A recent article in the New York Times has stirred up a bit of controversy in the yoga world. The title “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” certainly got a lot of attention, as did the claims that were made by the featured yoga teacher. This teacher also made the sweeping comment that ““the vast majority of people” should give up yoga altogether. It’s simply too likely to cause harm.” Wow. While valid concerns about injury and knowing limits may have been mentioned, they were lost in the fear factor/shock value in strokes, sciatica, nerve damage, hip replacements, etc., all as a result of practicing yoga. What?! I was not alone in this feeling of disbelief over what had been mentioned in this article. Many prominent yoga teachers took to their blogs to fight back, give more detailed explanations about yoga, refuting the claims that were made by this writer and his subject. One blogger made light of the article in her response, here.
Since the article came out, a fellow teacher sent an email urging his instructors to be extra careful in the way they lead their classes. I’ve also had people in my classes ask me about the article, what I thought, was yoga really dangerous, etc. Some asked out of curiosity, others out of concern for their safety. And I get it. This was such a sensationalized piece that it was bound to get attention.
Having practiced yoga for 11+ years, I can only recall experiencing the pain of injury twice. Once was at the very beginning of my practice and the other came more recently. One was after (during?) a forward fold of some sort (it’s been 10 years, so I don’t recall the exact pose) that my mid-marathon-training-season body clearly rebelled against. The other was a drop back from standing into a backbend. Both were a result of being over-zealous about getting deeper into a posture and not listening to my gut when I knew better. And both required backing off from the things I love in order to get myself into “fighting form” again. That, in and of itself, is enough for me to use caution when practicing!
That caution has also found its way into my teaching. Because I teach to a wide variety of practitioners, until I am familiar with them, their bodies, their bodies’ stories, etc., I purposely do not give physical adjustments liberally. I watch. I cue. I realize that many haven’t yet developed the body awareness that tells them when their shoulders aren’t in alignment, when they are sagging in the hip, when they are over-arching their back, when they aren’t engaging certain muscles, etc. A gentle repositioning can help with the misalignment. When it’s a simple matter of not being flexible enough to get into the expression of the pose that they are gunning for, I give modifications. Sometimes, those mods involve props like a block or a strap. And sometimes, the backing out of a pose can happen much to the practitioner’s chagrin because they want to be “good” at this practice. They want to “get it.” (This is why the word “ego” has been used in some of the aforementioned articles. Because of the desire to attain something–in this case, a posture–to satisfy something within ourselves.)
Here’s the deal. Being able to touch your hand to the floor by shifting your hips, twisting, and bending your knee (thereby in no way resembling the intended posture) misses the mark. It’s no longer yoga, and it may just be the recipe for a nice injury.
People have said say some pretty wonderful things about my teaching style, and while I may occasionally break away from Primary Series short form sequencing to introduce a “wild card” posture into the practice (ie: something from 2nd or 3rd Series that makes sense for the people in my class at that time, given what their bodies will allow them to explore), one thing remains constant: there will be no injuries on my watch. That’s my responsibility to the folks who come to my classes. I will not be irresponsible with my cuing, sequencing or adjustments so that they may remain safe in my classes. My humble request to them is to be equally responsible for not pushing themselves toward an injury when they practice.
There is definitely a tendency in the West to want to do more, faster… And, unfortunately, that can show up in a yoga studio, sometimes resulting in injury. If you want to deepen your expressions of asanas, the best advice I can give comes from Sri K. Pattabhi Jois: “Practice, practice, practice. All is coming.”