I read an article yesterday from the New York Times titled “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body“, and posted it this morning to my Facebook timeline because it created such an intense internal dialog within me. I knew that it would get others talking as well, and has it ever! The article talks about the dangers to the physical body that people have fallen victim to through their yoga practices, ranging from torn tendons to strokes, and since I posted it, I’ve had people asking me how I feel about what was included in the article and what my take is on yoga as a potential cause of physical damage.
I have had many yoga teachers in my life, some who have encouraged respecting the physical limits my body has presented me with, while others have told me those limits are markers to surpass and develop upon. I have been the student who listened to what has been instructed and ignored what I knew was potentially bad for me, inappropriate given what I knew about my body. I grew up doing gymnastics and spent my entire childhood flipping around like a fish out of water, so I’ve had a pretty good awareness of my physical self from very early on. Nonetheless, when I started practicing yoga, and when I did my teacher training, I told myself that I would really put myself into the position of a true student – a clean slate, hungry for information and direction. I wanted to let go of the process of discrimination that I usually kept readily available so that all the information I was being exposed to could be new, potentially offering me insight and wisdom into new possibilities for my life and my future. The exercise in letting go of how I labelled and identified things was incredible, because I allowed certain teachings to get past the point where my existing defense mechanisms would have immediately repelled them for one reason or another. However…I did injure myself. A muscular injury in my middle back that took months to heal, and that acts up even to this day if I trigger it irresponsibly.
The tone of the article in the NYT is aggressive in its description of what people have suffered due to their yoga practice…but I take issue with the statement that the article tries to make by demonizing and blaming the yoga practice for causing injuries. People don’t suffer because of the practice – they suffer because of their approach to the practice. They suffer, as I did, because they don’t listen to their intuitive voices that tell them exactly what they need to know it terms of what is appropriate for them given their bodies and their bodies’ limits. They suffer because instead of doing a practice that allows you to let go of your habits and conditioning to find a place of peace, they struggle to get through the class/practice so they can walk out of the experience feeling like they accomplished something. They suffer because instead of understanding that they are there to exercise the mind-body connection, they instead increase their muscle tension end effort which inhibits movement, flexibility, and overall release.
As far as I’m concerned (and from the point of view of a teacher), all of this comes down to the environment that the instructor creates for the people taking the class. At the risk of putting myself in the firing line for being brutally honest, I keep hearing about teachers who yell, bark, scream at their students…who create an environment of fear as the main motivator. I keep hearing about teachers who tell their students that they aren’t going deep enough, they aren’t active enough, they aren’t pushing enough. I take serious issue with all of this. I am a firm believer and endorser of pushing yourself to see where your limits are, but once realized, that threshold needs to be respected. Yes it can be tested occasionally, but at what price? Do we continually take headstand because it makes us feel like we’re keeping up with the class and that we’re not standing out as somehow weaker than the others, or do we understand that the potential consequences of taking a weight-bearing posture, with all the weight resting on an area of the body that isn’t built to support it, might be harmful? What teachers and students alike need to understand is that our nature as nice, proper, well-conditioned Westerners is to beat the shit out of ourselves. We are encouraged to push, push, push…no pain, no gain. So if that’s our nature from the get-go, then why aren’t there more teachers encouraging their students to relax? To not be so hard on themselves? I am constantly encouraging the students who come to my classes to bring an element of their home practice (if they have one) to the group environment. I’m basically giving them the freedom to take small liberties in their group classes, liberties which allow them to keep up with and follow the instructions being given, while incorporating tiny movements that they would allow themselves to take when practicing on their own with no one supervising to potentially call them out on it.
I absolutely believe that there is a form of yoga for everyone. We all have our own energies within us that are derived from the same source, and it is our mission to seek out the people, places, and experiences that reflect those energies back to us. Yoga teachers, studios, styles and disciplines are no different. Each one has their own energy and we all have those we love and those we don’t. It’s up to us to find the proper environment for our spiritual undertakings, so that we move forwards, closer to the truth that we seek. With that said, I also believe that asana is not for everyone. I believe that people who have a passion for running have found their yoga. People who love cycling have found their yoga. Yoga is about unifying the mind, the body, and the breath. If that happens when mountain climbing, then one has found a state of yoga. You don’t need a Lululemon mat and goji berries to be a yogi. You just need to be connected to your spirit. What this means is that if one does have a yoga practice, it should be approached with the intention of letting go of the selfishness that the ego craves. Forget about how fantastic you are, how great you look in your yoga gear, and how proud you’re going to be when you can stand on your head. These are improper motivators that will leave you feeling worse off in the long term. You need to feel better after a yoga class than you did when you walked into it. If that’s not happening, leave and seek out another teacher/class/studio. There should be no room for suffering in yoga. None. If you’re experiencing any form of suffering as a result of your practice, then why are you doing it?
Let me know what your thoughts are…
‘People don’t suffer because of their practice – they suffer because of their approach to the practice.’ Perfect statement, Bram! This is exactly what it comes down to…the practice of ‘ahimsa’, non-harming thyself is the most important aspect to the practice of the asanas. Namaste
Absolutely! When the ego is tamed the need to “break through limits” goes…and one can then truly flow 🙂