Thinking Yogi

The intersection of two loves: yoga and writing.

The Truth about Non-harming: How Yoga (or anything you do to excess) Can Wreck Your Body

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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).

Kerry is the Founder & Director of Bloom Yoga Studio, voted Best Yoga Studio in the Chicago Reader, Chicago Magazine, and Citysearch. As a practicing yogi, writer, and mother of three, Kerry is all about making the principles and philosophies of yoga real and accessible for day-to-day living. You can find Kerry on Google+.

Comments

  • [...] been following the recent NYT article  "How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body" and  Ive read the smart and thought provoking responses.  All the while Ive been nursing a sore knee and frustrated from achy hips wondering where I [...]

  • Jinnene Foster Saturday, 04 February 2012

    Hi Kerry! Your essay in response to the NYT article is very refreshing. After you mentioned the article at the teacher training info session, I was intrigued, and shortly thereafter read it. Upon so doing, I too felt initially angry, and even (for a moment) in question of my pursuit of yoga. But like you, I quickly realized these are typically issues with society's competitive nature as opposed to the practice of yoga. In short, your writing is rather validating and comforting; as if your words helped to gently dispel the confusion I was feeling. I really appreciate you taking the time to write it, and to share it. See you soon.

  • Scott Baltic Monday, 16 January 2012

    As you wrote, "a certain approach to yoga practice."

    I've participated in a couple of Facebook threads about the NYT article, and in them I've mentioned that any activity or exercise can be injurious. In my own longish history of trying unsuccessfully to be athletic, I've been injured doing karate, ju-jitsu, historical fencing, skydiving, rock climbing, jogging, orienteering — and yoga — and probably some things I'm forgetting.

    Students have the responsibility to avoid being stupid or careless, or as you emphasize, ego-driven, and teachers, come to think of it, have basically the same responsibility.

    I wouldn't worry about the article much, though. The vast majority of people who try yoga like it and will be enthusiastic advocates for it.

    See you at class tonight!

  • Kerry Maiorca Monday, 16 January 2012

    Thanks for the comment, Scott. I have a similarly long list of things I've been injured doing, but know the problem was me in each situation. I think the issue is that there is a myth out there that yoga is gentle and safe regardless of how we approach it, and it's just not true. My hope is that the more we pay attention the fewer injuries we get in any activity, and yoga is the best thing I've found for helping me pay attention!

    Keep on yoga-ing and see you at class!

  • Amelia Case Monday, 16 January 2012

    I like this musing and it is wise. I am going to share it with my patients from Universal Health Institute who come asking "Is yoga safe?" (Of course it is. Of course, it can be, if you make it - and let it be safe.)

    The article in the NYT shook up some people and made people talk about their doubts. I think that is great. It gives people something to talk about that's worthwhile, and hopefully leads to conversations about the fact that it's time to take accountability for what you do with your body and to your body.

    Cudos to you for words well written. Thank you.

    Dr. Amelia Case
    Chief of Staff
    Universal Health Institute

  • Kerry Maiorca Monday, 16 January 2012

    Thanks for the kind comment, Amelia. I'm glad that you enjoyed the post and plan to share it with patients - I hope it helps address some of the safety concerns. I agree that the NYT article has definitely sparked a worthwhile conversation, but also know that there is a risk of people getting scared off by its title and scarier claims. Fortunately, yoga practice is a great place to address fear, to witness our reactions in a more neutral way. My hope is that we yogis come out of this conversation with a renewed respect for both the risks and benefits of the practice and can move beyond fear to simply be present in order to meet our own needs and be accountable to ourselves, as you said.

  • Kerry Maiorca Wednesday, 25 January 2012

    Thanks, Flying Yogini. I'm glad you enjoyed it!

  • Lynn Somerstein Tuesday, 17 January 2012

    Thanks for your thoughtful essay, Kerry.
    I've been practicing yoga for over 50 years and I'm a graduate of the Integral Yoga Institute, which, according to a survey run by "Yoga Journal" holds the record for the safest yoga school in the U.S.

