The recent New York Times magazine article “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” (William Broad, Jan. 5, 2012) has created an international controversy in the world of yoga. The article’s focus on reclusive yoga teacher, Glenn Black, a respected faculty member at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY, draws attention to the hazards of the body when ego surpasses care and wisdom.
In other words, the article is hard on those banging their egos and bodies too hard against the studio floor and walls. For us old enough to be from the pre-studio era, yoga is, after all, primarily a support system for long meditations and spiritual growth.
According to Glenn Black, yoga is not for the faint hearted: “Yoga is for people in good physical condition. Or it can be used therapeutically. It’s controversial to say, but it really shouldn’t be used for a general class.”
Echoing my teachers in India years ago, who prescribed only 4-5 simple asanas to beginners, he continues: “Today many schools of yoga are just about pushing people,” Black said. “You can’t believe what’s going on — teachers jumping on people, pushing and pulling and saying, ‘You should be able to do this by now.’ It has to do with their egos.”
Indeed, yoga, for me, is not primarily a practice of postures on a mat. Only about 10 percent of my yoga practice takes place on the mat. (Typing this article, I am repeating my mantra; I am practicing yoga).
I still do my practice at home, not in a studio. I start with chanting, then a long morning meditation that includes traditional Asthanga yoga (or Tantra, as I am accustomed to call it) : pranayama (meditation on breath), pratyahara (sense withdrawal), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (deep trance) then asanas for about 20 minutes, then more mantra yoga of the heart and breath throughout the day. Then the same routine at night.
Since yoga has become a body-focused practice, it is natural that it causes injuries. Indeed, yoga may be bad for your health. Even to someone as outspoken and careful as Glenn Black. He ended up having spinal surgery recently. The cause? Four decades of extreme yogic back bends and twists.
Carol Krucoff reports in Yoga Journal that increasing numbers of yoga injuries are being reported to medical offices these days. Even insurance agencies are paying out an increasing number of yoga-related injury claims.
Krucoff herself is one of the practice’s many victims. She “felt a sickening pop in [her] hamstrings” after practicing Utthita Padangusthasana (Extended Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose).
“Hamstring tears heal slowly,” she writes, “and mine required rest and extensive physical therapy. It took me six months to be able to run again and more than a year to fully extend my leg in Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose.”
So, if yoga may be bad for our health, what can we do about it?
1. Easy does it. Practice yoga gently, especially in the beginning, and in coordination with the breath. The literal translation of the word asana (yoga posture) is, after all, “comfortably or easily held posture.”
By gently massaging and pressurizing the various endocrine glands in the body, the various yoga poses are balancing the chakras and the hormonal secretions from many important glands.
These glands include the prostate and perineum, gonads, testes and ovaries, adrenals, pancreas, thymus, para-thyroid, thyroid, pituitary and pineal, all glands that, when properly balanced, positively affect our physical health, mental mood and spiritual well-being.
Practicing yoga too energetically, or too forcefully, may not give the same physical, mental and spiritual health benefits as doing the poses slowly, in harmony with the breath, and with ease.
2. Combine yoga with a meditation practice. Yoga postures are of two kinds: 1. those primarily for physical and mental health and secondarily for spiritual elevation and 2. those primarily for spiritual elevation.
Hence, many yoga postures were clearly not just designed for the body. They were developed for the mind and spirit as well.
My own teacher emphasized that it is essential for optimum physical, mental and spiritual development to combine yoga exercises with meditation. Indeed, it is said in the scriptures that Hatha Yoga (physical yoga) should be combined with Raja Yoga (spiritual yoga).
3. Listen to the body. Pain is an indication that you should stop, take a deep breath and be gentle with yourself. Pushing the body too far may lead to injury.
4. Yoga is not a competitive sport. It’s not a sport at all. It’s actually more about balanced thinking than about balanced posture. Besides—showing off may not just increase your ego, it may lead to injury. Serious injury.
Here’s some sage advice from Carol Krucoff. “I learned the hard way that there is no place for showing off in yoga,” she writes.
So, don’t succumb to peer-pressure or to a zealous teacher urging you to perform a-next-to-impossible pose when you know in your heart you are not ready for it.
You may just end up on your back at the chiropractor’s office.
5. Pick an experienced teacher. Yoga’s popularity has resulted in a shortage of teachers and sometimes teachers with inadequate training are being hired at a studio. “Even new graduates from highly reputable teacher-training programs often lack experience,” writes Krucoff.
This lethal combination—new student and inexperienced teacher—is one of the leading causes of “injury-overzealousness.”
6. Know the weakest links. The lower back, knee and neck are usually the parts of the body that are injured the most during yoga practice.
If you are a couch potato, trying to sit in lotus position or do headstand the first time you practice yoga is definitely not advisable!
7. Accidents do happen. A few years ago, I tore my meniscus while falling sideways in the bed of my friend’s pick-up truck when it jerked into motion.
For a long time I had pain in my meniscus when I sat in meditation. And too immersed in my mind and spirit, I did not listen to my body.
Then suddenly one day bending down to pick something up from the floor, my knee went out. The pain was excruciating, and the healing process took a painstakingly long time.
For nearly two years, I was unable to perform my asnana postures properly and also unable to sit in siddhansana during meditation.
Our bodies change with age, sometimes we sleep improperly, or we have slacked off on our practice and become less flexible. Suddenly the body says “pop.”
So, once again, listen to the body.
Listen carefully. Treat the body gently. One yoga pose at a time. And remember, you are not doing yoga for that mirror on the wall, not for anybody in the room, not for anybody but your own body, mind and soul.