Response to “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body”
By: Anjali Sunita
My first thought on reading this article was: what were the intentions of the author and the yoga teacher interviewed? Why would a writer selectively emphasize the negative aspects of yoga and harp on detailed isolated cases without including research to the contrary? And why would the New York Times publish an article that incites fear and denigrates the practice of yoga?
This article makes gross generalizations about “classical yoga” practiced by Indian people who “typically squatted and sat cross-legged in daily life.” I, too, have heard people, who frustrated by their lack of physical flexibility, imply that, “Yoga is for Indian floor-squatters.” The argument that “classical” yoga is not for “the vast majority of people” (presumably Americans) in itself, demonstrates the arrogance that pervades this article. It is an elitist argument made by people with bruised egos, who realize that mastery of yoga asanas (yoga postures) does not come easy.
If “yoga can wreck your body” so can driving a car. In fact, the Huffington Post makes a wonderful comparison of statistics for injuries in other low impact physical activities, including golf. (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/eva-norlyk-smith-phd/yoga-health_b_1191479.html). It’s not golf, cars, or yoga postures wrecking the body, it’s the way we are approaching these activities.
I have received many queries from former and current students, some as far a Zanzibar, who cited “this trusted American source, The New York Times.” My answer to them was simple. Practice yoga with mindfulness. Incidentally, words like mindfulness and awareness are not some New Age vocabulary spouted off by yoga teachers; they are at the very essence of yoga. I would respectfully ask yoga practitioners to consider: why do you do yoga? Are you doing the posture the way you saw it on TV? Is it about aspiring to look like your physically fit instructor, or a renowned guru you found on YouTube? Is it about escaping from your seemingly banal life for one hour? For sure, yoga asana classes are the in-thing right now, the hot places to be. People are frustrated with delayed doctor appointments, rushed doctor visits, and conflicting advice. And because modern gurus seeking to market their own style, or authors quoting gurus out of context, have credited “yoga” with fixing every physical and mental problem known to man, people think it’s worth a try.
Teachers who are “jumping on people, pushing and pulling, and saying ‘you should be able to do this by now'” are not teaching yoga, classical or otherwise. Yoga is a way of life, and yoga practice demands personal investment and awareness. I concur with Broad’s view in this regard. “Paying attention” is crucial in yoga class. People who hunger for peace in mind and body find what they are looking for because they practice yoga that way. Other teachers and students approach yoga asanas the same way some people drive through rush hour traffic–mentally checked-out, impatient, seeking short-cuts, projecting self-anger onto others, and in denial of their physical discomfort. They are on auto pilot and run the risk of accidents.
Broad’s article mocks Swami Gitananda for saying that “Real yoga is as safe as mother’s milk.” It well may be if real yoga is practiced as it was meant to be–full of rich spiritual practices, not athletic feats. Broad also implies that contraindications of yoga postures have not been addressed. Two of Swami Sivananda’s greatest disciples, authors of “Asana, Pranayama, Mudra, Bandha”, (Swami Satyananda, Bihar School of Yoga) and “The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga” (Swami Vishnu-Devananda, Sivananda Yoga) clearly address this point. And there are numerous images and written accounts of Iyengar’s yoga style using props. “Lifting the shoulders on a stack of folded blankets and letting the head fall below it,” was something that Iyengar himself taught. Instead, Broad gives credit to “Roger Cole, an Iyengar teacher with degrees in psychology from Stanford and the University of California, San Francisco.” The recent trend to knock down the gurus who brought yoga from India to the West speaks to the pressure both writers and teachers feel to re-invent the wheel and appear more enlightened than their predecessors.
Most of the injuries spoken of this article were attributed to the practice of inverted postures; More than 10 paragraphs spoke of injuries to the neck and the interviewed yoga teacher, Glenn Black, attributes his own injuries to practicing shoulderstands and plow postures. While headstands, some arm balances, and shoulderstands are key postures to teach safety, mindfulness, and how to come out of the postures early if needed because of potential risks, these postures are favorites of some of the longest practicing yogis out there, like B.K.S. Iyengar and one of my greatest inspirations, 93 year old yoga teacher Tao Porchon-Lynch. I personally learned headstand from an 80 year old man demonstrating how to do the posture. To rule out certain asanas entirely is another example of impatience and haste. These challenging postures are counterindicated for some people, like those with existing neck and shoulder injuries and those with high blood pressure or risk of strokes, because of the added weight on the upper body and blood flow toward the heart and head. However for others, these postures can be of extreme benefit to find strength in the core, strengthen the heart muscle, bring more blood flow to the brain, heart, and thyroid regions, and most importantly to build confidence and concentration. It’s all in how they are taught and practiced. They are not postures to be rushed or pushed but rather taught with simplicity, good alignment, and patience.
The Yoga Sutras, written in Sanskrit, is rich with yogic principles such as abhyasa (diligent practice),vairagya (non-attachment), and viveka (discernment). Knowing something about the philosophy of yoga is the best safe guard against injury since one is less likely to engage in competitive, self-destructive patterns. Instead, one listens to the body’s gentle message and discerns how, and for how long, to hold a posture with non-attachment to results. This kind of physical approach to yoga becomes a metaphor for moving through life. The fact that teachers are popping hamstrings while being filmed or photographed, or ” being urged to do more” perhaps indicates the importance of finding the right teacher. Teacher trainings are a dime a dozen. Look for knowledgeable teachers for whom yoga is a way of life. Such teachers are more likely to remind you that you are the driver of your own vehicle. It’s perfectly fine to take physical or emotional rest-stops in class. No single sequence of postures is a cure-all for every single body.
The efficacy of yoga in clinical settings is currently being studied for twenty serious studies ranging from stress management to malignant brain tumors (http://clinicaltrials.gov) Authors Haas and Bartlett from Johns Hopkins University and McGill University have reviewed “Yoga for Arthritis.” (Rheumatic Disease Clinics of North America, vol.37, 2011.)
With more than 84,000 classical postures, specific sequences can be tailored to specific needs in yoga classes. Regardless, the key to safety is to be mindful as one comes into, holds, and transitions out of each posture. Often pain is caused not by the posture itself, but by hasty transitions, or by going beyond comfort. The Yoga Sutras say that a yoga asana is a posture that is steady and comfortable.
While I found most of yoga teacher Glenn Black’s statements full of contradictions, I agreed with Broad’s final quote from Glenn Black. “Asana is not a panacea or a cure-all. In fact, if you do it with ego or obsession, you’ll end up causing problems.” I would go further–at the point of ego and obsession, it’s not even yoga. Yoga means “union” or “yoking”. Postures taught without the higher intention of joining individual consciousness with a higher consciousness are no longer yoga asanas; they are simply physical postures.
Anjali Sunita is Founder and Director of Baltimore Yoga Village in Maryland, (www.baltimoreyogavillage.com) and Director of Jivan Yoga Teacher Training. Originally certified to teach through the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Center in Kerala, India, assisting in the associated ashram in Canada and then opening two yoga studios in Baltimore, she has the opportunity to study and practice with a number of authentic yoga teachers in all realms of yoga study including philosophy, anatomy, conscious communication,prental yoga, yoga for children, North Indian Classical singing and chanting, pranayama and meditation. She particularly credits her North Indian Classical singing teacher, Guruji Hasu Patel, for showing her how to live a yogic life, peaceful and persevering.