Yoga can wreck your body – so should we give up?

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An article in the New York Times, How Yoga can Wreck Your Body, has been causing a stir. Science journalist William J. Broad tells horror stories of yoga teachers who have snapped their Achilles tendons by forcing heels to the floor in downward dog; brain injuries, nerve damage and even strokes caused by neck injuries in yoga poses, such as upward bow, shoulder stand or headstand. It’s scary stuff.

Broad is not knocking yoga for the sake of it; he has been practising yoga himself for some 40 years. But in a new book, of which the NY Times article is an extract, and which I review in a separate post here, he sets out to explore the scientific evidence for the benefits – and dangers – of yoga. He says many of the claims for yoga’s powers of renewal and healing are true. He writes that “yoga can lower your blood pressure, make chemicals that act as antidepressants, even improve your sex life.”

My own experience is that my 46-year-old body, that has had two babies, and various misuses and abuses over the years, seems to be healthier, stronger, and easier with yoga.

The problems people experience in yoga today are perhaps because we lead very different lives to the Indians who developed yoga over thousands of years: they typically squatted and sat cross-legged on the floor, naturally maintaining mobile hips and strong backs; we sit in chairs all day, hunch over computer screens and then walk into a yoga studio now and then, ignoring our lack of flexibility and other physical problems.

Our culture also has an attitude problem. We are always aiming for results, achievements, getting more, aiming higher. We take this attitude onto the yoga mat: reaching further, holding longer, believing we must “get better” at ever-more-difficult postures. These nagging, competitive, striving voices inside us ignore our bodies’ objections, which are voiced through pain.

This approach to yoga overlooks its eastern philosophical grounding. Yoga is not an exercise regime; it’s a way of life guided by yamas and niyamas, sanskrit words that translate as “restraints” and “observances”, but which are basically tenets for a good life, including:

  • non-violence
  • truthfulness
  • non-covetousness
  • contentment
  • self-education
  • meditation on the divine

Yoga does include physical exercise, or Asana. We do, after all, have a physical existence and only one body to last us all of this life, so it’s a good idea to look after it. To do so, we need to bring yoga’s philosophical tenets on the yoga mat: we can be non-violent to  ourselves, by listening to our bodies; we can be non-covetous by letting go of goals for our physical achievements; we can be truthful about our realistic abilities right now in this moment. Yoga is actually a “practice” – for the way we live our lives.

It’s useful to contemplate that a loose translation of the Sanskrit word asana is “sitting comfortably and still”.  My therapeutic yoga teacher and inspiration for much of what I teach, Susi Hately, has a suggestion: whatever the asana or posture you are practising, are you “sitting comfortably and still”? Or are you tensing, straining, aching, in pain? If you are, she says, “you aren’t practising yoga… you’re ‘doing fitness’.”

But Susi also says she understands and has compassion for why it is difficult for so many of us Western yoga-fans “to get it”. It’s back to our culture and its preference for the “end”, not the “journey” or the “process”.

So does this mean that “some people should give up yoga all together” as someone interviewed in the New York Times article suggests? Susi reckons that that assumes that yoga consists only the physical postures in their classic form. But in fact, you can modify yoga postures and supplement and prepare for them with therapeutic techniques derived from a modern, scientific understanding of the way bodies move.

Above all, take a gentle, non-competitive approach to asana, in which the only “goal” is learning to be more fully aware of your body and to listen to its wisdom, even its truths you your ego would rather not hear.

Susi says: “Perhaps in those times of injury, it is actually time to read up and embody the yamas and niyamas so the journey back to the mat, the journey back to living the life you want to live, through great yoga therapy and then modified asanas, is one of exploration, curiosity and awe.”

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