The recent New York Times magazine article "How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body" (William Broad, Jan. 5, 2012) has stoked an international controversy, shaken the yoga world and focused the spotlight on my previously anonymous, reclusive yoga teacher, Glenn Black, who is liberally quoted within. A longtime, highly-regarded faculty member at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY, Glenn is known for his gruff and demanding, yet deeply caring and precise teaching style. Joking, he told me that, among hundreds of emails, he was receiving death threats -- the Times article doesn't fully illuminate his uniquely wry sense of humor.
It is important to acknowledge the true damage on all levels that yoga can do when ego surpasses awareness and wisdom, when asana and goals trump deeply listening to the body, when yoga styles and methods are uncompromising, and when inexperienced or misguided yoga teachers lead bodies living modern lifestyles into places they are not prepared to go. The Times piece cites numerous articles from medical journals detailing yoga injuries ranging from joint degeneration and disc injuries to peripheral neuropathy and stroke. I have observed in my own gynecological practice that classical or contemporary yoga can contribute to symptoms of chronic vulvar pain and sexual dysfunction via painful ligamentous instability, hip injuries or herniated discs, overstimulation of already-stressed sympathetic nervous systems, and pelvic floor muscle spasms.
Upon deeper inspection, however, the physical practice of yoga and the injuries that arise from it do not seem to be the point. As the recent HuffPost entry (Jan. 10, 2012) illuminates, true yoga emphasizes spiritual exercises, discussing the eight limbs of yoga: yama (restraints), niyama (observances), asana (posture), pranayama (mastery of breath), pratyahara (withdrawal), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (higher levels of meditation).
Although Glenn has been barraged with interview requests and was just offered a book contract, he was kind enough to indulge me with some time to ask him questions of my own, punctuated in the background by soundbites from his Jan. 11, 2012 NBC News interview, in which an orthopedic surgeon detailed the hundreds of yoga injuries she sees in her practice alone. I recorded Glenn's candid responses, which seem poised to generate yet more controversy and upheaval, as we wonder: What is yoga? And why are we doing it?
EF: What kind of injuries have you seen in the yoga practitioners who come to you for bodywork?
GGB: Pinched nerves in their neck, low back tightness, injuries to hips and knees. People often come to yoga classes with injuries that get accentuated, too.
EF: What about shoulder injuries?
GGB: Chaturangas are the worst things for shoulder problems and create repetitive use syndrome. Putting weight on a joint, one side is always stronger than the other, one side will eventually pay a price, one will compress more, one will stay open, some ligaments will tighten up, others will loosen.
EF: What is the best way to overcome injuries from yoga?
GGB: Remedial exercises that overcome the source of the injuries. And people need to get bodywork. Not just any bodywork. They need to look for people who work on really moving the joints and connective tissues.
EF: What yoga poses should people generally avoid?
GGB: Deep knee flexion with weight is not so good for anybody, especially Americans who don't use their knees correctly. To put a knee in a rotational situation puts strain on ligaments and tendons. Sitting poses are hard on hips, where external rotation is limited. Tissues don't want to do it. Never do headstand, shoulder stand, or plow.
EF: The New York Times article talked about neurological damage and strokes resulting from compression of the head and neck in those poses. What about arm balances?
GGB: With arm balances, lifting the head up is a problem and restricts blood flow. You should really hang the head, but most people lift it up, as a counterweight, I suppose. You have to be careful with the lower back and cervical spine. Any time you do flexion, extension, even rotation will deform those nerve plexuses. Even one nerve can have impingement and cause a problem.
EF: You now have a spinal fusion and screws in your lower lumbar spine to stabilize herniated discs and spondylolisthesis. How did your own yoga injuries come about?
GGB: Extreme backbends, and twisting coming up from my hands on my ankles. I overstretched my ligaments and destabilized my spine.
EF: What is your advice to the modern yoga student seeking to avoid injuries?
GGB: If a student is a total neophyte or even has some experience, the instruction is to be careful and listen to yourself.
EF: What do you think about the backlash that is coming from the statements you make in the New York Times article? It's all over blogs, Facebook and the news. A lot of yoga teachers are saying now that they do in fact teach in a way that avoids injuries, and others are clearly feeling threatened that their livelihoods are in jeopardy, that it will discourage new students from trying yoga.
GGB: They are not teaching yoga. They are teaching physical exercise. They can do it in any gym. Yoga is an art and a science, and if you take just one small aspect, you never get to the higher end of it. Yoga is not taught correctly by many people.
EF: Your classes are known as rigorous and demanding on all levels, and you have often said that you demand your students to practice in a way that is not "mediocre." What do you mean?
GGB: Most people have a limited view of yoga and approach it as a physical discipline, that's what can make it mediocre. Awareness and consciousness are no longer emphasized, and yoga somehow became relegated to physical exercise. You need to do in-depth, serious practice in pranayama and yoga nidra, and hope for higher stages of yoga to happen. Now, everybody takes what they want, but it really gets back to the yamas and the niyamas. If someone's an asshole, it doesn't matter how he does the pose, he's still gonna be an asshole.
EF: People have reacted very strongly to what you say in the New York Times article. They call you "angry" and an "asshole."
GGB: I am not the most personable person on the planet, but I'm looking out for every person in that class.
EF: I have heard you speak about the "myth of asana." What does that mean?
GGB: It is a myth that it's safe to do asana without awareness and consciousness.
EF: I have long felt that doing more asana, like Virabhadrasana I (Warrior I), is not an effective way to get better at doing asana, and wonder if asana is even the point.
