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Alanna Kaivalya Headshot

Can Yoga Wreck Your Body? Absolutely! It Can Also Save Your Life

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I once heard a fantastic quote by William Shakespeare: "Even the devil can cite scripture for his purpose." There's been a ton of hullabaloo in recent days over the article in the New York Times that talks about the potential dangers of asana. Yoga teachers have reacted, yoga students are wondering if it's true. It's almost as if the rug has been ripped out of a blissful state of yoga perfection.

Really?

Yoga asana is challenging stuff, and with any challenging physical form of movement, there will be inherent risks. Avid runners have toenails that fall off and pitchers run the chance of torn rotator cuffs. We don't hear a lot of people saying, "Hey. Stop doing that, it's too dangerous!" Yoga asana can be a serious endeavor for some of us, which means that life will happen. Yeah, injury is part of life. It's how we learn. How we grow. It's a learning experience. When we injure our lower backs, we suddenly become the expert on how to protect and heal it. We come into contact with people who can help us through these challenges. When too many chaturangas results in a busted shoulder, we start on a journey to healing.

I understand. This is not a popular statement.

The opinion of injuries in the west is that they are the absolute worst thing in the world. But, the reality is they happen. To all of us. And, they can happen from any activity, even yoga asana. If we were to choke on a strawberry at dinner, would we argue with fervor about the dangers of strawberries? Or would we just address the problem -- figure out how to breathe again.

It's useless to debate the dangers versus health benefits of yoga. Everyone will have an opinion, and they will equally possess reasons why they are right. Remember, "Even the devil can cite scripture for his purpose." We can find evidence of folks who have been injured through asana practice and we can find evidence of folks who have experienced miraculous recovery through asana practice. Both are true. Here's what I'd like to encourage.

Just do your fucking practice.

If you posit yourself a yoga practitioner then the best way to find the truth about anything out is to do it for yourself. And, the most important part of this endeavor? Never let anyone tell you that you can't. Okay. Let's be reasonable. I'm not saying that if after 10 years of doing unsupported headstand, your doctor says you have degenerative discs in your cervical spine you say, "Screw it! I'm doing it anyway!" That's nonsense. I'm saying that given this new, very important information, you figure out how to keep doing it safely.

There are beautiful examples of this all over human culture. The avid runner is in a tragic accident and loses both legs. Does he stop running? No. He is fitted with prosthetics and finishes the marathon. The pitcher with a rotator cuff injury goes through rehab and continues another season because he loves the game so much. An amputation is an extreme example, but there is nothing worse than telling someone, "You can't." We might as well amputate their soul.

Instead of placing limits on what people can do, or blaming asana as the root of the problem, let's start taking responsibility for our practice and figure it out. One of the best ways to do this? Study with an extremely qualified teacher who has had the benefit of seeing thousands of bodies and working with numerous different injuries. Even better if they've experienced an injury themselves at some point in their lives, because it means they've gone through a process of healing and figuring out how to continue doing what they love.

Qualified teachers with years of training and experience can offer many alternatives and modifications for asana based on injuries. I've seen a quadriplegic do headstand with the help of an inversion table. It brought a smile to his face and a tear to his eye because for one glorious moment, he'd overcome the idea that "he couldn't do headstand." And, after working together for months, we'd finally figured out a safe and healthy way.

Can asana practice injure us? Absolutely. And that precise thing can also be what saves our lives. Knowing that despite sacral destabilization or a torn rotator cuff, that there are qualified people who can help us on the road to healing and returning to our beloved practice. Because, in the end, the asana is one part in a whole practice that includes changing our minds about what is or is not possible. So, whether asana can injure us or not is really not the point. What is the point is whether or not we are going to be brave enough or smart enough to figure out how to continue -- not in an aggressive or uneducated way, but with integrity, education and insight.

The late Sri K. Pattabhi Jois was often quoted as saying, "Do your practice, and all is coming." Simple wisdom. For yogis to know anything for sure, we must do it. Not argue about it, push it away or call it impossible, but actually engage in the practice and find out for ourselves. We'll never know if we can return to a headstand practice unless we try -- it may be first with six blocks and two teachers supporting us, but the minute we overcome our limitations, we've received the real gift of asana: knowing ourselves as unlimited.

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