The New York Times Sunday Magazine ran a story called "How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body." The article is woefully one-sided, all but guaranteeing physical distress to anyone who dares to set foot on a yoga mat. Nevertheless, bringing yoga-related injuries out of the closet is a welcome (if not long overdue) contribution toward shaping a more honest, less myth-driven, conversation about yoga.
Despite the doom and gloom scenario painted by the Times, the average Jane or Joe can practice yoga without having back surgery, popping a hamstring or making a trip to the emergency room (or even the drugstore) simply by following two simple guidelines.
I am speaking from experience. I first began practicing yoga some 10 years ago on the recommendation of a physician as a way to rehabilitate a hip flexor I injured running in post-war Bosnia. (In the interest of full disclosure, I am now a yoga teacher and author of Secrets of An Accidental Yogi: Yoga Wisdom for Better Health, Less Stress & Great Sex.)
In the beginning, I left almost every yoga class nursing a sore lower back and a strained neck. I shrugged off the discomfort, chalking it up to the inevitable soreness that accompanies the pursuit of any new "sport," whether it be running, weight training, kickboxing or swimming. I thought, Why should yoga be any different?
Well, as I now know, yoga is different because it isn't a sport. It's not calisthenics, aerobics, exercise or a workout. Nor is it modeling or a game of Simon Says.
Sure, you can use yoga as a way to sculpt buns of steel and burn off all of the Christmas cookies and eggnog you consumed. But when you (or the teacher) treat yoga as a sport or an exhibition, then you shouldn't be surprised to suffer the same kinds of sports-related injuries weekend warriors endure just because you're hip to Om Shanti.
At its core, yoga is a practice of cultivating awareness of your inner and outer worlds. The poses are one way to help you do that. Unfortunately, this concept is getting lost amid a flurry of sun salutations, lousy yoga instruction and $90 yoga pants (on sale).
Whether you're a teacher or a student, if you approach yoga with the same aggressive determination normally reserved for a Christian Louboutin sample sale, then you're not even doing yoga, no matter how beautiful you may look in Dancer pose.
In other words, yoga injuries happen not because of any deficiency in the yoga poses (or yoga's teachings), but mainly because of the particular way some teachers teach and many students practice.
If you want to reap the benefits of yoga without suffering the aches and pains then there are two principles you must honor.
One, select your teacher wisely. A teacher does not have to be registered with the Yoga Alliance, the self-appointed industry cop of yoga training. The organization charges high yearly fees (up to $245 per teacher and $700 per studio), but provides questionable quality control. Certification is a mail-order business -- literally. Provide YA a curriculum attesting to a certain number of hours of teacher training in specific subjects, such as history and anatomy, and voila! Certification.
Training and experience are important, of course, but in my opinion, the most important quality a teacher can possess is respect. For you, your body, your emotions, your life story. Avoid teachers who use language that encourages you to shove yourself into a camera-ready pose. A teacher who bullies everyone into the exact same cookie-cutter pose is a teacher who is probably going to get someone hurt (and who doesn't even understand what yoga is really all about).
Instead, look for teachers who emphasize acceptance, patience and using the basic shapes of the poses to explore, rather than achieve. Maybe you just had a fight with your husband and don't have the energy to hold the pose for six breaths today. Maybe looking up in triangle pose irritates your neck (like me). Maybe you need to lay down and be still for a few breaths.
The right teacher will make you feel comfortable discovering and respecting where you're at right now, even if that looks different than what everyone else is doing. Even if it looks different than what you did last week.
Two, leave your ego at home. The desire to look the best, to conquer a pose or hold it the longest, is what pushes most students beyond their limits and risks injury.
I tell my students all the time, don't worry if your Half Moon pose is the prettiest. It's not like you'll win a date with Derek Jeter if it is. (Besides, if that was the prize I would kick everyone's butt.)
Seriously though, don't worry if you can "do" the pose the way it looks in the magazines or even on the next mat. Yoga classes may be a group activity but what happens on your yoga mat belongs to you. Don't you have enough people in your life who hassle you without adding your own name to the list? Do what you reasonably can without letting your ego push you from controlled, aware, peaceful effort into struggle, strain and pain.
Yoga isn't supposed to make you sore or stiff, let alone lead to injury. Start by finding the right teacher, leave your ego behind and yoga can transform your health, reduce stress, increase your mobility, help heal and prevent injury and lead to better balance and greater focus, on and off the mat.
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