Like many yoga practitioners, I read with great interest the recent New York Times article, "How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body" by William Broad.
The article seemed to me like an important caveat, especially considering the large number of people in the U.S. currently practicing yoga. (Some estimates put this number at 20 million and counting, according to the Times.) It also made intuitive sense for a couple of reasons. First, many people I know personally have been injured doing yoga. Second, any exercise program has the potential to cause harm as well as good (a friend of mine recently had an almost-fatal heart attack during a kick-boxing class). And finally, although everybody knows that conventional medications and medical treatment can cause side-effects and problems -- somehow anything deemed "alternative" seems to get a free ride when it comes to considering the down side.
Whenever I offer cautions about some Eastern technique, herb or nutritional supplement, I get stares from friends and patients as if to say, "How can you criticize them? They're like motherhood and apple pie." But we know that even motherhood can be risky to your health (such as sleep deprivation, worries about the kids, aggravation from ungrateful children, etc.) and apple pie can make you fat. I am not suggesting that people refrain from these activities -- though they are both best enjoyed in moderation -- but simply that many things that we do in life, including highly worthwhile things, are inherently risky. How then do we moderate the risk?
Some years ago, I had a chronic illness (thankfully long since cured), which made me irritable. One day I suggested to my assistant that maybe yoga would help. She seized upon the suggestion with disturbing alacrity -- in fact, I had never seen her show that level of enthusiasm for any other chore I had asked of her. The next thing I knew Lakshmi, a tall, good-looking woman in a white jumpsuit arrived at my door, and my regular yoga classes had begun.
Many different forms of yoga are currently available. My teacher practices simple hatha yoga (the Shivananda routine, if that means anything to you), which was familiar to me as I had learned the same type of yoga 30 years earlier in South Africa. It is a balanced routine with breathing, stretching, an aerobic component (the sun salutation) and elements of meditation (mindfulness) and contemplation (one or two generic prayers that refer to peace and personal responsibility, and could offend nobody but the most hardened atheist). In this form of yoga, one moves slowly from one posture (asana) to another, and you don't turn the ambient heat up high, which is part of the popular Bikram yoga.
As I have thought about all the different elements in my yoga routine, they all seem to offer some value of one type or another. For example, bending the spine in different ways keeps it flexible. Often when I see an elderly person teetering across the street, spine stiffened in a fixed position position -- which makes it harder to stay balanced or turn suddenly -- I wonder how that person might have walked differently had they practiced yoga for many years. It seems obvious that flexibility must protect the back from injury.
If there is something I'm doing in yoga that feels uncomfortable, or if some part of my body strongly resists a movement, I just don't do it. That's a basic rule in any exercise routine geared at keeping a person fit and healthy -- not to push yourself too far. Likewise, we learn not to force open or closed a piece of equipment so as not to break it. It's just common sense. For competitive athletes practicing under the vigilant eye of a trained coach, the rules may be different. Most yoga practitioners do not fall into that category. Yet, the competitiveness of our society encroaches upon the yoga studio, to judge by people looking around to see whether they are stretching as far as their neighbors. Clearly these are pathways to injury, and it's not surprising that some people have wrecked their bodies due to overzealously practicing their yoga routine.
My advice is that we consider yoga part of a healthy lifestyle. We need to breathe, stretch, be mindful of our bodies, reflect, meditate and perhaps pray. Check your machismo at the door, stop looking at who's doing the plow better than you are, be aware of your body, and enjoy this ancient practice. It has worked for me for the past 10 or more years since Lakshmi first walked through my door and thankfully I haven't wrecked my body yet.
Wishing you Light and Transcendence,
Copyright Norman Rosenthal
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