October 5, 2017

Do We Serve the Poses or Do the Poses Serve Us? (Science Yoga Sundays episode)

Julie Tran of Science Yoga Sundays graciously invited me to speak on her program. I chose a topic that has been on my mind a LOT lately — Are we serving the yoga or is the yoga serving us?

“We are here to enhance our lives, we are not here to bow down to some set sequence of poses.” – Dr. Ariele Foster

We get into the weeds on the limitations of alignment on the yoga mat, and so much more.


  • Why I no longer ask pre-class if students have injuries.
  • Who are the three teachers in the room?
  • How common is hypermobility in our students?
  • The real risk of dogmatic practice: repetitive motion injuries
  • How practicing yoga is like being a Hollywood actress 😉 !
  • Why alignment isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

“…And so we have got to stay humble, we’ve got to stay really, really humble. Really dedicated to the bigger purpose on the mat, which is hopefully the sustainable enhancement of our entire lives. That literally means that yoga has to evolve. It has to evolve with us. Our physical asana practice has to evolve…the way we use our bodies. This is something that is going to change over the years, and we need to start talking about it openly.” – Dr. Ariele Foster

It’s an easy Sunday morning conversation between two passionate yogis.

Here’s the link to the Facebook group that I reference: “Yoga for those with Hypermobility or Ehlers Danlos Syndrome

Big thanks to Julie for creating a format all about applying modern science and critical thinking skills to the world of yoga (with love, respect and kindness).

Once you’ve had a chance to listen or watch, I want to know:

  1. Has excessive emphasis on alignment ever done you wrong?
  2. Do you ask before class about injuries? Why or why not?

Let’s keep this conversation going in the comments section below. (also below: you can click to expand the transcript!)

Thank YOU so much for reading. Your comments and shares mean the world!

Click here to Expand the Transcript

>> JULIE: Welcome everyone to Science Yoga Sunday. This is our third ever episode of the series, and I know I have a blend of yoga teachers and yoga students and people who are just curious about yoga in general that  are either watching this live or watching the replay.

So i’ll just give you guys a really quick overview of what Science Yoga Sundays is if you’ve never watched this chat before. First of all, my name’s Julie, and I’m from LA and SF, but I’m currently in Santorini, Greece, and I have the amazing Dr. Ariele Foster of DC, so say hi Ariele.

>> Dr. Ariele Foster: Hey everyone, I’m Ariele.

>> Julie:  You are in the right place if you are wanting to learn more about yoga or you’ve been practicing yoga for a while. And with the way that Eastern traditional yoga has come from and the way that modern western science is coming from there’s this need, There’s this growing need to bridge the gap between both worlds so that we can have a really safe and healthy yoga practice and also still be able to enjoy the other benefits of yoga if you are into the spiritual aspects or if It just makes you feel really good and helps your mind feel really really calm. In the previous Science Yoga Sundays episodes, we’ve shared power point slides and diagrams and pictures of the bone structure and the muscles and Talking about how to understand the structure of anatomy and how it works. This time around we are nto going to do slides or power point pictures. We are going to have a really candid chat. The topic for today is do the yoga poses serve us or do we serve the yoga poses?

And I’m really excited to chat with ariele today because not only has she been teaching for almost a decade or more than a decade..

>> Dr. Ariele Foster: 16 years!