    I have accrued untold mind/body benefits, but a few sore spots too- like my Achilles tendons- so I baby them and take care of my 67 year old body by paying attention and giving myself what I need.

    I know how to protect myself; but often the people who need yoga the most are also the least knowledgeable and most liable to injury. They are likely to take "open classes" which are billed as OK for everybody. They are not. If you're new to yoga take a class for beginners, or study privately with a competent teacher.

    What everyone needs to remember is that yoga is not only exercise. Yoga is a philosophy and a psychology that stresses mindfulness and compassion to oneself and to others.

    This means:
    1. Pay attention.
    2. Be open to learn.
    3. Don't force yourself or let yourself be forced into anything.There is no place for coercion in yoga.
    4. There isn't any room for competition, either.
    5. Follow your breath. If you're breathing is ragged, take a rest.
    6. Bring a refillable bottle of water with you. A small sip of water might be helpful at times.
    7. If something hurts, don't do it.
    8. Leave your ego outside the yoga room.

  • Sarah B. McLaughlin Tuesday, 17 January 2012

    Great article, Kerry. I hope you sent this to the NYT.

  • Trudy Goldsmith Tuesday, 17 January 2012

    I'm Jessica's mom and I loved you article. Bravo!

  • Kerry Maiorca Tuesday, 17 January 2012

    Thanks very much, Trudy. I'm so glad you enjoyed it!

  • Kerry Maiorca Tuesday, 17 January 2012

    Glad you liked it, Sarah. Thanks! Such an interesting conversation this has stirred up.....

  • Kerry Maiorca Tuesday, 17 January 2012

    How wonderful to have been practicing for more than 50 years, Lynn! I'm sure you've seen a lot of change both within yourself and in the yoga world in that time, and I appreciate your sharing your thoughts on the practice and how to approach it. I agree that beginners are the most vulnerable population of yogis, and at Bloom we specialize in working with those who are new to yoga or may have previously been intimidated to try it. I love going slowly with beginners and teaching them to take ownership over the practice so that it can be healthy and appropriate for their individual needs.

    Best wishes to you on many more years of safe yoga practice!

  • Jane Musgrave Tuesday, 17 January 2012

    I agree with Sarah - please do send this to the NYT - I had a similar reaction to the piece, and you put my thoughts into words much more robustly and eloquently than I ever could have.

  • Kerry Maiorca Tuesday, 17 January 2012

    How kind of you to say, Jane. Thanks very much for the comment. I'm giving some thought to submitting a piece elsewhere. There have been so many postings about this topic so I think it's a long shot, but I'll give it a try!

  • Kerry Maiorca Monday, 06 February 2012

    Thanks for your kind comment, Jinnene. I think many yogis (myself included) had similar reactions to yours initially after reading the article. The good news is that the conversations that occurred in the weeks following the article helped us to move beyond the reactionary phase into one of greater understanding. And isn't that really what yoga is all about? I'm glad you enjoyed my response and it was nice to see you at the teacher training info session. Hope to see you again soon!

  • Kathleen Saturday, 21 January 2012

    Well stated, Kerry. I love the food analogy...

    The NYT article has been in discussion in my classes as well and the consensus among my students has also been that this is an opportunity to talk about ego and the ways that we can push ourselves to being injured. It is also an opportunity to talk about practicing yoga verses practicing asanas as if the postures are mere gymnastics. Thanks for the reminders about the practice of ahisma and satya. Our world is a better place when we remember those guidelines in our yoga and in our lives.

  • Kathleen Heneghan Saturday, 21 January 2012

    Very thoughtful response to the NYT article "How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body." It's not yoga that wreck's our bodies, it's ourselves and our egos...

  • Kerry Maiorca Sunday, 22 January 2012

    I totally agree, Kathleen. As much as many of us were initially frustrated with the article, it has been a great start to a conversation and a way to raise awareness across the yoga community (instead of just in small circles) about how important it is to examine the approach we take in yoga. Thanks for your kind comments, I hope that all is well with you and your family!

  • Flying Yogini Wednesday, 25 January 2012

    love this post. so much wisdom.

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