“Lisa, it’s Mom. Are you still teaching yoga? I just read in the New York Times that yoga can kill you. Call me back.” Okay, I’m exaggerating this phone message a little bit, but William J. Broad’s recent article titled ‘Yoga Can Wreck Your Body’ did document a number of ‘deaths by yoga’ and did generate a number of parental concern phone calls. The article begs the question, are we endangering ourselves with our yoga practice?
The article has some truth and wisdom in it, and the article doesn’t present the whole picture. Many of the examples are out-of-date and no data is given to compare yoga with other forms of exercise, or even the risks of normal daily activities. I feel the need to respond to my students and to my Mom.
I agree with the three primary points of the article:
Life is dangerous. Exercise can cause injury. Asana (yoga poses) can cause injury. Most yogis I know have injured themselves at one time or another. I have hurt myself in yoga. I have also hurt myself running, walking the dog, riding a bicycle, dancing, walking down the stairs, cooking dinner… I have a body and it occasionally gets injured. Yoga has helped me heal from more injuries than it has caused.
Life is fatal. Yoga cannot prevent that. There are allusions to the possibility of immortality in some texts, even by modern authors, but I haven’t seen any proof to support this claim. The only cases of ‘death-by-yoga’ that I have heard of are ones mentioned in the article. I have seen plenty of evidence to suggest that yoga can increase overall health, radiance and longevity. Yoga can make life in this body more pleasant and aging more graceful.
Our egos can cause us to do stupid things. If I spend my time in yoga class comparing myself to other yogis, I’m liable to hurt myself. If my mind is trying to impose the pose on my body, I’m in danger. If I push myself beyond my body’s limits, something is going to fail. If I jump into poses that are beyond my capability, experience and wisdom, I will get hurt.
The article ignores the fact that more fundamental to yoga than Asana (the poses and exercise) are Yama and Niyama: the Yogic precepts, the ‘don’ts and dos’ if you will. Focusing on just four of these precepts will help keep our Asana practice safe.
The first Yama is ahimsa, nonviolence. It is said that Gandhi spent his entire life practicing nonviolence, the first step of yoga.
The last Yama is aparigraha, nongrasping. Non-grasping is living within the means of your body, your life, and the planet.
The second Niyama is santosa, contentment. Contentment is seeking joy in what is.
The third Niyama is tapas, impassioned discipline. Impassioned discipline is following the call of our hearts, bodies and minds.
If we can learn to practice nonviolence (peace) and nongrasping (satisfaction) while practicing asana (exercise) we are unlikely to injure our bodies. We seek to manifest within the self what we seek for the world. On the journey we look for a balance between tapas (disciplined action) and santosa (contentment). We push ourselves forward while being happy where we are. We do need to push ourselves to get stronger, to extend our range of motion, and to actualize our practice in the world. Increased strength and range of motion will decrease the injuries we might suffer in yoga or the rest of our lives. Achieving new poses is a benefit, but not the goal. We each have to explore this territory like Goldilocks did, personally discovering what is too little or too much, and what is just right.
In my experience the most common physical injuries (both in yoga and in life) come from strong peripheral muscles relative to weak core muscles. We need a firm foundation, strong deep abdominal muscles, a steady pelvic floor and good back muscles, to support the strength of our limbs. We need personal integrity, clarity and conviction to support our actions in the world. We need to balance strength with flexibility, too little or too much of either leaves us vulnerable. Building a strong flexible core requires patience. It requires the willingness to study and to work subtly and slowly. This is difficult for those of us who clamor for the prize, be it a nicer bum, a sleeker physique, straight As, spiritual awakening or global transformation.
If we can learn to practice nonviolence, nongrasping, contentment and passion in the yoga studio, we can learn to practice nonviolence, nongrasping, contentment and passion in the rest of our lives; if we can learn to slow down and value the subtleness of the body, we can learn to slow down and value the subtleness of the moment; if we can place more value on a strong supple foundation than on a flashy exterior, then we can make better choices as individuals and as a nation. Practicing asana in the yoga studio prepares us to practice yoga in our lives. There is no ‘pot-of-gold-yogic-enlightenment’ waiting for us when we master a difficult pose. The ‘pot-of-gold-yogic-enlightenment’ is discovering contentment and passion, peace and satisfaction, in this moment and actualizing this in the day-to-day affairs of our lives.
Can yoga wreck your life? Maybe, but out of the ashes of violence, grasping, discontent and lethargy burn the flames of transformation. The body is but a vessel for the transformation we seek in the world. What is lost, burnt, and wrecked is worth it for this is the path to realization.
Lisa Wells, PhD, ERYT500. Lisa has been practicing yoga for over 20 years and teaching for 12 years. She opened Cedar and Fir Studio in Corvallis in 2004. In 2010 she expanded the business and renamed it Live Well Studio. Her yoga teacher training was in the Anusara Tradition. She has studied a wide variety of yoga styles and complemented yoga studies with a variety of physical and spiritual practices. She is a certified Spiritual Director, a DanceAbility Instructor, has completed the Soul Motion Leadership Training and the Yoga, Ayurveda and Meditation Advanced course through the American Institute of Vedic Studies. Her teaching combines a firm foundation in Western anatomical awareness with the poetry and experiential embodiment awareness of Yoga. She fluently mixes spirit, poetry and science in her classes. She completed a PhD in Geology at Stanford University and studied for two years in the Masters in Divinity Program through Meadville Lombard Theological School, part of the Association of Chicago Theological Schools.