A Handbook For Yogasana Teachers

This book is a tome of body science for yoga teachers with over 1000 pages in the second edition. I purchased it a few months ago. While I’ve skimmed the entire volume, I’ve spent the most time on the appendix related to balance in yoga postures.

Most yoga instructors can tell you a handful of things that improve balance such as a gazing point, engaged muscles of the standing leg, and mental concentration. Mel Robin has written 80 pages on this subject. He covers gravitational effects on yoga postures; aspects of mechanical metastability; generating counter-torque when falling; balance sensors, and neural repatterning among many, many other topics. This one section alone has changed the way I practice balancing asanas and how I teach them to my students.

With the recent publication of William Broad’s controversial book The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards it’s more important than ever for yoga teachers to understand if and how science backs up claims related to the medical benefits of yoga. Robin’s book does just that. It looks at the science behind the asanas.

I understand that he is working on his newest edition…

-- Michele McGinnis


A Handbook for Yogasana Teachers
Mel Robins
First Edition, 1000 pages

Available from Amazon

A Handbook for Yogasana Teachers


  1. Given how much pseudoscience and metaphysics is often associated with yoga, I’d like to know if any of that has transpired into this book or whether the author manages to stick with what is properly known.
    I hate being told that doing this or that will focus your bionic energies to remove waste products from your midichlorians, when actually it’s just good for your muscles, your joints and also very very relaxing — which is actually way better than that energy flow bullshit

    1. You can peek inside on amazon.  I glanced through, seemed to be written from the standpoint of someone explaining things through science. 

    2. Don’t be a tightwad. Most “pseudoscience” in yogic literature is actually nothing more than different terminology from the “scientific” one. Replace prana with “relaxation of parasymapathetic system” and “sanskara” with “subconscious traumatic complex” and there you go.
      Tantrics have been studying human behavior EMPIRICALLY  and systematically for at least 2,500 years. Of course they have different terminology from western medicine and especially psychology which is a century old.
      I’ve been studying both hinduism and buddhism as well as psychology for quite some time, and it never ceases to amaze me how western science and especially psychology keeps rediscovering tantric concepts and then proudly proclaims them as new, completely different from those “primitives” who have been saying that all along, only using different terms. I’ve been saying “Well, duh” whenever a new psycho fad comes along for longer than I care to remember.
      As for the gods and mythology, they are nothing more than personifications of various absolute concepts, metaphors really. In fact, it says so right in the Mahabharata where Shiva reveals just as much to flabbergasted Arjuna.  If you wish, you can consider them teaching and visualization tools, such as any that form any practicing psychologists armory.

      1. Unfortunately Christianity creates a psychological/linguistic/semiotic blind spot for most scientists as much as for those Christians who claim yoga is the work of the devil so they are unable to see the relationship between concepts. The forces which mythologies(including biblical mythology) try to describe are the same forces which physicists are trying to describe. The one thing that is universal and inherent/pre-programmed in human consciousness would seem to be a sense of (not ideas about) the forces of physics and the ability to creatively explore them. This would underpin the motivation to acquire language (and discrepancies between Chomsky and Piaget).

        1. Absolutely, it’s a “west-east” divide in thinking that runs very deep indeed. Just imagine what the history of western thought would have been like if at one point in the Bible God said to Moses: “Look, I don’t exist really. I’m just a picture in your head. A useful picture to be sure but a picture all the same. You’re on your own, kid.” and that’s exactly what those hindu gods keep saying to mortals and why there is no bloody religious schism between hinduism and buddhism.
          Westerners raised on “one true god, one reality” find it really hard to even fathom this kind of perception and that’s why the history of western science is filled with all those bitter rivalries and destructive censure of new ideas and concepts.

    3. I haven’t read the book, but one of the good reviews on Amazon is from a teacher I have taken classes with, Roger Cole. Roger Cole has a PhD in Physiology (I believe that is his specialty – I tried to Google it up and couldn’t find his exact degree). He is a sleep researcher in his day job. I have taken classes with Roger on yoga anatomy. He approaches yoga with a medical perspective. Of all of the teachers I have studied with over the years, he is one that I respect tremendously for his medical knowledge and application of it to yoga. If he is saying this book is worthwhile, it probably has some sound research behind it. Here is a link to one of Roger’s articles in Yoga Journal, addressing the rather “woo”ey subject of “adrenal fatigue” http://www.yogajournal.com/practice/603  

  2. How can you take the snake oil out of yoga? The chakras? The energetic channels called nadis? The cleansing of the nervous system and the toxins?  There is enough imported-from-mother-India cowshit to drown in.

