Wednesday, January 11, 2012

How the NYT Can Wreck Yoga

Objective reporting at it's finest.

If you practice yoga even casually, then I'm sure ten people have already forwarded you the recent New York Times article, "How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body." If you haven't read it, allow me to summarize: it turns out, yoga can hurt you. Especially if you allow your ego to take over and push yourself to do poses that you are not ready for. In very rare cases, people who practice yoga have suffered strokes, needed spinal surgery, and/or required extensive rehabilitation after yoga-related injuries. Yoga can cause more harm than good, and only a select section of the population should even attempt it.

A few things.

1. The article is an excerpt from a book by William J. Broad, titled The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards, due out next month. It's only fair to note that this excerpt focuses solely on the risks, without even touching on the rewards. This leads me to think the NYT chose the most controversial section of the book in order to drum up interest and increase their page clicks. People love reading about how things commonly believed to be good for you (yoga, running, spinach) can actually kill you. It helps them rationalize their unhealthy habits and sedentary lifestyles.

2. OF COURSE YOGA CAN CAUSE INJURIES. Especially if you have a bad instructor (they're definitely out there), if you turn yoga into a competition, and if you force yourself into poses you have no business being in. I have been practicing for years and in downward dog, my heels still don't touch the floor. My hips are always tight and I can't hold Warrior II for as long as the rest of the class. So you know what I do? I come out of it. I make adjustments. It's not rocket science.

3. And then there's this quote from Glenn Black, a yoga instructor who is interviewed extensively for the piece: “My message was that ‘Asana is not a panacea or a cure-all. In fact, if you do it with ego or obsession, you’ll end up causing problems.’ A lot of people don’t like to hear that.” Those people, who don't like to hear that? Those are (mostly) the people getting injured. The majority of people who practice yoga, who have found solace on their mat, mental clarity from the poses, relaxation in savasana, compassion for themselves and others in their practice? Those are the people who have been healed by yoga, in ways that go beyond the mere physical.

Plow pose. Not my friend.

This is not to say that I have never hurt myself in yoga. Plow pose in particular is one that I know my body doesn't like. Even though I can get into it, my lower back is sore for hours after and my muscles seize up in a way that makes it hard to lie flat on the ground or bend forward at the waist. When the rest of the class flips into Plow, I have to remind myself that it's not my pose and do something that is kinder to my body. Sometimes it's a struggle to stay put, but that's part of yoga - knowing your limits and respecting them. 

Last year, I went to an Ashtanga workshop with Ricky Tran, a fairly well known yoga instructor in Texas. He said, over and over, to the point where it was nearly a mantra: "Yoga can cure anything, except injuries caused by yoga." I'm paraphrasing, but not by much. While there are some people out there for whom yoga is not the right exercise, I am of the belief that the majority of people would benefit from some time on the mat, under the guidance of a well-trained and knowledgeable instructor.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this - do you practice yoga? Have you been injured on the mat? Has yoga helped you get over any physical ailments? How many times have you been forwarded this article? Personally, I credit a regular yoga practice with keeping me injury-free through two marathon training cycles. It was only when I stopped practicing as often that my ITB began acting up. For me, yoga cures, and I trust my own experience more than a slanted article in the New York Times.