By now, you’ve probably read, or at least heard the commotion around the New York Times article, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.” I must admit that when I first read the piece and started getting questions from friends about it, I was worried that it would give people an unfair and skewed impression of yoga. As a yoga practitioner and instructor, but also as a student of the practice, I was fearful that the healing and life changing potential yoga offers to many would be overlooked as a result of focusing on the negative experiences of a few. And of course, yoga, like most physical endeavors, can pose risks if practiced without care, caution, and proper supervision.
Yet yoga is an experience far greater than the physical poses (asanas) described in the article. Yoga is a practice of bridging the mind and the body, often using the breath as the catalyst for this integration. It is about guiding our attention away from our thinking/analyzing minds (where we are all the time) and into our feeling, breathing bodies.
In reading over the article several times, I found that Glenn Black, the yoga instructor interviewed for the article, actually answered the questions regarding the conflicted topic favorably in regards to the true meaning of yoga. Mr. Black spoke of often presenting this rhetorical question to his students during a rigorous yoga class: “Is this yoga?” He would then pause and answer the question himself: “It is if you’re paying attention.” I couldn’t be more in agreement with this statement. Yoga is a practice that cultivates self-awareness, on both a physical and emotional level. It is about learning and being attuned to the rhythms and limitations of our own bodies. This does not come easily to everyone at first!
Here Mr. Black and I are again in agreement. Several times throughout the article, he referenced the harmful implications of letting one’s ego take the wheel in the practice of yoga (or life in general, in my opinion). He says: “Awareness is more important than rushing through a series of postures just to say you’d done them…today many schools of yoga are just about pushing people…teachers jumping on people, pushing and pulling and saying ‘You should be able to do this by now.’ It has to do with their egos; if you do [asana] with ego or obsession, you’ll end up causing problems.” I would also argue that this is not what yoga is or should be about. Possibly contradicting his own words of caution, though, Mr. Black admitted that he has also told his students that he will make the classes as hard as possible and it’s “up to you to make it easy on yourself.” This is a heavy responsibility to put on your students, especially those new to yoga and eager to learn and improve.
Being aware of, and in tune with our own bodies is a constant challenge, and is something that takes time and practice. Beginning students may not have that initial body awareness and should look to their instructors as a guide and support, rather than feeling solely responsible for this process. Even seasoned practitioners need to frequently remind themselves of at awareness and the likelihood that the needs of their bodies will look different each time they’re on the mat. Furthermore, when people are faced with physical or psychological trauma, or other emotional anxiety and stress, it can be even more difficult to be fully present and patient with your body. Here is when the breath is so fundamentally important. By teaching students how to truly breathe, new space is opened in the body and mind, and the movement of the physical postures is done with more ease, following the individual rhythms of each student.
The author of the New York Times article, William Broad, admitted that he had a naïve concept of yoga that it “was a source of healing and never harm.” This, of course, is an extreme way of looking at yoga and life in general. Anything done in excess or with the absence of attention can be harmful. If you look at any athletic sport, there is a host of possible injuries an athlete can face. Living your life out of balance or with rigid intensity can also present injury – injuries on both a physical and psychological level. I once had a friend in college who ate so many carrots (rich in antioxidants and vitamin A – all good things!) that her hands turned orange! The true essence of yoga fosters a sense of living that is balanced, holistic, and full of vitality.
It is my opinion that there are several yoga practitioners and instructors that should embrace a greater sense of humility. In the words of author Kevin Hall, “We plant seeds of success by getting grounded and rooted in humility.” Humility is about being teachable, and being open to continual learning and expanding. I know personally, that yoga has provided an extensive platform for this learning and expanding to take place in my life, and I consider a privilege to be able guide others in this process as well.