    1.  There’s all that, but the exercises work well and the bullshit can be ignored.

      You might find _The Science of Yoga_ (mentioned in the article) a good read. It’s pro yoga, but written with a “show me the published research” attitude.

    2. This sort of thinking is close to exactly why it took medicine about a hundred years to figure out that exercise was an advisable intervention for many conditions.  You ignore the proponents who claim  that it’s magic that can’t be studied, and you ignore the detractors who claim it must be bull because there are proponents who claim it’s magic.  You look at the research and decide. 

    3. Also, chakra/energetic channels etc, *can be* (not saying that it is, or should be) seen as useful mental goal images to relate to when practicing yoga, and thus be making sense as a mental framework  – after all, it is difficult to transfer biomechanics equations for optimum balance into putting your body into the actual contortions…

      1. I don’t do yoga, but I do tai chi.  When people talk about chi, I don’t think of it as magic power, but as “this is a model for explaining how to move/relax/keep balance better.  It’s not a magic blueprint that supercedes reality as you know it”.  Same with when you explain follow through in golf/tennis/baseball.  It’s physically impossible to hit through the ball as if it wasn’t there, but you maintain that image in order guide your movements better.   If a tai chi teacher is focused more on the magic aspect than on how to move/stand better, I find a different teacher. 

        1. Absolutely. Tai Chi is a “model of reality” just like yoga is… and just like “western science”  is.  No,  fellows, science is not THE reality, it is just a “model” of it, and you judge models by their practical performance, first and foremost.
          Scientists who close their mind and see their current scientific dogma as reality rather than just a “currently most useful model” are bad scientists and western history of science is rife with fights between “scientists” and “loons” who just happened to find a more useful model than the previously accepted one.
          The division between “east and west” in that regard runs much deeper though. Westerners, probably due to their monotheeism, always incline towards one absolute “truth” in their thinking. Why is it that there are so many gods and schools in hinduism and they’ve never been at war? Because it is automatically assumed that we humans can only form “models” of reality and therefore it is pointless to fight over  a model, while in the west religious and philosophical arguments always  turn into desperate fights over the ultimate reality itself. In that regard, eastern, yogic thinking is much more “scientific” than the so-called western scientific one.

          1. Yoga appropriated the word “scientific” to boost sales. Yoga is not science. Experiential yes, scientific no. 
            Not eating foods that grow in the shade and underground (mushrooms and potatoes) because they have bad juju: superstition not science. Not practicing yoga on full moon and new moon days: superstition not science.

          2. @kamilothris:disqus there is “bad” yoga just like there are bad scientists and people who abuse knowledge in general, consciously and maliciously or simply because of ignorance (And Buddha did say that “all evil stems from ignorance”, most superstitious and pagan, I’d say /sarcasm off). I’d rather not practice yoga on full moon (and i’m not doing that, i’m not even a yoga practicioner jeez) than have this to ponder:  http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/03/business/glaxosmithkline-agrees-to-pay-3-billion-in-fraud-settlement.html?pagewanted=all
            and if you say “well that’s ok because it is SCIENTIFIC” then i’ll call you a hypocrite to your virtual face.
            Get informed, don’t be ignorant. Study what yoga is. This book seems a very good source and Bihar school of yoga (sponsored by indian government) is a good place to start, especially anything written by the founder, Satyananda Saraswati.

          3. Yoga is not a science nor does it use the scientific method. 

            I have been practicing Yoga for 25 years and professionally teaching it for 15 years. Thank you for your reading recommendations. I have read most of the Bihar books and they are a good source of income for the ashram. Repeating and embellishing what your ancestors wrote and what your teacher passed on does not science make. I have done many of the practices contained in the books and some of them I love and continue to do.

            Sill not science. 

    4. If you haven’t been able to see your chakras, it may be because you weren’t looking with your Third Eye.  (Not joking.)

          1. The third eye is the ability to recognise that what makes us all human regardless of variations in sexual and economic relations and levels of technological expertise across space and time is language and its malleability in describing physical reality as our experience increases. (Science is one type of experience.) Very simple really.

    5. It depends on what you want to focus on. The chakras, for example, are a useful concept for tuning in to the sensation of energy moving through the body, which is invaluable for becoming more advanced in your physical yoga practice. 

