Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Other Side of Partner Yoga

“Partner Yoga” is a very popular feature of Modern Postural Yoga in which two people assist one another in executing postures, with an eye on the aesthetic side. This is often introduced and performed as a matter of seemingly harmless “fun.”

I want to make some comments about this approach based on years of having considered the available and expanding literature and on directly observing couples (in the generic sense of the word) performing postures conjointly.

While it could be argued that Yoga has not stopped developing, I believe that some recent innovations should be questioned. Partner Yoga is such a recent innovation. It may be ”fun,” but it is neither necessarily harmless nor in keeping with the original intent of Yoga. Some Partner Yoga enthusiasts have speculated that this method is part of Tantra and as such has been around for thousands of years. As someone who has researched traditional Yoga for several decades, I can honestly say that Partner Yoga is indeed a new concept, which entered the contemporary Yoga movement perhaps as late as 1979. Ganga White and Tracy Rich of White Lotus Yoga lay claim to being the inventors of this type of postural practice.

To speak bluntly, it would never have occurred to yogins to practice postures with someone’s assistance, never mind in order to have “fun.” Traditionally yogins have, by and large, been loners who preferred the forest or mountain cave, or the privacy of their hermitage over a village, town or noisy city, and they were eager to practice whatever postures they had adopted by themselves to ensure quiet and proper inwardness.

The Hatha-Yoga tradition espoused by Sri Krishnamacharya, who taught at the Mysore Palace for many years, derived many of its yogic postures from gymnastics. This has recently been highlighted by a number of authors inquiring into the beginning of modern Yoga. See, for instance, Mark Singleton’s Yoga Body: The Origins of Modern Posture Practice (2010). He and other researchers have shown that what we in the West consider as Hatha-Yoga is chiefly a nineteenth-century invention, which was once closely associated with nationalism: Foster healthy people for the country's defence or, in the case, of some nations for their military expansion. We know that in Europe and North America the same attitude has led to gymnastics and body-building and then the modern body cult.

The idea of “fun” is very much a product of modern culture, which places a premium on personal pleasure. The word “fun” did not exist before the 17th century, which was a time when aspiring empires colonized the world and imported luxury goods like tea and coffee, when the scientific revolution led to unbridled optimism and when—symbolic of the age—ice cream was invented.

The declared purpose of traditional Yoga is not pleasure but bliss or, more precisely, inner freedom. Its goal is spiritual liberation (moksha), which nowadays is either ignored or downplayed. But without spiritual FREEDOM, Yoga is not Yoga but, at best, a modern adaptation. As you know, movie “adaptations” of novels rarely match the quality of the original. In the case of Yoga, we have made something of a novel out of reality.

Now, I believe that Partner Yoga is a fictionalized account of the Kāma-Sūtra (main text on the erotic arts) rather than Yoga. It is not as harmless as many teachers maintain. If the partners in Partner Yoga are in a committed intimate relationship, and they practice in private, I have no objection other than: That's new-fangled stuff that does not foster the kind of inward-mindedness (pratyak-cetanā) that marks traditional Yoga. `With the emphasis being on “fun”—or pleasure—it cannot be. Fun throws one outside oneself. We must pay attention to the outside world in order to have fun. Also, if one has to be mindful of making our partner's postural performance safe, only the most advanced Yoga practitioner can stay focused on his or her own spiritual process.

If the partners in Partner Yoga are basically strangers, it seems inevitable that some of the postures would be diffused with sexual energy that invites the kind of behaviour that traditional Yoga practitioners seek carefully to avoid. In their advertising, some schools clearly play on this possibility to make their method more marketable. Partner Yoga is often presented as having a connection with Tantra, which makes the whole affair exciting rather than calming.

Those who argue that some of the partner postures are aesthetically beautiful should bear in mind that Yoga is primarily about the realization of spiritual freedom and not about any aesthetic value, though Yoga is not against aesthetics, as we know from the example of the great tenth-century Tantric master Abhinavagupta.

I have no delusion that Partner Yoga will continue as an aspect of Modern Postural Yoga for the reasons hinted at above (and others), but people need to know that it is a Western innovation and has never been part of traditional Yoga. Period.

Georg Feuerstein


  1. I love your impeccable scholarship, Georg. I learn so much from every post. Even when I already have heard most of the facts, as in this blog, the way you put them together and put them into perspective is always very interesting and helpful.

    I just finished watching Ashtanga, NY, a film about Jois's visit to NYC in 2001. I enjoyed the film, but what struck me most was how little emphasis there was on anything but asana, and particularly the asana of progressively advanced pretzel-like poses.

    And, of course, this is considered one of the more pure lines of Yoga coming directly from Mysore. A lot of people don't realize that this emphasis on asana over the other eight limbs started long ago in India, not in America.

