All over the country, yoga teachers and students are talking about the New York Times article that criticizes yoga for being a physical practice that can — and does — cause injury.
It's about time.
As a yoga practitioner for about seven years, it has taken me almost that long to get to a place where I can be confident about my practice, which to me means that I know when to push a bit further, and when to modify what I'm doing so that I'm getting the most out of the pose without overstretching my body. How do I know where these limits are? It's not a perfect science, but in my case, I've learned the hard way. I've gotten hurt doing yoga.
So few people talk about yoga injuries (as opposed to knee problems from running, or tennis elbow) that perhaps they blame themselves. (I did.) Long story short, I pulled my hip out really badly my second year of doing yoga in a class with my favorite teacher — at the time I thought that it was because that hip was weak (I had an infection there as a kid, and it's not as strong as it should be). If only I had been more careful, I could have avoided injury, I thought. Perhaps that's true. But my teacher directly encouraged me to stay in a pose longer than I was comfortable, and at my next lunge, I threw my hip out. Maybe I would have pulled it running barefoot down a rocky hillside in the woods, or hopping my mountain bike over a curb in a Vancouver park, or jumping in a 25-foot tidal blowhole in Hawaii. I have done plenty of stupid, risky things physically, any number of them having the potential to hurt — or even kill — me.
But the fact is that I didn't get hurt doing any of those things, I got hurt in yoga class, after listening to the teacher and not myself.
Because the difference is that while I would really have nobody to blame for putting myself at risk in the various daredevil examples I gave, there is a teacher in a yoga class, a leader, a person in charge. And being that we are all living in a hierarchical society, most of us are taught to do what a teacher says, and this is ingrained. I think that often yoga teachers forget how much power they have. For them to be angry and upset at the real and important criticism of their chosen vocation is showing a lack of responsibility for their authority. Yoga teachers should take real and ongoing responsibility to remind, and remind often, all us students who are following their words, to use them as a guideline only, not a direction or instruction. (Online yoga classes are a great way to practice in privacy, at your own level.)
The truth is that the only person who truly knows your body is you. Instead of hewing to a standard of "perfection" or trying to achieve a yoga pose that a teacher shows you or that you've seen on a video, yoga should be taught in a way that emphasizes doing what's right for you, at your stage of practice, and taking into account both your body, your age and your experience.
Some yoga teachers remind us of these things, and some don't. So while yoga teachers need to own their responsibility, students need to do so as well. Just as you wouldn't ski down a double-black diamond run if it was beyond your level, or run a marathon if you have trouble completing a 5K, sitting all day at a computer, eating junk food and then taking a yoga class twice a week where you push yourself to or past your limits will only result in injury.
Overall, this controversial article will likely end up preventing sprains and bruises (or worse) and get yoga teachers talking about injury in their classes. As yoga practitioners exceed 20 million this year, it's important to talk to and keep safety in mind, and equally important to celebrate both the amazing benefits and possible issues surrounding yoga.
Just don't stop doing yoga because you are afraid of hurting yourself. Just modify, modify, and bow out of those poses that aren't for you. As long as you keep breathing, nothing could be more yogic.