      A lot of yoga practitioners conflate sensation with reality, though. Just because you feel like energy is moving through your body doesn’t mean it literally is. However, that is what many people believe because of their own experiences. They don’t understand that energy doesn’t need to be need to be “real” for someone to perceive it – look up at the XKCD cartoon posted above to see how deceptive our perceptions of the world are. 

      Working with a teacher who sees her body in terms of chakras and nadis can be wonderful; a teacher like that can take you out of your normal way of looking at the world and get you to tune in to sensations you may typically tune out. It can be helpful to indulge in the belief that these concepts are true, just for fun. Don’t ignore people who are swallowing the horseshit, just see if you can figure out a way to filter it through your perspective.

      1. Thank you for making my point. I am glad to find out things do not need to be real for me to perceive them.

        1. Here’s another one: http://opticalillusions4kids.blogspot.com/2007/07/muller-lyer-optical-illusion.html . I find this illusion fascinating. Even knowing the lines are the same length, it is impossible to see these lines as equal because our minds are interpreting them as three dimensional space. I know it seems like just a simple illusion, but to me, the fact that our minds put all this processing on even the simplest lines is so telling of how we think that our brains are sort of like recorders, seeing the world as it actually is. Instead, before we are even conscious of it, our brains have filtered, tweaked, and twisted the information we are receiving from our eyes. It is, in fact, IMPOSSIBLE to perceive the “REAL WORLD”. Many of the things we experience have much more to do with the functioning of our minds that what is actual. See any book by neuroscientist V.S. Ramchandran  http://www.amazon.com/V.-S.-Ramachandran/e/B001IGHMGU/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1342099042&sr=8-1 for more about the difference between perception and reality.

    1. I just found out that the use of fertilizer was to prevent communism, and now I find out that yoga (as we know it) was to fend off the British?

      The world is so cool and bizarre.

      Link to politicized fertilizer: http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/episodes/2012/04/20/feeding-ten-billion-1/

    2. I’ve been hearing this theory more and more lately, but I am recently listening to a course on the history of Eastern Philosophy ( this one http://www.thegreatcourses.com/tgc/courses/course_detail.aspx?cid=4620 ) this course is not put together someone who is a yoga specialist but just a general Eastern Philosophy teacher. I’m still working through the classes, but I believe that what we are practicing today is related to the ancient practice. It has evolved from what they were doing but it’s not just gymnastics with “yoga” slapped on it.

    3. The original classical texts that we do have are concerned with the body’s reproductive (sexual/economic/technological) motivation in acquiring language and it’s need for ‘down time’. (It is the body through the brain which uses the mind.)
      Essentially the texts are about language and the unconscious with all the problems of meaning that that entails. But these problems of meaning are not unproductive. Any meaningful philosophical system must both remain true to its origins and evolve (like language). There is something for everyone depending on their ability to understand.
      If you understand the linguistics (nadis/chakras/kundalini are all terminology for the process of trying to match our knowledge of language to our knowledge of physics) then you’re better off just going to the gym. Think of all the problems physics has with particles, waves and fields and trying to define and explain them. (I could never get my head around the point of all the asana stuff).

    1. That’s because you actually practice. If you put all your energy into criticizing yoga from your couch, you wouldn’t have any energy left over for things like understanding metaphors.

  3.  Indeed. I take -and use- the mystical nomenclature as a sort of useful poetry that helps focusing; not at all as a description of actual phenomena.

  4. ITT: ethnocentrism. “Finally, some knowledgeable westerners have taken the TRUE and CORRECT approach to this blind savagery.”

  5. I’ve been trying to get into yoga for the exercise/flexibility benefits because I’ve never been able to get myself to consistently do other forms of exercise (though I am running regularly now). As a scientist and die-hard skeptic I find it very difficult to get past the mystical stuff. I know it’s an unfair bias, but even just the terminology is a huge turn-off.

    I know I should just go to a class, but the thought of that makes me anxious. So I’ve been cruising youtube for yoga videos, of which there are thousands. If you look hard enough, you can find people who don’t talk about the mystical stuff too much. 

    I mean I really don’t mind it and I don’t care if it’s meaningful to other people. But from my perspective, it’s just created a lot of noise, obscuring the reality. I understand that it can all be thought of as metaphors for real stuff, but I’d much rather hear about the real stuff than try to figure out what the metaphors might mean (metaphors are usually meaningless to my mildly aspie mind regardless of context).

    Anyway… all this is to say that I’m glad that people are writing books like this from a relatively BS-free perspective. Hopefully this attitude will spread.