    Fewer still realize that even the Yoga Sutra is only one branch of a much larger Yoga philosophy tree that is more fully represented by the Bhagavad Gita.

    Personally I'm one of those people who embraces Yoga in all its ancient and modern American forms, and it's certainly not necessary for everyone who enjoys the benefits of Yoga practice to be steeped in its history.

    But I like the way you insist, even as we experience this explosive growth of the many things people call "Yoga" today, that everyone has the facts straight about the history and derivation of all these branches of the tree.

    Thank you for another great blog.

    Bob W.

  2. "A lot of people don't realize that this emphasis on asana over the other eight limbs started long ago in India, not in America."

    The emphasis on asana belongs to the early 20th century in India as part of its nationalism. Traditionally, Hatha-Yoga emphasized pranayama and not so much asana.

    Thanks for your participation!

  3. Dear Georg,
    I think that this is a very important discussion point, which brings up several issues. While I deeply appreciate your scholarship, and agree with all your reasons for arguing against the usefulness of partner yoga, I have to question whether it's potential existence in ancient India would really indicate anything about its' potential value. All yogic practices had to be conceptualized and then innovated at some point in time right? And while I agree with your thoughts about partner yoga, I find a great deal of value in my own life from the practices of modern postural yoga, particualarly as developed by B.K.S. Iyengar and some of his former students. Are they related to gymnastics? Yes. If modern yogis lived in the forest and begged for food, maybe they wouldn't seem as necessary; but living in society can be very demanding on the body. Many of us have been raised to neglect our bodies (couches, TV, junk food, cars, etc.) and they need conditioning to generate the energy required for mental transformation and living in the world. These are my thoughts about the value of a meditative, alignment based approach to the culturing of the body. On the point of pranayama, what do you think about the gradual approach to pranayama indicated by Mr. Iyengar and Richard Rosen. It is very modern, but I find it to be extremely reasonable and I noticed you endorsed Rosen's first book. I would really love to hear your thoughts about these ideas. If I'm missing the point please help me to see more clearly.

  4. Thanks for the correction, Georg. I don't know why I wrote "long ago". I was thinking the British colonial period as you stated in your blog.

    Loving "The Yoga Tradition" on Kindle for PC.

    Bob W.

  5. Dear Georg

    I value your judgement on partner yoga - probably because it is similar to mine. On a practical level I find partner yoga unnecessary and prefer not to teach it in my asana classes or have it foisted on me when I am in a class.

    I appreciate your blog and find your entries helpful and useful to underpin my studies in the TYS course.


  6. Cody, “All yogic practices had to be conceptualized and then innovated at some point in time right?” Well, yogic practices were invented by people who knew what they were doing. Is this necessarily the case today?

    “What do you think about the gradual approach to pranayama indicated by Mr. Iyengar and Richard Rosen.” Gradualness seems appropriate, especially with modern practitioners, who tend to want it all at once, missing the point. But gradualness was appropriate even in the past, because few disciples had the necessary qualities. . . .

  7. I really appreciate your post regarding partner Yoga, Georg. I learned a lot by reading it and decided to sleep on it and digest it before commenting. I especially appreciate your last sentence " . . . people need to know that it is a Western innovation and has never been part of traditional Yoga. Period."

    Personally I've never been drawn to practicing Partner Yoga, although I have experienced it. I would just say I have no real resonance to experiencing Yoga with a partner. Being assisted in an asana by an expert teacher has been valuable to me, but being assisted by teachers who have an agenda about the perfection of a posture and or how my body "looks" in the posture always proves unhelpful and has even resulted in minor injuries more than once.

    In a Partner Yoga class, unless my partner and I really understand how to participate, unless we both are first of all grounded and centered in our own asana experience, the practice is worse than useless to me. When I have experienced Partner Yoga work in classes with other teachers well versed in their own practice and in the purpose of the partnering, it has been interesting to me.

    I've tried including one or two partnering yoga postures a few times during classes I teach--when they related to and could possibly enhance students' experiences of individual work in other postures that follow their work with a partner. Because of that I also know that the teacher must be very clear in explaining the work, must have eagle eyes, and must take great care that students clearly follow instructions, both to avoid unnecessary strain or injury and to facilitate students' understanding of the relationship between the partnering work and the related posture or postures.

    I've never considered a focus on the aesthetics of partner work and have never talked about it. It comes as a surprise to me that the beauty of the outward form is a reason to practice with a partner. What I've learned about Partner Yoga has come from Donna Farhi, and she has never emphasized or even spoken about aesthetics in my presence. Whenever we have worked with a partner in her trainings, it has always had direct bearing on larger concepts she introduces or enlarges upon, following our work with a partner.

    I really appreciate your viewpoint here and will follow your lead when my students in teacher training ask about Partner Yoga.

  8. Enjoyed reading you thoughts on this, Carol.

    Bob W.