How Yoga can wreck your body…

Here we go again – another NYT article about how yoga will mess you up. Forget base jumping, climbing, rugby… YOGA apparently is the thing that inevitably will wreak havoc:

“Today many schools of yoga are just about pushing people [...]. “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.”

The guy who’s saying this is Glenn Black, a “yoga teacher of nearly four decades, whose devoted clientele includes a number of celebrities and prominent gurus”, as we learn. But hey, it doesn’t stop here: He “has come to believe that ‘the vast majority of people’ should give up yoga altogether. It’s simply too likely to cause harm”.

WOW. Hang on. The “vast majority of people”? Ouch!

Honour your body like a temple

It’s not that he’s totally wrong. More people show up at the surgery with yoga related injuries now than a decade ago. But if we look at the statistics, it all somehow makes sense: In 2001 there were about 4 million American yogis – compared to an estimated 20 million in 2011. So, more practitioners, more injuries. But of course that’s just a tiny part of the explanation. And ideally there’d be no injuries at all, right? So why do people get injured?

First of all, there’s the approach one takes to the practice. Just as we cannot make our bodies fit into size 6 if we’re a size 10, we cannot seriously attempt to force ourselves into postures just because someone on the mat next to us does it with ease. There’s no “one fits all” type of yoga.

We cannot adapt our bodies to the practice. We need to adapt the practice to our bodies. 

I know, this sounds terribly obvious. But – is it? Look around next time you take a class. All these squeezed, tensed facial muscles, as if they’ve just bitten into a lemon…all that shouldn’t be there. No forcing. No strain. No pain. Pain is a huge, billboard sized sign of the body: STOP it. Now.

But well, we’re not able to read our bodies anymore. We’re not able to listen to the voice within. We rather listen to the teacher, who might see us for the first time showing up in their class, or we try to follow the example of the person on the mat next to ours. But contrary to popular belief, the teacher doesn’t know best what’s good for us. A good teacher keeps asking. How does it feel? Very tensed? Open? Relaxed? A good teacher encourages students to listen to their bodies, to push further if they feel good with the posture, to back out and choose another option if it hurts.

Yoga is a way of living, not of twisting on the sticky mat. Yoga will reshape our lives. Yoga will liberate. Yoga is awesome.

Yoga isn’t dangerous. What’s dangerous is the combination of vanity and lack of body awareness.

Happy new year – and happy practice!

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23 thoughts on “How Yoga can wreck your body…

  1. Nice (and logical) comeback. Of course, with an such an increase in folks practicing yoga there will be an increase in the number of injuries that will be “somewhat” higher than it was in 2001, some due to folks pushing too hard (and not listening to their yoga instructor), some practicing under a “bad” yoga instructor, and some due to other causes that may “seem” to be caused by yoga but are actually not (a misdiagnosis if you will). The point is that I would anticipate the increase to be not proportionate to the increase in practitioners assuming we follow and practice the true meaning of yoga in accordance with the five general principles of yoga, one of which is “honor the suggestion of pain.” It’s like you stated: Listen to your body and go to your edge, not another’s. After all, yoga is not a competitive activity. I practice a vinyasa style yoga which is a moving meditation experience for me.

    • Thanks for commenting! You’re so right to underline the principles of yoga. In the West we tend to forget that ahimsa is not only practising non-injury towards others but also towards ourselves…

  2. Thank you for this! I read the same article (as I’m sure many of my students did). I plan to address it in class this morning. The only way we injure ourselves in yoga is if we practice from a place of ego; the media scare tactics feed the ego quite nicely… :)

  3. Indeed a great post with fitting reply Andrea.

    I will not repeat what you have already covered but I like especially this statement :-
    “We cannot adapt our bodies to the practice. We need to adapt the practice to our bodies.” and this one “Yoga isn’t dangerous. What’s dangerous is the combination of vanity and lack of body awareness.”.
    I couldn’t agree more with it. However, I would add that I have witnessed many instructors taking a quick online Yoga diploma, which is ridiculous in respect to Yoga. Thereafter they go around teaching Yoga and making a mess out of Yoga and also by giving a bad name to Yoga as many students are not trained properly and end up with injuries. Further, there are many people who practice Yoga by watching you-tube videos ,without going to some expert Yoga teachers and end up getting injured.
    Many people also do not follow the complete principles of Yoga and follow a totally unhealthy life style and when they get injured they will blame on the concept of Yoga. I had one student at my class who would come to trainings but then later in the night would patronize the Discos, bars and have several pints of Beer and Vodka , have inadequate sleep and eventually argue with me that Yoga isn’t helping. Well I could only ask that student to discontinue in order to not discredit the concept of Yoga.
    Yoga has to be taught and practiced step by step from basic level, then to intermediate and more advanced ones as a person progresses. It isn’t mix & match like body building and someone trying to build on muscles with dietary supplements and steroids. Yoga is altogether different and cannot be compared to other fitness routines. Yoga not only invigorates and nourishes the body but also the mind and soul.

