Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Yoga Is Safe. Alarmist Articles Designed To Promote Books Are Not

Yes, I am going to comment on that article.  You know the one.  The one that is scaring many into thinking practicing of yoga will cause extreme catastrophic injury.  As you may have guessed by the title of this post, I am of a different opinion.

Certainly I agree that there is the possibility of injury when practicing yoga.  We are asking our bodies to perform in ways they are not used to moving (which is kind of the point), certainly presenting the possibility of injury.  Heck, I have experienced injury when moving my body in normal ways, and have had negative consequences from not moving my body much at all (I recently wrote a book, meaning extended hours sitting in one place typing), so why shouldn’t I concede the possibility for injury when doing things I don’t normally do)

I am not refuting the potential for injury. 

I take great issue with both the author and the “respected” teacher quoted throughout the article who state that yoga WILL cause injury, and I have great concerns regarding the motivation behind this article.

Everyone has, and is entitled to, their opinion.  When hearing an opinion, one must consider the source [NB see * below].  If you notice the by line of this article, it is adapted from an upcoming book by the author.  He mentions in the article that he began to practice yoga to relieve the pain from a back issue.  He states that his back gave way during a certain pose, causing him to re-think yoga as a healing art.  He never indicates a length of time of practice, nor his frequency of practice. He does not say that a teacher encouraged him to go beyond his ability, nor if he spoke with a teacher about the safest methods of practice given his injury.  Basically, we have someone without a consistent, dedicated, supervised practice claiming to be an authority on the dangers of yoga.  And by the way, his book just happens to be coming out next month.  And by the way, he is a writer for the NY Times. And doesn’t the NY Times have great writers who are publishing books?

The article is written from a sensationalist point of view.  I say this because the author offers no basis of comparison; he focuses the reader on the inevitability of severe injury.  How many were injured training for or competing in the NYC Marathon last year?  How many cyclists were injured falling off their bikes or being hit by cars (I am one of those)?  How many high school pitchers are undergoing Tommy John’s surgery because they are being irresponsibly coached to throw breaking balls since Little League?  How many injuries and illnesses occurred cooking dinner?  Yet where are the 5 page articles telling us to boycott baseball, not jog or ride bikes, or to stop cooking Thanksgiving dinner?  No where.  There are many, many articles educating us on how to do these things SAFELY.   No mention of doing the practice safely in this article, only the opinion that practice = injury.

What grinds my gears the most about this article are the statements by the respected teacher “whose clientele includes…gurus.”  This teacher is quoted as telling his clients to “not do yoga.”  That is the quote.  He is not coaching people on how to use the practice to heal from their injuries by avoiding or modifying certain poses.  He is saying “Stop.”  

Now this person is teaching “Master’s” classes and workshops at The Omega Institute. Read the article, he is currently teaching.  Someone who is claiming and being presented as an authority on the dangers of yoga, who instructs people to avoid the practice is CURRENTLY teaching.  Hinting that you will be injured unless you take his class. As I write, I am a 7 minute drive from the Omega campus.  If you have not been there, check out their website or call them up.  Ask how much it costs to take a workshop with this teacher.  Hundreds (plural) of dollars.  This guy has no problem taking a lot of your money to instruct you in a practice he claims you should not be doing in the first place.  Hypocritical and irresponsible.   

Oh yes, let’s not forget the conclusion of the article where this teacher (or the writer, cannot be sure of the original information) states he has had back surgery to repair damage done from yoga.  Not only does this further demonstrate he is not taking his own advice to stop, and indicates that he cannot himself practice safely (yet he continues to instruct others), he fails to mention that he was injured in a car accident. 

Any teacher who is not practicing what they teach is not to be trusted.  Period.
Dear students, here are three simple guidelines which will help make your practice safer.  I cannot and will not guarantee that you will 100% avoid injury, but I want to remind you that anything is potentially dangerous, especially if you are careless.

  1. Pay Attention to your body!  I will say categorically that any injury I have incurred while practicing yoga has been due to my own dumb a$$ed-ness.  Pain is not to be worked through.  Pain = STOP. Holding your breath or labored breathing = STOP.  Clenching your jaw = STOP.  Heartbeat pounding in your ears or temples = STOP. Forcing to get into a pose = STOP. Your body is an immensely intelligent machine which will let you know when something is not right.  Listen to it!
  2. If your teacher is belittling your ability, stating you “should” be able to do something, in any way acting like the Drill Instructor from Full Metal Jacket, or is not encouraging you to work within your own practice, LEAVE THE CLASS IMMEDIATELY AND DO NOT RETURN. We may practice in a group setting, but it is still your INDIVIDUAL practice.  You are not in competition with yourself or others.  You are not there to please the teacher.  The teacher is not there to put you into poses.  The teacher should be providing opportunities and encouragement only.  We as students are responsible for saying ‘when.’
  3. Progression in yoga (meaning both poses and spiritual development) will not come by practicing only 90 minutes once a week.  If you are not regular in your practice, you are much more likely to incur injury.  Do not attempt advanced poses if you are not preparing for them over a long sustained period of time.  Practice a little each day, and you will notice a difference at your group class.

Do not despair!  Do not give up the practice!  Work smartly and take ownership of your practice. 

For fairness, here is a link to the article Form your own opinions.

*For further fairness, let me give you insight as to the source of my opinion.  I am a yoga teacher.  I have been practicing off and on since the mid 90’s, and on average 5-6 days per week since 2004.  I currently practice about 2 hrs. per day, 6 days per week, beginning at 4:30 am (45 minutes- 1 hour is asana practice), which does not include the extensive study of yogic texts which I do during my lunch hour.  I work full time at a desk job.  In short, I have direct experiential knowledge of this practice, based in sustained, long-term practice while maintaining a “normal” lifestyle including a full time job and a family.

This practice can be done safely, if you are careful, by regular Joe’s and Jane’s like you and me. 

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