I’m no yoga renegade. Sure, when I began my practice 16 years ago I was all about deep backbends, elaborate bound twists, and fancy inversions. But as I’ve mellowed with age, and experienced a few too many tweaks on the mat, I now spend considerably more time on breathwork, meditation, and relaxation. And my asana practice more closely resembles what I teach to Level 1 students than any of the pretzel-shaped, gravity-defying poses most people associate with yoga.
So when I read William Broad’s recent New York Times article, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body,” in which he regales readers with tales of the many ways yoga can just about kill you, I was initially frustrated at the sensationalized title and tone of his article. But as I sat with my reaction over the past week (thank you, yoga!), I realized this was also an opportunity to address the very real risks of injury in a certain approach to yoga practice.
It also made me think now would be the perfect time to pitch NYT a story called “How Food Can Make You Fat” about how everyone should put down their forks for good because a bunch of people have had heart attacks due to a diet of exclusively fast food. Just as “food” can mean anything from a piece of fruit to a bucket of fried chicken, “yoga” means many things to many people. The approach alone determines whether yoga will be a positive, healthy force in your life, or a source of pain and injury.
In his article, Broad cites a handful of horror story cases over the past thirty years in which people spent years performing intermediate yoga asanas in an often rigid and overexerted way and then suffered serious injuries. He uses as an example the story of a man who kneeled in vajrasana (a pose that would normally be held for no more than a few minutes) for an hour every day for a year and then had problems with his knees. Gasp! You mean if you go overboard and ask too much of your body, it will punish you?
As with any form of activity, the ultimate responsibility lies with the individual practitioner. Dedicated practitioners who are on the mat daily could benefit from a reminder to soften their approach a bit so as not to become overzealous. But my guess is that most yoga injuries occur in a different sort of practitioner. Consider the traditional “weekend warrior” syndrome: a person who spends 40 hours a week sitting at a desk then launches into a full-out sprint at the Sunday flag football game is likely to end up at the doctor’s office. Similarly, a “weekend virabhadrasana” who tries to push up into a full backbend in a vigorous Saturday morning vinyasa class is likely to end up paying a visit to the chiropractor.
The problem is not yoga. The problem is us and our egos and our overdone everything.
The first principle of yogic philosophy is ahimsa, non-harming. In order to truly practice yoga, we must not harm ourselves or others. Anything else we do on the mat is just “no pain, no gain” exercise that happens to use yoga poses as a vehicle.
I see it all the time in class: students who are accustomed to the traditional exercise mindset of “more is better” push themselves to get into the shape of the pose at all costs regardless of the hurt it causes the body. When the ego leads the way on the mat, inevitably the focus falls on the pose itself rather than why you originally set out to practice it. As soon as I remind students that asanas are useful but not the end goal, when I suggest that they check in with their breathing and keep a sense of humor about themselves, they tend to pull back.
My job as a yoga teacher is to demonstrate an approach that moves beyond the ego; I must not be afraid to say ‘I don’t know, but I can find out’ if a student asks about a specific injury or condition I’m unfamiliar with, I must encourage them to ask questions and listen to their bodies in each pose rather than blindly following my instructions for the group, and I must not be afraid to slow students down when appropriate even if they clearly want to have their butts kicked in class.
As yoga teachers, we have a duty to educate students about the difference between a stretch and a strain, between work and pain. We have the opportunity and obligation to help students understand both the benefits and risks of the practice, and to show them how to modify (or opt out of) anything that doesn’t feel right for their body. This awareness is invaluable because it can help students make better choices for their health on a day-to-day basis. This is the real yoga, the decidedly unsexy yoga of showing up, being present, and doing what’s right without the help of the latest yoga gadgets, expensive clothing, or props.
The second principle of yogic philosophy is satya, truth. And the truth is that like any other thing you do in an overexerted or excessive way (including walking, running, swimming, or even sitting on the couch), yoga can cause injury when approached from a place of ego and striving. In our culture of blame, liability, and reducing risk, it may be easier to claim that yoga is dangerous and should be given up lest all yogis end up having surgery or brain damage, but the truth is more subtle than that.
I wholeheartedly agree with the quote from yoga instructor Glenn Black who said, “Asana is not a panacea or a cure-all. In fact, if you do it with ego or obsession, you’ll end up causing problems.” How you get from that statement to saying people should quit yoga is beyond me. Yoga can be extremely beneficial to people of a variety of levels of fitness and experience when practiced thoughtfully and appropriately for each individual. When the focus is exclusively on asana, the body’s messages of pain or discomfort are overridden, or poses are performed forcefully without proper props or modifications, that is not yoga.
The word “yoga” means many things to many people these days and as William Broad pointed out, a too-vigorous approach to the practice can be damaging and harmful to practitioners. But to simply dismiss the entire tradition based on those concerns is hasty. Yoga is more than just sweating, pushing, and stretching. It’s an exploration of the interplay between body, mind, and breath, a way to systematically peel back the layers of thoughts and ego to find a deeper sense of connection. When the physical practice is approached with an eye to the broader tradition of self-inquiry, pranayama, meditation, and rest, yoga can be a deeply nourishing and healthy practice. With the principles of non-harming and truth at the forefront, yoga practitioners can use this rich practice to get beyond the ego and closer to the true self. And though it can hurt to let go of ego, it’s thankfully not the kind of hurt that lasts (or that wrecks you).