GGB: You don't need to do specific poses to achieve awareness and consciousness. Elevating your consciousness comes from awareness and developing the ability to relax. This does not mean just having a drink and watching the news. It takes dedicated practice, such as pranayama and yoga nidra. You can use asana in a way, but it is not the best way. If one is an athlete and physically conditioned, physical practice could initiate some of that, and then the practitioner can feel the difference in savasana. But if you are in pain, you can't do the practice, your mind will just focus on the pain.
EF: How does the ego get in the way of the safe practice of yoga?
GGB: Ego is the main obstacle to obtaining what I'll call superconsciousness. Ego is a good thing because it gets you through life, but it also gets in the way of reaching perspectives we normally don't have that were directly experienced by the yogis. The old sages had the capacity to reach these different perspectives. They noticed the unity rather than the separateness of everything. Things like technology and stressors that inundate us make it harder to attain this perspective in modern life and make it harder to access. Yamas and niyamas come before everything, but if they are even mentioned nowadays, it's a cursory intellectual thing about how to treat animals well and not pollute the earth. It comes down to your basic psychology, it comes down to the depth of training. I was asked if going one or two times a week to yoga class, is that okay? Yes, but it is not the goal of the eightfold path to keep yoga only as a physical exercise, and you still need to be careful and cautious.
EF: The New York Times article mentions B.K.S. Iyengar, and his classic book, "Light on Yoga." Would you talk about your time studying in India with Mr. Iyengar?
GGB: I went to Pune in 1987. He had a way of doing things. He was brought up in the British education system and had a hard, mean, certain way of doing poses and people thought it was way it was supposed to be done. Once a girl came up to Mr. Iyengar saying she was having trouble in headstand. He gave her instructions in how she should do it, and it was overheard by some of his students, then before you know it, everyone in the world was doing headstand like this poor woman.
EF: Do you have any credentials for teaching yoga or doing bodywork, or is it all based on experience?
GGB: I have no credentials at all. I didn't get certified in Iyengar yoga, because I wanted to be able to do human movement and animal movement and have it be fun.
EF: What do you think of all the yoga teacher trainings and licensing that's going on now? There are so many 200 hour teacher trainings churning out yoga teachers. You once made an analogy to "locusts."
GGB: Those certificates they get even for 500 hours are worthless, because like in bodywork, unless somebody has a gift or innate understanding or depth of experience, they will just regurgitate what they have learned and apply it to the situations they are presented with. True ability comes from actually doing the practice.
EF: It seems that many inexperienced yoga teachers spend a lot of time updating their websites to attract students, rather than spending the time gaining the experience they really need. There are even workshops and private coaching designed specifically to help yoga teachers market themselves.
GGB: Updating websites will not help you gain consciousness. Yoga is no longer taught as a direct experience that originated the whole process. There are myriad amounts of people teaching asana in myriad different ways. They are very dogmatic in their approach, in the way they want the pose to look and be done, and if a big name or Madonna came to their class, then they become so large that they turn it over to their assistants to do all the work, who don't have the skill or genius. As yoga teachers, they don't hear about the injuries because they are up on the pedestal. Yoga is said to be the end all, but how many people can even take a deep breath without a problem? Most pranayama lasts for 30 seconds, a small part of class. It is rare to see pranayama done for an entire hour and a half.
EF: Are there any great yoga teachers that you know of?
GGB: Kofi Busia is one of best asana teachers around. Whether his students get hurt, I have no idea. But he is holding headstands for a long time, and people don't say anything.
EF: What is your opinion about trademarking yoga?
GGB: I think that trademarking is an abomination.
EF: How do you deal with it when your students trademark the material you teach?
GGB: I don't deal with it.
EF: Many yoga teachers present what they teach as having come from ancient lineages that are hundreds if not thousands of years old, before trademarking it, of course. What do you think about that?
GGB: Asana was only developed 80 or 90 years ago. Patanjali (author of the ancient yoga sutras) was talking about sitting poses. Headstands weren't done when Patanjali was alive. Asana came from Indian military exercises. Indians are small people next to the British, and they developed a series of calisthenics to make them strong. They were already flexible, and they also wanted to do sitting poses. They named it Ashtanga due to the eight limbs of yoga, and asana is one of them, but just why somebody called it that, who knows why? Those sequences have nothing to do with real Ashtanga yoga, the eight limbs of yoga.
EF: Do you believe that, as many texts and teachers say, that vegetarianism is an important aspect of the practice of yoga?
GGB: Vegetarianism being essential to doing yoga is a myth. Tibetan yogis are heavy meat eaters.
EF: What about veganism? For example, I understand that the more recently certified Jivamukti Yoga teachers are required to sign an agreement pledging to maintain a vegan diet. This is something that has long been emphasized to Jivamukti yoga students, including in prenatal yoga classes.
GGB: Some bodies can do it, like Virabhadrasana III (Warrior III), some can't do it, and shouldn't or they'll hurt themselves. Some people need concentrated protein, others don't. If a serious practitioner dictates to themselves that it is totally immoral to eat an animal, I say, more power to you.
EF: What about in cases of illness?
GGB: Hatha yogis view the body as a vehicle for spirituality. You can't do higher practices if you are ill, you must take care of the body first.
EF: What is the goal of yoga?
GGB: We have limited intellect, we have no idea what Samadhi is and if it's same for everybody. To become more conscious and more aware and more able to deal with the stress that is constantly inundating us, I think that's the best we can hope for in this day and age. The ancient sages had experiences beyond what the senses and the mind can contemplate. They realized that the body and mind are obstacles to awareness and spent a lot of time exploring that. It's probably the basis of religion. But nowadays, after a yoga class, within seconds the students are looking in their pockets for their cell phones, so how long does it really last?
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