>> Julie: Well, that’s way more than a decade. You also have a doctorate in physical therapy

>> Dr. Ariele Foster: Sure, thank you so much for having me on, julie. It’s such a sweet treat to be able to be here. So alright so I started teaching yoga fresh out of college. I didn’t have a particularly athletic background. When i was in undergrad I was exposed to Kripalu Yoga, and completely utterly fell in love with it. Kripalu Yoga is a very non-dogmatic, it can be very gentle but it can be very challenging style of yoga that has three main stages. The first stage would be this willful showing up stage, that like, it takes a little bit of effort to roll out your yoga mat to show up and do the poses, and that’s why yoga teachers are so very helpful because they teach us, you know, what to do. The second stage would be sort of a — you might embody it by holding a pose for a long time, and working through like a 5 minute hold of goddess pose or something working through all of the “stuff” that comes up. This isn’t mandatory of course, it’s not a very dogmatic style.  And then the third stage would be meditation in motion. So I come from this very soft, fluid yoga background. But when I moved to washington, DC soon after that in 2001, I realized that I mean  I really fell in love with vinyasa yoga. I loved the dance, the music, the hype. It was a great compliment to having — at the time I worked in environmental policy and activism so I had kind of desk jobs where I was sitting a lot or at the computer a lot. And then I would go and practice or teach these very flow based classes.

About 5 years in, maybe 4, I went to a class one night and I… it was a reasonable class an Iyengar based class It wasn’t even a flow class that night but I remember we were holding down dog for a long time. and I remember distinctly — I was in my mid-20s, i was around age 25 — and I wanted to get out of the pose. We were in it for so long. And I was a little uncomfortable but i was too shy. I didn’t feel like… I remember I had some of the people who were my students in the class as well.  I was being a student and I didn’t want my students to think that… you know there was some ego there. So I didn’t want to cop out and jump out of the pose. And the next day I couldn’t lift my arm.

So I went to see a physical therapist a few days later. And she did some really simple quick tests  and She knew within about 5 minutes what was going on for me which was a rotator cuff injury. It was really clearly from the repetitive stress of vinyasa, of chaturanga, of Probably the process of chaturanga to  up dog to down dog and chaturanga over and over again.

And Really not having the fundamental stability not just strength but the fundamental stability in those joints to do all those things.

Lets call that 2005…2006, and I ended up going back to school for a year and a half for pre-requisites, and then for three years for my doctorate in physical therapy. In the US anyway it’s now a clinical doctorate degree. So I’m not a PhD, I’m not an MD. I have a DPT but it’s year round so it’s more intensive even than law school. We dissected cadavers for I think the first 8 weeks of school, literally every day Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday. Two hour lecture, four hours in the lab [chopping sound] dissection. So today I’m about six or seven years out of physical therapy school. And today I see patients twice a week at Georgetown University Hospital, I see private patients twice a week at my own clinic, I teach yoga classes, I run retreats and I run an Online Yoga Anatomy Mentorship called Actually that’s just my general website,, so that is what puts me here today. Thanks for having me.

>> Julie: Um, that’s uh, You know that’s interesting when you talked about being that student in the room and not wanting to be that one student that’s “caving in” or showing signs of weakness that you are not following what the teacher is saying, because When I was starting off as a student, I’m a teacher as well,  i started off as a student for about 5 years and there were quite a few classes where the teacher was having us in plank for maybe 2 minutes at least or the power yoga style when you are in a pose for a really really long time. You see people hesitating and resting on their knees. If I’m not strong enough that must mean I’m not a yogi. Or you know that whole internal struggle and conflict of the challenge, the needing to be at a certain level in order to feel like we are really doing the yoga. And to know that you had a rotator cuff injury after that. How long did it take to recover from that injury?

>> Ariele: Well, it got, let’s say it got 95% better within a couple of months. It’s still something that I have to take care of and treat sweetly and baby and i know a lot more about it now as you can imagine. Um, but, yea, It was a really profound experience that shifted my life. And I think even this conversation around, like, that being a level of yoga is — we have to really root out all the ways in which we inadvertently diminish the broader experience. So let me give an example:

