If you missed it, and don’t have the time to read the 8 page article written by William Broad, let me summarize: The journalist sought out yogi Glen Black, a seasoned yoga instructor who preaches not only the benefits of yoga but also the detriments, stating in the article that “the vast majority of people should give up yoga all together.” Of course there is more detail that I am leaving out, but Black warned against extreme poses, including twists and inversions pointing them out as ways they can lead to permanent damage.
Do I agree that yoga can cause injuries? Yes. Any educated yoga instructor that disagrees with that statement should send you running for the hills. Do I agree that the majority should give it up completely? No. Any educated yoga instructor who understands the full scope of the yoga practice should be able to use that education and awareness for the benefit of the student. That leads me to my yoga mantra. Modify, modify, modify. However I realize that not all instructors share my belief. So as students, why don’t we start with refocusing some of energy and educating ourselves rather than heralding the extremes… After the article
Now and Then
First let’s point out that yoga as we know it, hatha yoga, is only one form of yoga. In India, this movement form of yoga which focuses on the postures, or asanas, was meant to support the discipline of meditation or other spiritual practices. There are other forms of yoga –Karma, Bhakti, Raja - to name a few that focus on other aspects such as giving, devotion, or meditation. How many of your friends brag about their meditation practice? Mostly likely slim to none. How many of your colleagues have tried, do practice, or are interested in yoga? I imagine the number is higher. Obviously there has been a shift, a repurpose if you will, for the practice of yoga in our society. Instead of seeking yoga for spiritual enlightenment the majority of yogis attend yoga classes for relaxation, stress relief, flexibility, cross-training, and yes, even athletic mastery. Yoga icons such as Kathryn Budig, famous for her incredible shoulder stands and Rodney Yee a former professional dancer well known for his extreme backbends leave people awe-inspired with the feeling, “I want to do that!” And suddenly, since it is yoga, and not let’s say classical ballet or Olympic gymnastics, we all think we can do a backbend or balance on our forearms in our biweekly yoga class without the hours and years of training that the other disciplines require. Hmmm.
Let’s be realistic
If someone asked me to slam dunk like Kobe Bryant I would laugh. There is no way my 5 foot body will ever make that happen. Height alone (not too mention an extreme lack of skill) is against me. Injuries or postural deviations work the same way. If you know have a torn Achilles heel and surgery left your ankle with a shorter range of motion than your yoga teacher’s ankle, your “downward facing dog” might never look like hers or his. If you have kyphosis (extreme concave curve in the neck) due to deviations in your spine, even your savasana (corpse pose) will look different than another person’s pose.
Know your limitations
Whether my students come to me for yoga or Pilates I tell them all the same thing: “You Know Your Body Best.” So listen and then educate yourself. Bulging discs will often be aggravated by rotation, so be cautious with spinal twists. Osteoporosis is sensitive to spinal flexion due to the possibility of fracturing a bone, so modify your forward folds by hinging at the hips. Un-medicated high blood pressure makes inversions CONTRA-indicated (this goes for those Pilates inversions too!) so stay away from them and ask for an alternative from your teacher. The list goes on and on, but the point is this: know your body, be vocal, and realize that there is alternative pose that will be more appropriate for you. Yoga can be everyone, just not the same yoga for everyone. My therapeutic yoga client who spends the majority of the sessions using blankets and bolsters to support her poses is still doing yoga, though her session looks extremely different than a Bikram yoga class.
Know your instructor!
Who is your yoga instructor? What education or certification did they go through? Are they CPR trained? Do they continue with their education annually? Are they well versed in anatomy? Are they willing to listen to you? If you are currently in a yoga class, stop and ask yourself these questions. It is so important to have confidence in the person that is asking you to twist and bend in the very body you live with everyday. Yoga doesn’t end on the mat of after the “Ommmm.” The feeling you create in yoga will affect the rest of your day, week, and beyond.
The fact is OF COURSE yoga instruction would be better one and one. I have the privilege to see my yoga clients individually and I strongly believe they benefit from this private instruction. However I acknowledge that not everyone can do this financially, and beyond that some may be seeking the group environment for social reasons.
Modify, Modify, Modify
Oh ya, I already mentioned that. But like I said, it’s my mantra. Let’s take inversions for example. Inversions (as long as they are not contraindicated due to such things as un-medicated high blood pressure, pregnancy, or glaucoma) have excellent benefits for the body. Inversions are poses where the heart is above the head. The benefits among others include: increased circulation, prevention of varicose veins in the legs, and a calming effect on the body. The great news is you can get these benefits without doing headstand or shoulder stand. Try “legs at the wall pose" shown below. Notice how her hips are slightly lifted away from the floor, and her legs are extended against the support of the wall. This should look familiar, as it is a gentle version of shoulder stand.
As a final note, if you do chose to practice advanced poses such as classic shoulder stand, wheel, or some of the more challenging twists, remember to warm up appropriately, transition smoothly, and TAKE TIME to stretch your back out appropriately after the intense pose.
Le Page, Joseph. (2004). Facets of the Gems of Yoga. Integrative Yoga Therapy Yoga Teacher Training Manual., 1.6-1.26.
Clampett, Cheri & Peal, Arturo. (2005 & 2011). Therapeutic Yoga Training Course