  4. Spot on – We need to adapt the practice to our bodies! And thank you for bringing body awareness into the discussion.

    At home, I can well monitor the feedback from my body – in a class setting it is harder, but I’m aware of it – my worry is students who are starting with the lack of body awareness (my own was startling and has taken years to build) and being led through without adaptations or modifications. In my teacher training we were essentially guided to put the onus on the student – reminding them to listen to their bodies, not to work through pain, etc. – but the listening is a skill itself that needs to be learned and I’m not sure it’s easily taught in a large class setting… I am thinking about this as it’s a huge priority for me as a student/teacher.

    I so enjoyed your response!

  5. I can see how various forms of yoga can sometimes cause pain and hurt individuals who push themselves. This is beyond the point of practice and it’s no longer yoga. It’s a physical work out, like any other.
    I completely agree with your: “We cannot adapt our bodies to the practice. We need to adapt the practice to our bodies” statement. Unfortunately I have seen first hand how yoga can be mutilated to really hurt people. I feel very sorry for people who practice without this awareness and I love the way you are trying to educate the people and teach that pain is an indication our bodies give us when something is wrong. :) Happy 2012!!!

  6. Pingback: yoga ain’t self-help « Love, Truth, Beauty: Here, Now. Claim it.

  7. Great post, thank you! totally agree with you Andrea. yoga helps to learn to hear your body better, too bad people don’t listen to their bodies even in yoga class…

  8. Excellent article and very well put. It’s amazing how this basic practice of body awareness is ignored in so many yoga classes today.

  9. Pingback: Yoga in the news « Love, Truth, Beauty: Here, Now.

  10. Great post. I completely agree (and thanks for “liking” my own rebuttal!). The article was way off base and was completely sensationalized and one-sided. People can get injured doing any physical activity, and everyone should stop treating yoga like a sport.

  11. love this: “We need to adapt the practice to our bodies.”

    i feel discouraged that there is so much ego involved in the yoga that surrounds me, in the area where i live…i have tended toward a home practice as a consequence.
    i’m thrilled that more and more people are finding yoga, but am saddened by the ever-increasing focus on “power” and advertisements of calories being burned…

    • Hi, thanks for your comment. You’re so right!… One of the first things students ask when we have our first class is: How much weight can I lose? When I say: Well, probably nothing at all?!, they’re really discouraged. All these studios offering “power yoga” or “yogalates” don’t make it better.

  12. Thanks for sharing! As someone who is relatively new to yoga (I’ve only been practicing for about a year), I was discouraged and annoyed by the article about the dangers of yoga. Your thoughts are greatly appreciated and needed.

  13. Thank you for posting this! Yoga has a bad rap among physical therapists because of people “over doing it” in classes and then ending up in our clinic. I feel like I am always explaining the concept you described, and defending yoga. I have been practicing for over 10 years and yoga has only helped me! Thanks for helping to spread the word, (and visiting my site ;) ).

  14. It seems to me this is a good example of the ‘quick fix’ culture we live in today. It must be difficult to teach yoga to a class full of people who expect to achieve perfect posture in no time and compete against each other. The reason I love yoga so much is because that is exactly not what it is about.

    • Thanks for your comment – so true, this is not what it is about (or at least it shouldn’t be). But then you have to face all these people dropping out because they don’t lose weight, they cannot go up in headstand after two classes… People getting so easily frustrated always make me think of Pattabhi Jois who replied to a student asking how many times an asana needs to be performed in order to fully master it: “1000 times”. However, this is not something students want to hear.

  15. I’m catching up on your blog and I agree with what you say. I notice that when teachers stay on the mat the whole time and practide they are not able to see the faces of students to see if they are grimacing. Other times it’s the teachers language. They don’t communicate for example notice what you are feeling, to pull out of a pose if your knee is talking to you…

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