I think that the highest level of yoga in that moment would have been to say “this doesn’t feel good.” I’m going to step down from this and I’m going to take a break and I’m going to listen to this internal teacher. Because the ultimate goal of our yoga practice is really this process of self-inquiry. It is really the process of discipline but not discipline to some external, some random teacher. That’s not what we are building discipline for. We are building discipline for life. We are building tapas and austerity and a quality of introspection that should serve us off the yoga mat. It’s called practice for a reason. It’s not performance. And so the highest level of practice that day would have been to really do some self inquiry around the reality that I probably wasn’t strong enough to continue that practice. Or the reality that I had done a lot of down dogs that week or a lot of chaturangas that week. And that I really didn’t need more than that. So that’s partly what fuels my passion for showing up today and fuels this passion of the idea that Are we showing up to the yoga mat to serve our lives? Or are we showing up to serve these poses? So that was an instance in which I am pretty sure I was serving the pose or was serving the teacher in front of me, which is not really the highest long term. That was a lesson that clearly I needed to hear, so here I am.

>> Julie: What would you say to a student that,

I can visibly see that the student is struggling. When I say that I can see that their limbs are trembling, shaking

As a teacher seeing that and giving the student a cue “You have the option to do this, you have the option to do this”

To our bodies vs. just doing what the teacher is cuing

>> Ariele: I have two things to say around that, So the first one is going to be physiological, so talking about the shaking of the muscles and the second one is going to be more philosophical. Alright so the fact that somebody’s muscles are shaking inside plank…doesn’t necessarily that is not necessarily a bad thing. If they are doing it over and over again, if it was like the 20th side plank of the class, then I might really encourage somebody, I might give the actual instruction,

Say like “If you are noticing that your shoulder is shaking, That’s a sign that you are maxed out. And therefore please put your knee down. You will thank me tomorrow if do that”. Or you will not think about it tomorrow if you do that. If you don’t have to think about this class ever again, great.  I’m still thinking about a class from 12 years ago or something. So If you don’t have to think about it, then the class has done it’s job.  Um, so, Just going into a side plank or a challenging pose and experiencing shaking is ok. If you went to the gym and you picked up the heaviest weight you could possibly pick up, you’d probably be trembling a little bit. So it’s just a natural muscular response to your maximum load. And If we are each of us exposing ourselves to a variety of different movements, a variety of different load patterns, like what we are taking on, then hopefully we are at some point we’ll go our maximum, Cuz I for sure know that we are all going to our minimum every day at some point, right? Um, so I’m not too worried about a one off shaking thing.  

The greater philosophical thing here is potentially going to come across as somewhat potentially a little bit controversial. But When I first got my doctorate in Physical therapy, and I first started teaching, and I — I think I was trying to like establish myself as, um, trying to find how to fit into these two worlds because I hear a lot of people tell me that physical therapy and yoga have a lot of overlap and I’m here to tell you that… not so much in a lot of ways. I mean, the academic process of becoming a physical therapist, absolutely completely different. The reality of having a career that is governed by a licensure process where you could lose your licensure, so you have a lot at stake, a lot on the line, Is a fundamentally just profoundly different experience than being a 200 hour part time yoga teacher, you know. There’s nothing wrong with being a 200 hour yoga teacher. That was literally me for many year, but it’s um, it’s different. So I’m showing up I’m trying to navigate how to fit these two worlds together, I’m trying to establish myself as a niche expert something something something, so I’m asking every single class, please tell me about your injuries, please tell me blah blah blah, This is before class starts. And what I noticed over the year and a half or so that I did that regularly, like, very very consistently, was this pattern: that there were sometimes things that people would tell me that I would have an immediate answer to, that probably most yoga teachers would have an immediate answer to. So let’s say like “oh, I’m getting a lot of wrist pain when I do vinyasa.” Ok, Let’s fold up a blanket, let’s put it here, let’s fold up the yoga mat, let’s get the wrist wedge if you happen to have one in the studio, let’s get a second yoga mat and sort of create a little ledge…There’s a million ideas, right? So there are things that I could address right away. There were things where I was like “Uh..ok I’m not really sure you should be here right now”, but you know, not trying to dismiss people from their own experience. And then there was this third category of people who just like wouldn’t even tell me… like partway through class I’d walk over and say “Is everything ok? Is there anything going on?”, “Oh well, I had this big surgery three months ago, and I just, you know.” and I’m like “Well, I asked in the beginning….”  

