Fear No Yoga

In our fear-based culture, the scary story is king. And scary stories about things that were previously deemed to be safe are all the more intriguing. Fear is what makes us tune in to the nightly news after hearing its “What you don’t know about broccoli might kill you” teasers, it keeps us up at night wondering whether we should be more afraid of terrorism or of being attacked by our own bodies, and it explains the uproar over William Broad’s recent article “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.”

Since the article came out a couple of weeks ago, the responses I’ve heard from students and fellow teachers, both in the real and virtual world, have fallen into two camps: 1) The “I told you so” mob, and 2) The “Defend yoga at all costs” clan.

Both responses stem from fear. The “I told you so” mob has prided themselves on their cautious approach to yoga practice for years, shunning inversions and backbends of any type, and now feels both validated and sobered at seeing that they were right to be afraid after all. The “Defend yoga at all costs” clan is banding together to pick apart Broad’s argument by attacking details and errors in the article, the sensationalized title choice, the comical pictures and captions, and anything else they can refute for fear that if they don’t prove this article wrong, their love of yoga and/or their livelihood will be negatively impacted.

Is it any wonder that this article has shaken the previously grounded foundation of the yoga community?

At the start of my studio's current 200-hour yoga teacher training program, my friend and teaching colleague Sharon Wentz led an exercise for our trainees that invited them to take a closer look at their personal fears as a way of better understanding their future students and the variety of motivations and concerns each individual may have when they walk through the doors of the studio. After sharing with the group each of our specific fears and looking at what they had in common, we found most boiled down to a fear of death, or of injury to ourselves or those we love.

As Sharon put it, hatha yoga is the yoga of sun and moon. It gives us the tools to address our fears, to shed light on the darkness within. We often demonize the darker parts of the self, forgetting that light and dark are part of the same spectrum; darkness defines light. Initially it may seem safest to avoid looking more closely at the dark and scary places in our minds. It would have been a whole lot easier to keep insisting that as long as we call it yoga, we can do ourselves no harm. But avoiding our fears increases their power, leaving them in darkness only makes them fester and grow like mold.

Regardless of your reaction, Broad’s article has opened up a conversation about a topic that was previously glazed over in yoga circles. Injuries come with the territory in any form of physical activity, but yoga has seemed immune, cloaked in spirituality and its ancient origins. The prevailing logic in some yoga circles has been that those aches and pains you feel on the mat are your body’s way of “releasing toxins” as you go deeper in your practice. In truth, pain is pain is pain, and whether in yoga class or on the treadmill, pain is your body’s way of calling for a change in behavior. If you choose not to listen, you’ll get hurt.

Asanas, or postures, are not the end goal of yoga, but rather a way to create a more comfortable vehicle in which to undertake the journey of self-exploration. As practitioners and teachers, we must continually remind ourselves and our students of this larger aim of yoga while taking care of the very real need to stay safe on a physical level.

Our fear-based culture can shred self-confidence, causing us to look to experts, whether yoga masters or authors, to find out what is best for our own unique bodies and minds. After the dust settles and we yogis put down our defenses, I hope this conversation can help us move beyond duality. Let’s acknowledge the risks associated with some of the more intermediate yogic postures and practices without being paralyzed by fear of injury. Let’s commit to shining a light into the darkness, looking our fears squarely in the eye so we may honestly assess what is best for each of us, body and mind, on a moment-to-moment basis. That is the true hatha yoga, the yoga of sun and moon, of lightness and darkness, the yoga we need not fear.

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