    1. I understand that it can all be thought of as metaphors for real stuff, but I’d much rather hear about the real stuff than try to figure out what the metaphors might mean.

      Try to explain any intangible without using a metaphor. You can’t do it.

      1. I must be misunderstanding something about yoga, then (I am as much of a beginner as possible) – what exactly is intangible here? I’m inherently skeptical about any benefits yoga might have which are intangible.

        I’m genuinely curious and I’m glad you replied because I know you’re a yoga instructor and someone who explains things really well. If you do a beginner’s class maybe I’ll go out there some time and take it :)

        1. I wasn’t actually thinking of yoga when I said that. But semantically, even a basic word like ‘relax’ is metaphorical because it’s taking the physical concept of loosening and applying it to the rather nebulous concept of mental relaxation. Of course, now we have ways to test for mental relaxation, but we’re still using fundamentally metaphorical language. A wave in physics is still named after a wave in water. Most of these metaphors have been around for millennia, so nobody considers them metaphors. But they still use the language of physical phenomena to describe non-physical (or invisible, microscopic, macroscopic, etc.) phenomena.

          In yoga, chakras, for example are just a way of organizing personal phenomena for easier introspection, just like the four elements of Western alchemy are a way of organizing all phenomena. The masses take them literally, but the philosophers who create the ideas or at least understand them, view them as metaphors. One might have hoped that, with the spread of science, the masses would have figured out that the metaphorical underpinnings of religion are meant to be viewed philosophically, but no such luck.

          1. Ha, yeah, I see what you meant earlier, my mistake. I take your point about that sort of basic language metaphor and had not really thought about that.

            I think I still have a lot of learning to do. Philosophy etc. has always been a weak point for me.

    2. While there are a few, it really is hard to find good teachers who can talk sense. One of my main teachers was an Iyengar teacher. He mostly taught yoga poses – very little pranayama (breathing/energy exercises), no meditation. He was a very good teacher of poses and a lot of my physical background in yoga I owe to his excellent instruction. 

      HOWEVER, and this is such a beef with me, he used to talk all the time about moving bones. Like, tilt your tailbone in. Draw your kneecaps up. It could be difficult to follow. Okay, YOU CAN’T MOVE BONES!! You can only move muscles. How much easier would it have been to understand his point if he had talked about contracting the buttocks or inner thighs, about contracting quadriceps? It took me forever to understand what he was trying to communicate because of this nonsensical approach, which is typical of Iyengar teachers.

      It is very very hard to find teachers who are careful with their language, even the ones who don’t really talk about chakras and kundalini (good concepts but not necessarily the most helpful for a beginner). 

      1. Yoga articles always say shit like “narrow your hip points and yo-yo your rib cage.” Even yoga teachers don’t mostly have any idea what they’re on about.

        1. When I started teaching I really worked to scrub my language about this kind of stuff. I think a lot of teachers want to make it hard to understand, because it feels special that way. I had to go to so many classes to “get it” and then when I finally did understand the movements, it just seemed like if the teacher had not talked about “spiraling my thighs” and spent so much time having me stick a block between my legs to understand the “spirals” but instead had just told me what to do in normal language it would have been so much easier.

          1. I tend to favor clear instructions like suction cup your asshole to the floor.  Or push your pubic bone forward like you’re trying to ring a doorbell with it.

          2. This is what I mean; this stuff can so obviously be taught in clearer language that it really annoys me when they choose to be obtuse. 

            Metaphors can be helpful to explain something difficult to understand, and to make mundane things more interesting even, but at the basic level nothing about the actual physical movements of yoga should be particularly difficult to understand.

            Actually I take that back… I watch yoga videos on youtube and I don’t understand how these people are moving their bodies in the way that they are :)

          3. I happened to take a workshop with Roger Cole (who I talked about in another comment) right around the time that I was just getting into teaching. He did this wonderful demo where he asked a class participant to teach a standing pose. The guy took about two minutes to describe everything from the pressure in his toe to the rotation of his ankle to the action of the hip to the extension of the arm. I was aching as I tried desperately to sustain the pose through the long winded instructions.

            Then Roger took the class over again and said, “Or you can just do this.” He dropped into the pose and said, “Do this.” Everyone in the room dropped into the pose immediately and perfectly. 

            Yep, everyone will just mirror you and you don’t have to explain anything if you are demoing the pose right. 

            It really isn’t that hard to get your point across.

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