Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

I'm pleased that the wonderful, positive online community MindBodyGreen posted my article "Fear No Yoga" this week. The article examines the myriad of responses the yoga community has had to the recent NYT article "How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body." But it looks at them from a new perspective: how fear influences our relationship with yoga practice.

In the article I talk about an exercise on fear that my colleague Sharon Wentz led for our teacher trainees this fall. The process of uncovering and better understanding our fears can be informative and empowering, particularly in relationship to our yoga practice.

Check out the article and let me know what you think!

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I was talking with a student after class the other day about her suspicions that particular aspects of her practice were actually doing her more harm than good. The NYT article had recently come out causing yoga practitioners everywhere to buzz with concerns about injuries and overdoing it on the mat. The student described specific aches, pains, and sensations that were consistently produced when she practiced too frequently and too vigorously. But in the same breath she emphasized her love of the practice and her uncertainty (hope) that these strong sensations might actually be something other than harmful. As she talked I felt the familiar knot developing in my stomach, the sick feeling I get when I know something that I don’t really want to know.


I like to think of it as the “I know I have a cavity” feeling. It’s that same uneasiness I get when I have a not yet been to the dentist, choosing instead to pretend I don’t feel the nerve sensitivity with each bite, each sip of a cold beverage, when I hope that just ignoring it will make it go away. I brush and floss religiously, I tell myself. This must be something else. But waiting changes nothing about the problem, and often only serves to makes the symptoms worse and more abruptly urgent.


Who among us hasn’t been in this situation? Whether trying to defend something you care deeply about like yoga practice or a relationship, or attempting to skirt something unpleasant like a cavity, it can be tempting to ignore what you wish you didn't you know. At first it’s just a hint, a whisper, but as time passes it gets louder and stronger and more obvious, and yet still you resist, worried. The worry stems not from the knowledge, but from having to do something with it. It’s scary to think about having to change your behavior, having to take a different approach when you were oh so comfy just as you were.

Just as ignoring the cavity doesn’t make it go away, when you keep practicing yoga in a way that causes you to question whether you are doing yourself harm, you likely are. After listening to the student I suggested that she already knows the answer to her own question, and typically that’s how it goes. When you wonder if you are overdoing it, you likely are. If you think you have a cavity, you probably do. That quiet nagging, that quiet knowing is your intuition. The decision to listen to it or not is all you.

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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.

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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).

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It's New Year's resolutions time again......Did you spend the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year's on a cookie, alcohol, and rich food binge? Then you're the perfect candidate for the "Eat Healthier" resolution! Here's how it works:


      January 1 - eat only raw fruits, nuts, and vegetables, with a rice cake for dessert. You'll feel light, in control, and altogether superior to those around you.



      January 3 - insert a big bag of potato chips after the rice cake.



      January 6 - insert a tub of ice cream after the potato chips



    January 7 - see above re: binge

 


At this point, it's pretty well established that most of the sweeping promises made at the turn of the new year stick for about 1-2 weeks, or a month if you're lucky. New Year's resolutions are typically too broad and require a dramatic change in behavioral patterns overnight, going from one set of habits on December 30, to exactly the opposite patterns on January 1.

I've long ago given up on New Year's resolutions because it feels unnatural to force such dramatic change upon myself. And after many failed attempts of "I will start eating healthier tomorrow" while stuffing a third brownie into my mouth, I realized that just as slow and steady wins the race, small changes always beat out grand proclamations. Small changes require consistent discipline and a certain gentleness with yourself. With the small changes approach, you just keep showing up, holding yourself accountable to your goal while forgiving the occasional slip-up, and continually recommit to healthy choices to the extent possible in each moment.

In lieu of a typical broad resolution like those of the popular "eating right" and "exercising more" variety, this year I'm trying something different as a way to kick start a great 2012. It started off as an idea for our Teacher Training students as a way to motivate them to maintain a daily home yoga practice.

Beginning January 1, we are encouraging all of our trainees to commit a daily practice of some sort to do for 30 days. It could be a brief asana practice, seated meditation, or pranayama practice, or it could just be rolling out the old yoga mat and going with what comes up. The time limit is very flexible - even if it's only 5 minutes carved out of an otherwise busy day, that counts as part of this discipline.

The idea is that, unlike the empty promise of a "get healthier" resolution, picking a specific activity and committing to doing it for 30 days creates the possibility for real, lasting change. If, for example, your resolution would have been to eat healthier, perhaps your practice of discipline could be to eat green vegetables every day for a month.

Hopefully, after the first 30 days the new habit of choosing health on a daily basis will be so ingrained that it will be easier to stick to in the long-term. Just like yoga practice, in which we take it one day at a time, one moment at a time, one breath at a time, so too must we approach changes in habits with the same gentle, but disciplined mindset. Real change does not come with great proclamations made on December 31. But rather with small acts of commitment on January 1, January 2, January 3, January 4, and so on.

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It's starting already: the holiday busyness, obligations piling up one on top of another, so many fun things to do that it makes me want to curl up in a heap and go to sleep. There's the CTA holiday train, the Lincoln Square Christkindl Market, the Waters School Artisan Fair, and that's just a short list of the things happening this weekend! For all the merriment and joy this season is meant to invoke, it often just feels like too much of a good thing.


We have a children's book at home by Todd Parr called It's Okay to be Different. I love this book for many reasons. It's fun, inclusive, honest, warm, and silly. In the book, Todd shares wise, simple thoughts that are reminders for all of us:

"It's okay to need some help."
"It's okay to come in last."
"It's okay to do something nice for yourself."
"It's okay to eat macaroni and cheese in the bathtub."
(Can you really disagree with that last one?)

Lately as I've been feeling the pressures of the many holiday party invitations that are already circulating and the thought of having to get my shopping list in order, I've been coming back to one line in particular from this book: "It's okay to say NO to bad things." The page shows a picture of two fish with bulging eyes, staring at a hook that's waiting to snag them (definitely a bad thing for them).

In the context of the holiday season, though, I've been thinking about this sentiment from the opposite perspective. I picture the two fish with an unlimited supply of their favorite fishy foods easily within reach, several schools of fish friends waiting for them to come play, and a whole bunch of neat fish castles for them to swim in and out of. Despite all these seemingly good things I imagine them surrounded by, I still picture them with eyes bulging, overwhelmed by it all. And I want to say to them, "It's okay to say NO to good things, too."

I've really embraced the idea of saying NO as a way of balancing out my tendency to pack lots of activities and projects and fun into each day. The seed of this idea was first planted when I attended Lisa Sandquist's Restful Yoga to Reduce Holiday Stress workshop at Bloom last year. Lisa offered up a very simple but profound suggestion for us as we headed into the busy holiday season: when you're feeling overextended, it's okay to say no to parties and other obligations, even if they sound fun and your favorite people in the world will be there. Seems simple, but consider how many times you have accepted an invitation because you thought you should or you had to, even though you felt like one more outing might put you over the edge.

Over the past year, I've practiced giving myself permission to say no to even the very good and very fun things that come my way if I know that they will push me into exhaustion mode. When you feel your eyes bulging, give that NO a try, even if the invitation is one you would like to accept. It feels so good, and as Todd Parr likes to say, it's okay!

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