Law of Attraction

Contributing in your own way to yoga with Mijael Brandwajn

Mijael Brandwajn is the owner and director of the Akila Institute, a yoga institute that focuses on science, not on dogmas, and brings a few changes and ideas that can be a little contentious in the yoga world. Check out this interview with Mijael for MysticMag to know more.

In your website you point to your focus in science, not in dogmas or even religion. Why did you feel the need for that approach?

Although as a philosophy, Yoga seems to be at least interested in knowing the truth objectively and directly (in a way that I would consider scientific at least in spirit), it is often taught with dogmas of all sorts.

While I consider myself a spiritual teacher, I also consider it important to distinguish evidence based knowledge from beliefs, and this is something that I think informs and shapes my teaching. Telhard de Chardin once spoke about this as the difference between spirituality and religiosity: the former requires constant questioning, the latter requires faith in a book or a person.

My need, hence, stems from both my way of being and the way I understand Yoga.

How do you create lessons and postures that can be done by young people and old people alike?

The premise of the question is that young people will practice postures very differently than older folks. While true as a generalization, it doesn’t work well when taken at the individual level.

Some people in their sixties can do much more with their bodies than people in their twenties!

I don’t think you can teach classes “for everyone”, nor do I think it is advisable. My classes don’t generally include what I refer to (tongue-in-cheek), as “circus poses”. I modify movements to make them more therapeutic or what some people would refer to as “functional”. I offer a lot of variations to make things more or less challenging. I also include some Chi Kung, and perhaps more breathing and meditation than your average yoga class.

That combination seems to appeal to a rather heterogeneous bunch, so I get younger people interested in things that generally appeal to a more mature audience, and older people who are still able to move more freely than your typical elder.

Do you have examples of known postures that don’t have clear benefits and can even hurt some practitioners?

I can’t think of postures that offer no benefit at all, or postures that can’t hurt. Lying on your back can be hurtful to some people.

Having said that, I do think that in the spectrum of “too risky to be worth the benefits”, there are plenty of postures that make the cut. While this is going to be a rather controversial statement, I think headstand is one of those. In my opinion, the risks are higher than people give it credit, but they are not immediate which is why I think it is often overlooked. In terms of benefits… if you want the benefits of inversion, you don’t need to place so much weight on your head (and I believe most people who perform this pose put way too much of it too soon).

In a recent post on Instagram, you explained why you don’t use the Sanskrit names of the postures. Can you elaborate for us?

Oh my… that was contentious.

I will start with the cost of using Sanskrit names:

1) It alienates people who would practice yoga if it didn’t feel so foreign.

2) Furthermore, it creates more of a mental load. I am not making this up, and you can see this in some of the many comments in that post: people complaining that they feel somewhat stressed by trying to remember the name in Sanskrit on top of everything else they have to pay attention to.

3) It mystifies poses in ways that later on make them “untouchable”. Somehow the fact that the posture has a sanskrit name furthers the belief that these poses live in some sort of sacred pantheon that shouldn’t be changed or messed around with, or else they will lose their power.

Now, let’s talk about the potential benefits of using names in Sanskrit:

1) A shortcut to let people know what will be practiced, and even make classes more accessible when you have people who don’t speak the language the class is being taught in.

However… postures change names constantly from place to place, book to book, teacher to teacher. Unlike ballet, where “plie” is the same everywhere you go, “chakrasana” means different things in different schools. So the notion that you can use the name of the posture as a shortcut for all students is somewhat flawed.

Furthermore, the name of the posture says very little about the many ways I can go in and out of it, or the many variations I can do to it. So it is not always that useful to me in class.

2) We honor the origins of Yoga, and make it less of a “cultural appropriation”.

I think this is an honorable sentiment. But the names of each posture were just labels in the language used by the people who wrote about them. And even though to some, hearing the name in Sanskrit makes it feel more authentic, the historical reality of postural Yoga is very complicated, culturally speaking.

For example, adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog) and chaturanga (the push up), two rather common postures in Yoga classes today, didn’t really exist until modern Indians adopted them from practices that were outside of the realm of Yoga (and were probably imported from the West before being repackaged as Indian).

I just don’t think I need to name the postures in Sanskrit to honor India’s contribution to conscious movement, particularly given the cost I presented in my first point.

Do you feel some rejection or discomfort with your way of sharing yoga (in your words, more modern and universal)?

There is often tension between conservatism and progressiveness in different areas of life. We see it in politics and religion the world over. It is part of Yin and Yang.

My way of sharing Yoga often rubs people who value tradition the wrong way. They often believe I am watering down, or even misrepresenting Yoga. I can see their point: what rights do I have, a Latin American white guy living in the US, who has never even traveled to India, to propose changes to what they consider a long held tradition?

It doesn’t bother me. It comes with the territory, and I get enough positive feedback to let me know my contribution is welcomed by enough people to make a difference.

If you need to convince someone to take yoga lessons, what are your strongest points?

I have a hard time going with that “if”… there’s enough people wanting to practice Yoga to be wasting my time trying to convince someone who isn’t interested in it. Besides, you might find Zumba and playing the didgeridoo work better for you, who am I to judge?

But I’ll play along and say you could be training your body in strength, flexibility and balance, training your mind for resilience, patience and compassion, and cultivating your capacity to be present and more connected to why you are alive, all in one practice. Not a bad use of your time, right?

What is the first thing I should have in mind when starting to take yoga lessons?

There’s SO many ways of practicing Yoga. It’s not even like saying “there’s many flavors of Ice Cream”, because at least you will find most ice cream sweet enough to eat. Some styles of Yoga will be anathema to you, while others you might fall in love with. So try different styles of Yoga and different teachers before you decide if you like it or not.

Also: If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. It’s supposed to feel good, even when it might not be easy.

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