My Aunt Pam lives and owns a wildlife sanctuary in a remote area of South Kodagu, India. Aunt Pam practices yoga on a regular basis, and is a spiritual practitioner and lover of life. While I haven’t seen her in 20+ years, we exchange emails on a regular basis.
You may have heard recently about an article published by The New York Times entitled “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.”
Predictably, my email and Facebook accounts started filling up with questions from students, teachers and friends asking my thoughts about the premise of the article. While I knew it had made its way around my local contacts within the yoga community, I hadn’t realized the full impact of the article until Aunt Pam emailed me from India with her own commentary. This story had gone global!
I’ve been a competitive athlete for as long as I can remember, and my first major injury from sports came from playing high school football. I tore the medial meniscus in my knee and had to have it removed.
My recovery from the surgery led me to swimming, which resulted in a rotator cuff tear from overuse. After that, I transitioned to cycling, which led to broken bones, stitches, lots of bloody bruised knees and chronic back pain from sitting in a saddle. (Cycling ranks as one of the world’s most dangerous sports according the Consumer Product Safety Commission).
Finally, after years of competitive sports and countless injuries, I was drawn to yoga because of its overwhelming evidence of health benefits for both the mind and the body.
In case you missed the part of the NYT article that spoke about the benefits of yoga, let me remind you of a few:
From within the body: decreased blood pressure, lower pulse rate, improved blood circulation, lower respiratory rate
From without the body: delayed aging, improved posture, increased strength
Emotional benefits: improved mood, stress reduction, reduced anxiety
Body chemistry: lower cholesterol, strong lymphatic system, lower blood glucose levels
Exercise benefits: low risk of injury, better muscle tone, domination of the sub cortex
Disease prevention: reduced risk of heart disease, osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s
Symptom reduction: carpal tunnel, asthma and arthritis
For the full list visit of 77 benefits click here.
For me, establishing a regular yoga practice didn’t come without hesitation. My hesitance came mostly from my impression that yoga wasn’t vigorous or physically challenging enough, and that my practice alone wouldn’t help me to maintain the health of my body.
After being a competitive athlete for so many years, I yearned for something that would keep my body and mind engaged. Once I established a consistent practice, it didn’t take long for me to realize the endless amounts of opportunity that yoga could provide in the physical and mental arenas.
Before yoga, my body wasn’t open, I had very little upper body strength and my balance was less than solid. But through my practice, I quickly gained strength, flexibility, balance, and most importantly, a new sense of mindfulness and patience that truly changed my life.
Over the years, yoga has helped to alleviate my back pain, strengthen my knees, improve my overall posture and open my body and mind in ways I didn’t know were possible. So when the New York Times article came out, I began questioning how it was possible for so many practitioners and teachers to “wreck” their bodies through yoga. Was it overblown? Most likely.
The fact of the matter is that we can get hurt doing just about anything. We all know there are risks of participating in demanding physical activities, but did you know that one of the most common causes of neck injury is poor sleeping habits?! Yes, sleeping!
Injuries can happen anywhere from the most gentle hatha yoga class to the most challenging vinyasa flow. So how do we avoid injury in our yoga practice? Through mindfulness, patience and taking responsibility for own health. Most often, practitioners get hurt when they don’t listen to their own bodies and push themselves to do things that they aren’t ready for. We need to take time, listen intently to what our bodies are telling us, and appreciate where we are now instead of fixating on where we wish we could be. We have to have respect that this is a lifelong practice that goes well beyond the physical.
My practice has evolved over the years, as most do. No longer am I looking for a relentless physical pursuit; instead I spend more time with the subtle parts of yoga. Words like “challenge” have been replaced with words like “compassion” and “gratitude.”
So, has yoga wrecked my body? Quite the opposite. To put it simply, yoga has changed my life in every way. It has taught me about unconditional love, compassion, joy and equanimity.
Instead of allowing the New York Times article to put an end to your yoga practice, use this opportunity to take your practice deeper. Allow mindfulness to be your best teacher, be patient with your body and experience the ultimate joy of practice.
Kevan Gale is co-owner of Stil Studio located in the greater Boston area. His teachings meld Tibetan Buddhist philosophy with years of movement experience to create a fluid experience for his students.
His goal is to spread happiness far and wide and to inspire students to live their fullest life.