Sometimes it would be because they showed up late, but a lot of times it was because they didn’t think it was relevant. Something kind of flipped in my brain after about a year and a half.

Like I said, you have a lot on the line when you have a health license. And I realized that I was putting myself in a position of authority in the context of a group yoga class to try and address someone’s deep injury.  And I think that is fine if you are a yoga teacher without a health license, without any kind of medical licensure, and you want to explore — It’s a great way to practice exploring um uh modifications and really understanding how injury shows up on the yoga mat because if three people tell you that “Well, I had a meniscal repair six months ago”, If three people tell you that over the course of a year then you are going to start to see some patterns. Like whether there’s Tenderness, whether there’s this, whether there’s that. You can learn a lot from that process. But what I started to realize was I was putting myself in a very vulnerable position where people would then expect me to be able to modify a group yoga class based on their injury. And most of the time, that’s just not ok, that is just not possible because…You know, The process from a physical therapy point of view would be that I would first like do a complete physical evaluation and THEN I would figure out what someone is capable of and what their limitations are.

So, I stopped asking about injuries. I know it sounds a little wild. But I think I actually like would be putting myself in a more vulnerable position by asking about that. So, that somehow cycles back to the shakiness and that maxing out in side plank. So I will often say something along the lines of, this is the verbal language, the cuing that I would give: Would be on the level of like, you know  

“You’re here for practice. You are not here for performance. Please don’t do this for me. Please show up and listen to the teacher within. We will assume that there is some weight, some quality of yoga, the essence of yoga that hopefully I’m conveying. Thank you to all of my teachers, and that there’s also some individual weight from my words that are in front of you, but we have these three teachers within the room: The one within, the one that is visible, and the one that is invisible, this lineage of the practice.”

[dogs barking]

>> Julie: I’m just feeling really relaxed hearing you speak.

[laughter] I can imagine being in your class and hearing these exact words and feeling at ease in my practice, so I just wanted to compliment you on that.

>> Dr. Ariele Foster: Aw, thanks

>> Julie: And I also wanted to touch upon two things that you brought up. And One is about speaking about things that may be controversial in the yoga world. And I say controversial as well because there’s a lot of students and teachers who are very dedicated to the lineage that they’ve studied yoga with. And then there’s a growing movement of teachers and hopefully students that start to ask questions about whether a yoga pose is helping this student out with their functional movement with being able to walk up and down the stairs and being able to getting up from a sitting position. Where do you see the direction of yoga going in relation to what you’ve experienced and what you are seeing so far?

>> Dr. Ariele Foster: So I can speak to my classes and my practice. MY practice over the last 5 years has become significantly more strength-based and significantly less about range of motion. Um. I’m really academically and like personally interested in the topic of hypermobility. I don’t think that I personally fall into a big category … neat category of generalized hypermobility syndrome, but most yoga practitioners most yoga teachers have some level of hypermobility somewhere in their body.  I see this pattern really really powerfully across washington DC where I live, where I have been teaching for 16 years. And i see this pattern all over in my teacher trainings, in everything. So that’s just a side plug, I run a Facebook group called Yoga for Those with Hypermobility and Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. Ehlers Danlos is a syndrome that can have hypermobility as a component to it. Often does, almost always does. So anyway, when we see these patterns of people showing up to the mat who have generally really like lax body types, these are the folks who truly truly need strength, like very fundamentally need strength. If we just use the range of motion as it shows up, not only will it be too easy for them, but it could also be really really harmful for them. I think that it’s incredibly dangerous right now. We are such incredibly visual creatures.

