How Yoga Can Heal Your Body
The recent New York Times article titled "How Yoga can Wreck your Body" has caused a ripple of responses from the yoga community. Though it's a tad ridiculous it also makes some good points. Yoga is, essentially, a practice of awareness. When we "do" yoga to try to make impressive shapes and let ego get in the way this is when we deaden our awareness by forcing rather than listening and can end up hurting ourselves.
As yoga explodes in the US, there are lots of under qualified teachers teaching yoga without the training, awareness, and ability to teach to different kinds of bodies. There is also a new population of "yoga consumers" seeking the shortcut, the six pack, the handstand with no hands (wait, how do you do that one....?) on day one at their local shala, the body soaked in sweat, the instant gratification from this "yoga product" they are impatiently consuming. Furthermore, certain advanced asana variations are not right for everyone. (Read Doug Keller, or Paul Grilley, or Mukunda Stiles to learn about therapeutic yoga for our diverse body histories, shapes and circumstances.) I know my body in this moment is not right for full lotus pose because of my knee surgeries. If I did this pose because a teacher 'wanted me to' without tuning in, I could really do some damage to my ligaments...
Of course, sometimes we are going to hurt ourselves, as much as we try to practice awareness, breath, and good alignment, we are not always in control and this is the beauty of being human. We wobble, we fall, and we learn from our mistakes. Just like toddlers learning to walk, as we push our boundaries and explore new movement pathways there will inevitably be a fantastic faceplant along the way. However, I am a sincere believer in body intelligence, and that as we *mindfully* expand our movement potential our bodies will gain greater intelligence to balance these new forms so we do not end up hurting ourselves. Besides, though the article states a few extreme examples of people injuring themselves in yoga practice, I am confident that if more rigorous research was conducted, we would uncover that the number of people who have healed their bodies, hearts, and minds through yoga vastly outweighs the one in a million who decides independently to sit in kneeling position for several hours and damages a nerve.
This article ruffles my feathers a bit because of its attitude against body intelligence and the kind of alarmist mentality that dangerously encourages people to distrust their bodies. I do agree that if we run in from our office job staring at a computer all day and don't establish our breath, align with our sankalpa, or warm up properly and just slam right into a scorpion pose, we could (clearly) hurt ourselves. Afterall, an advanced practitioner is one who remains present in the sattvic state and centered in their breath throughout asana practice, not necessarily the one doing every bind and balance and handstand with furrowed brow and puffy breath.
But here's the beauty and optimism of yoga and of any healing system of movement: We learn in baby steps and we keep practicing. We work slowly, patiently, kindly, and with awareness at a level appropriate to our own practice and we learn to take pleasure in the moment as it unfolds, one breath at a time, instead of always yearning for the next shiny new variation. This is how we heal our bodies, revitalize our joints, and cultivate a finer sensitivity to the joys and pains of being alive in this human form. Still this article sticks in my mind because I think the points are correct (yes there is something wrong about the way yoga is being practiced forcefully, and people are hurting themselves) but to me the conclusion is misguiding - we don't all need to freak out and stop practicing yoga -- what we need is to examine, question, and reorient from that aspect of culture that has wormed its way into our hearts and minds that leads us to always seek to go faster/further/stronger/harder -- whether on the mat or off the mat as we seek the newest Prius/iPhone/lululemon groovepants/kombucha superantioxidant power beverage. And despite its flaws and perils, the renewed American enthusiasm towards yoga could provide a very real opportunity on mass scale for us to slow down, listen to the body, and practice this mental shift that has the potential to radically rock our world. As a teacher, I will do my best to keep the focus on this way of relating both on and off the mat.