William Broad is a senior science writer at The New York Times, and gained some attention when he wrote that yoga can wreck our bodies.
Many of us responded with annoyance. We said we don't want William saying all this now, when so many people are on the fence about yoga. We also said, it's just not true!
The problem is, he's right. Luckily, he's also wrong. And we can prove it.
William gathered a lot of information about yoga and injuries over time, and he gave many examples of experienced yoga practitioners and teachers hurting themselves with yoga.
What William didn't mention is that people hurt themselves by doing anything at all, and even by doing nothing at all. Going to the gym, running, climbing rocks, things get hurt.
He presents data in a way that invites people to mistake correlation for causation, and draw potentially wild conclusions. Of course, this makes sense for him; he's using his position as a Times writer to pull us in and get us to read his book.
Still, he's right. People do hurt themselves doing yoga. Yoga teachers in particular are getting shoulder, hip and knee replacements right and left. This shouldn't be happening. We shouldn't be comparing ourselves to weight-lifting and saying, "Hey, at least we're safer than that!"
Yoga should be injury-free, for everyone, any age, any weight, any background. Yoga should just, simply, help.
How do we get there? How do we prove Mr. Broad wrong? There are two extremely common factors that are hurting people in yoga, and keeping people from enjoying the benefits. We can easily reverse these. Here's how.
1. Stop pushing, forcing, jumping and otherwise struggling into poses.
I've heard so many people sheepishly ask if they can do a yoga training, or even just come to class, if their crow pose isn't so good right now. Or if they can't touch their toes. Somewhere along the line, people got scared by yoga teachers into thinking that yoga is all about sticking poses and looking like contortionists. And people started pushing, hard, to get into these poses. Over the years, this does damage. Ligaments that shouldn't stretch get stretched, tendons get sprained and strained. Joints stop working properly, and chronic pain takes over.
It's important to practice ease in yoga. You get good at what you practice. Practice forcing and struggling, you get better at forcing and struggling. Practice ease, and you get good at handling even the greatest challenges with ease.
This is how yoga works: We wire our brains through how we practice, to let go stress and become more capable in our lives. Yoga is our practice ground for capable life. Practice ease, calm, capability over frustration or struggle, and you'll leave injuries behind.
2. Find your own way into your own body.
The idea that there is a single "correct" alignment for every pose has also been damaging in yoga. It keeps people aiming to be someone else, rather feel into themselves and find their own way. These rules don't keep us safe; they keep us in someone else's body.
Safety in my body requires that I be in my body!
Let's look at a very simple everyday example: Warrior II. I've seen for years alignment "experts" urge people to turn their back foot perpendicular to the front foot, as they sink into the pose. This puts weight on the back knee joint in a direction that it shouldn't bend. Similar joint destabilization happens with many hip and shoulder-opening contortionist-inspired poses. (No wonder so many yoga teachers and long-time practicers are heading for surgery!)
So who made those rules? Are they very smart and all-knowing? Are they just trying to exercise some control and gain a little authority? Either way, the benefits in yoga don't come from studying and following other people's complicated sets of rules. Yoga is our practice time for making our own rules and creating our own lives.
Everyone's body is different. Everyone's life is different. We have different athletic histories, injuries, ways of sitting at desks and carrying babies. Yoga is our time to respond to our lives, in our own way. It's also our time to practice getting there on our own two feet, no permission from anyone else required.
Injuries appear in yoga when people jump and push into poses. They come when we think we should be someone else's shape, rather than our own. Find your own way into your own body. Do it calmly and easily. This will not only keep you safe, it will also make you happier and more capable in your life. This is the yoga we all know is possible, and it's the yoga that proves William wrong.