I love instagram. I actually really adore instagram. I have alot of fun, it’s a creative outlet for me. But i’’ve noticed that a lot of the people who seem to have risen to Instagram fame in terms of the yoga world, the niche yoga world, they are either naturally extremely hypermobile to the extent that it could be extremely dangerous to their underlying structure. I’m talking about people who are probably going to need hip replacements by the time they are 40.

One individual I know of on instagram had some extreme wrist injury from constant handstands. The injury came from a lack of circulation, which is also a sign of underlying hypermobility disorder. If you look at many of these instagram accounts that have skyrocketed to fame, They are really pushing the flexibility, the contortionist component of yoga. And so you know If your body is really easefully capable of that, then I’m not necessarily going to diminish your practice, but …you know, many of the dangers of yoga, and this going back to our main subject here, happen not from a one-off thing, happen not from a year of practice, but they are really coming about after years of practice. You might start this when you are 21, but when you are 27, 28, 29, 30…Dealing with really, really significant repetitive motion injuries. And, Yea, I mean, so, my own practice has become much, much more strength based. It’s helped me really profoundly.  I almost always will start anything other than a gentle class with some deep core work, where we really just practice recruiting these muscles on our backs on the floor, so that when we stand up that we have more like neuromuscular control of them, that we can access them a lot better.

And it’s become a lot more functional. One of the things I teach in many many of my classes, which I never did before becoming a physical therapist is literally just about how to get on and off the floor. I taught a yoga fundamentals class last Thursday and I’d say for maybe a third of the class we were practicing different kneeling techniques, we were practicing sitting to standing without using our hands. And We should be embarrassed as a yoga community – forgive me. There’s no “Shoulds” in the world. We could consider a little self-introspection around like looking around the room. I’m shocked when people show up to my…I’m about to teach this morning a Core Flow class at 10:30 eastern, and you will be surprised at how many people cannot get up off the floor without using their hands. At a Core Flow class at this particular studio, it’s one of the highest levels that shows up.  Yea, and I feel it’s my sacred duty to remind us of the real reason we are here. We are here to enhance our lives, we are not here to bow down to some set sequence of poses. Really really important to me at this point.

>> Julie: I’m sighing silently to myself because i’m on the same wavelength. And After teaching for a couple of years just the same sequence, just this dogmatic way of instruction, and experiencing my own personal injuries from just doing vinyasa yoga. I mean  I have a slight impingement in my left shoulder. It still clicks to this day. It’s a humbling experience to realize that there is no one specific way to go about our health and well being and our livelihood. It’s incorporating other activities now. It’s hiking. It’s doing some form of strength training, Doing a little pilates, doing a little bit of everything. No longer claiming that you just need to do yoga. Because That in and of itself is an imbalance. Which is contradicting what yoga is about, which is balance. It’s really great to hear the direction that you are taking it. I think that the more experience that you have and the more more of a solid background that you have in physical therapy or some other parts of the human anatomy… It’s crazy how the yoga certification process doesn’t, it doesn’t seem to have that. .. Yea… so, and just a side note for any of you that are watching that your students and you love watching, looking at instagram and you love admiring those famous instagram yogis and yoginis, definitely not telling you guys to stop enjoying that.

Seeing the artistic side of yoga. Again the purpose of this chat, this really real heart to heart chat

Is for you to start considering that it’s ok if your body doesn’t look like that, if your pose doesn’t look like that person’s pose. Your own anatomical structure and your own awareness of your strengths and weakness is really what would have you personalize your yoga practice for you no matter what it looks like in the picture. I also love looking at Instagram as well. It is a great way to express artistry. But again take parts of this conversation that work for you and leave what doesn’t. At least we start having this dialogue so you can keep yourself as safe as possible. I’ll get off that soap box for now.

