The New York Times Magazine published an article last week week entitled "How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body," adapted from William Broad's new book.
Broad is a "senior science writer at the Times," and though his article is heavy on anecdote and slim on science, I agree that the increasing occurrences of injuries in yoga should not be discounted or taken lightly. Still, the temptation to argue Broad's article paragraph by paragraph is hard to resist: for example, yoga teacher Glenn Black's repeated, incorrect use of the word "ego," or the need to go back to the 1970s to find examples of strokes caused by yoga. The case of the college student who kneeled on his toes for hours "praying for world peace," causing nerve damage, begs the question: What was he more influenced by, yoga or Christian penitence? And does one need to inflict suffering on oneself in order to bring about peace? The teachings of yoga would claim just the opposite.
There are a couple of obvious reasons why there are so many injuries in yoga (which we must acknowledge do on occasion occur, as they do in every physical activity). The nature of the injuries and the way that one responds to an injury also varies greatly. However, Broad did not address this issue, he addressed the most sensationalistic aspects of injury, and this is what I wish to respond to.
One reason that injury can occur in yoga is due to overzealousness, or even just plain enthusiasm, on the part of the student -- I have of course experienced this myself -- it is a natural response for a particular type of person when it comes to any activity that has physicality associated with it -- no matter what a teacher may caution. Of course, injuries can happen anytime we do physical activity, whether or not we are taking risks.
A more troublesome underlying cause that leads to injuries while doing yoga, I believe, is the value system that forms the basis of the yoga "industry" in America, which is built largely on economic incentive. Sound cynical of me? As a $5 billion a year industry, it would be hard to argue that the values traditionally associated with yoga, such as simplicity, humility, and one-pointed focus could somehow coexist un-problematically in the midst of a product-oriented industry. America is good at jumping at opportunities -- and when it comes to making the holy dollar, no cow is too sacred to be sacrificed in the West.
When there is a great potential for making money, quality is usually the first thing to be sacrificed. Fast food, anyone? It is unfortunate that this is exactly what we are facing now -- yoga has been McDona-fied. It has been reduced from a practice that traditionally demanded dedication, discipline, sacrifice, humility, surrender, love, devotion and self-investigation -- and yes, suffering through rigorous practice -- to something that one can now learn to teach in a weekend. Or, more popularly, in a mere 200 hours you can become a bonafide, registered yoga instructor. But 200 hours is spit. It is a joke. And it is a joke that is leading a tradition -- one which, granted, has even in India been subject to ridicule -- to an even greater harm. We have an opportunity, in the West, to bring these transformative teachings to places where they will result in the greatest good. It is true that this is already happening -- in schools, prisons, hospitals, with veterans and as well with people who simply walk into a class off of the street -- but it is also true that a rotten apple can spoil the barrel, and the yoga industry apple is a mighty big apple.
I miss the early days when I was first doing yoga in NYC, in the mid to late 1980s. The feeling of freshness, of being clean and free, of feeling that a whole, new world was opening in me. There were no products for sale, no fifty types of yoga mats, just a towel and some cut-off sweatpants to practice in, or a pair of white, cotton "yoga" pants that I could buy on Bleecker St. for five dollars. I still feel that freshness when I practice, and I love that -- but when I look around at what is happening with yoga in America, I can't help but feel sad.
It is not that the "olden days" were better -- every age has its challenges. But spirituality in America has become "easy," and we are becoming dumbed down. It is not wrong to work hard and strive to understand something difficult and subtle, and then achieve an inner satisfaction that is the result of hard work, persistence and dedication -- let's not sweep that under the table. To live a life of self-examination is not always an easy thing. But that does not mean that it is not joyous, or have its own rewards, for it can be both of those things.
When I saw the title of Broad's article, the first thing that came to mind was Ice Cube's old hip-hop song 'Check Yo' Self' ('You better check yo'self before you wreck yo'self') -- pretty good advice for the over-enthusiastic in yoga or any physical endeavor. I was going to post it, but it is so inappropriate, and the issue of injuries is too serious of an issue; I will not make light of anyone's pain. But, searching out Ice Cube did lead me down the dark path of YouTube, where I trolled through videos that filled me with a happy nostalgia for the rawness of youth -- of early punk rock, and the passion and energy that was being expressed through so many amazing songs.
Sanskrit means refined, and many of the yogis of India were extremely elegant, in a simplicity-filled way. The rishis, who became the world's first yogis, purposely left society to meditate in the forests, turning their backs on the mundanity and suffering of the world. They discovered something that ultimately can be of great benefit to us all, if we use it wisely. This is quite the opposite of the rawness of music that I grew up with, like the Clash or Sex Pistols -- but, still, hearing "White Man (in Hammersmith Palais)" now still fills me with the same feeling of freedom I felt when I first heard it when I was probably 14. And who can argue with this lyric: "The new groups/ are not concerned/ with what there is to be learned/ they put on suits/ they think it's funny/ turning rebellion into money." I always loved that line, and now it just makes me think of Lululemon.
Then I came across this below -- I have no idea if anyone will think it is as awesome as I do -- but this girl is killing it. I love how every once in a while she cracks just a little smile -- punk rock, a little bit humorous, as it was meant to be -- you know, if we didn't take ourselves all too seriously, maybe we would cause a lot less harm. To ourselves, and to each other.
For more by Eddie Stern, click here.
For more on yoga, click here.
Follow Eddie Stern on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@eddiestern