for many folks in the West. For that matter, seated poses are not particularly effective for many beginners because their hips and hamstrings are tight and they are not able to get the intended benefits of the poses because their lower-backs are rounded due to tightness.
Along that same line of thinking, over-extending the neck in cobra pose is not as effective for today’s population because many people already carry too much tension in the back of their necks from adopting the forward head position while on the computer or looking at their iPhones. These were not issues a hundred or thousands of years ago, but they are now which means that for many of us lengthening the back of the neck to it’s neutral position (which does include a slight extension) is the most effective position for the neck in cobra. This does not mean that some people get benefits from over-extending the neck in cobra and stretching the front of the neck, but for a group class erring on the side of caution for the greatest good is my philosophy.
And of course there is new information that is just wrong.
Faced with contradictory information, some like to spout ‘moderation in all things.’ Ideally, this sounds good. A nice compromise. Unfortunately, this could mean that some could adopt a dangerous practice in moderation which leads to negative health consequences. Contrary to popular belief, moderation is not always the best option.
My favorite response upon learning new information, and after careful consideration, is ‘the proof is in the pudding’ test. If the new knowledge seems credible, reasonable, the next step is to test it in my own body and see how I feel during and after wards. A teacher that asks you to test the knowledge in your own body and see how it feels and trust what your body/mind tells you is leading you towards critical thinking and trusting yourself. You can have no greater guide than your life, as real wisdom is born of your own experiences. In my opinion, the teacher is there to guide you towards different techniques and expand your way of thinking, but then also asks you to find the courage to see if your internal compass reinforces it.
As The Dude says, new information has come to light, now the rest is up to you.