>> Dr. Ariele Foster:

Yea so when you are in a yoga class or you are in a training, there’s this compressed time period. Whether it’s this one hour or hour and a half or 10 day training, or whatever it is. We feel the need to come out the other end somehow shifted, somehow different, somehow better. I think that the real thing to remember here is that we are in it for the long haul. We are in it to be sustainable. So what just came to mind is the analogy of a Hollywood actress.

If you arrive in hollywood in your 20s, and you end up blowing up, getting real big, and a lot of that is based on qualities such as your looks, such as your figure, such the fact that there’s no wrinkles in your face just yet, You might want to develop some acting skills, some production skills, or somehow think of some strategy to make your finances last for your life if not make your career last for the entirety of your life. The hope would be that you don’t just become forgotten at age 30. And I think the same thing is true of yoga. When you first get to the mat you can do a repetitive practice for maybe 5 years, 10 years maybe even 20 years but there’s going to be a point where all of us are going to be facing a different body. Literally every single cell in our body is regenerating every 7 years. So, You gotta have a plan. I think this is another challenge within the yoga community, where a lot of folks think that because we do this yoga, because we do this mindfulness that we are not going to age like normal people. Maybe there’s some level of truth to that. Certainly this practice if it is really truly to benefit our lives, will create an improvement in like how we, in the stages of our lives and how we will age, but that is, that thought that somehow i am immune to heart attacks, somehow I am immune to strokes, somehow I am immune to Parkinson’s or any of these conditions just because I drink green smoothies… just because I practice yoga or mindfulness, that is one of the highest levels of arrogance. It’s really just um, a very very limited self-concept. So I htink we have to plan for aging. We have to plan for not being able to do vinyasa or rocket yoga for the rest of our lives. We have to plan to develop a real true love for how we are showing up on this day. Monday might feel different from Tuesday, Tuesday will feel different from Wednesday.

Hey guys you are in the level two flow class right now. If you are feeling a little more Level 1 today, that’s ok Sometimes I’m feeling level 0. It will be different days of the week, seasonally. Different as we age. There’s some really profound wisdom that comes from Ayurveda, what’s often called the sister science of yoga, eastern medicine philosophy. But I do notice that tendency so frequently where yogis are just shocked that anything bad can happen to them.  

As a physical therapist — holy cow — i have worked with a lot of people who have experienced a lot of trauma, a lot of physical trauma, or sudden dramatic health shifts.

This includes yogis. Not just orthopedic conditions like in our joints or muscles, but, like, big huge things. And So we have got to stay humble, we’ve got to stay really really humble. Really really dedicated to the bigger purpose on the mat, which is hopefully the sustainable enhancement of our entire lives. And that literally means that yoga has to evolve. It has to evolve with us. Our physical asana practice has to evolve.  Maybe your meditation practice

Although i would

But for sure this practice of showing up and the way we use our bodies. This is something that is going to change over the years, and we need to start talking about it really really openly.

One Comment on “Do We Serve the Poses or Do the Poses Serve Us? (Science Yoga Sundays episode)

Sushil Birla
October 15, 2017 at 12:23 pm

My response to your two questions:
(1) No. Most teachers encouraged the students to stay within their limits, e.g., no pain. I learned that with regularity, that limit would change and I could get closer to the targeted alignment.
(2) The second question seems to be directed to teachers, whereas I am a learner, not a teacher. I send an email to the teacher ahead of the class, informing the teacher of my little limitations and needs, and asking if the class and the teaching style are the right match for me. If the teacher cannot be reached ahead of time, I try to meet the teacher just before the class starts. Now I do not go to regular group classes, but seek to update my home practice to suit my specific needs and limitations (including results of injuries) and other PT-assigned exercises, and expect the teacher to give full consideration to this information and integrate this practice into my other health-maintenance activities, and not be limited to a particular school or tradition of hatha-yoga, but be holistic and integrative towards my needs. I expect a good teacher (or any heathcare practitioner) that the student is often not able to articulate or even to recognize the real needs and limitations, and be able to observe, perceive, and elicit the necessary information…


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