How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body

Why would I, yoga studio owner and teacher, ever create such a title, one might wonder? In fact, I didn’t. It is stolen from the recent NY Times online article: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/08/magazine/how-yoga-can-wreck-your-body.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all%3Fsrc%3Dtp&smid=fb-share
The article, while seemingly well written, doesn’t offer some important facets that I couldn’t resist writing about here.

Is it possible for a yoga practice to cause injury? Certainly it is. But, “how yoga can wreck your body” could be changed to “how doing laundry can wreck your body” or “how bending over to pick up your kids can wreck your body.” There is an opportunity for injury in any physical activity, not because of the activity itself, but because the doer of the activity undertakes that activity without awareness, or with ego-centered desire to achieve.

The article mentions several times that one of the ways a yoga practice can be dangerous or cause injury is when one is practicing an “ego driven” practice. Most people, I imagine, have very little idea what this is or that they are often practicing in this way. Call someone egotistical and they’ll probably feel insulted. So using the word “ego” to describe how folks are practicing their yoga probably seems barbed. However, it is something that I imagine every single western person practicing yoga has fallen prey to at some time. I know that I have, and when that has arisen, I’ve either sustained an injury or have left my practice feeling worse than when I began. So what is an ego-driven practice? It is one in which you are more concerned about achieving a desired look or physical result than in listening to your body. When ego is driving the practice, you are moving without awareness of what is working or not working for your body, modifying when necessary. An ego-driven practice is one in which a teacher is not observing what is or isn’t working for the students and instead is chiding students to go past their limitations. Ego will drive you to look like or better than the physically advanced student two mats over from you; it will drive you to push a little hard in split pose and tear right through that hamstring. Ego is exactly what we are trying to gain awareness of on the mat–that not so benign part of us that tells us that we are always right, that we are better than, that we are invincible. If we can begin to learn to let go of ego, what arises instead is a profound awareness of what we really need at any given moment, on and off our yoga mats. The ability to move, speak and create intentions with wisdom becomes ours.

The yoga poses that we’ve come to call our “yoga practice” are actually a very small fragment of what a full, classical yoga practice is. In fact, these yoga poses, the asanas, were designed to free our body of the aches and pains that make it difficult or impossible to SIT IN MEDITATION. They were not intended as a competition. And yes, many of the poses have evolved to become more challenging, inspiring us to experience courage, strength, and self-confidence. However, not every single pose was intended for every single body, and this is where awareness must come in.

One of the worst injuries I’ve ever incurred happened to me in the ER of a local hospital. The result of unnecessary testing and being sent home too early, left me nearly incapacitated for several weeks. But to say that the ER isn’t for the masses, as the NY times writer says of yoga, would be ridiculous. I have said often that yoga is for every body, and I will continue to say this. But is the type of yoga I practice or even teach for every body? Definitely not. Again, awareness, one of the greatest gifts our practice can give us, is imperative. Being present enough to ask yourself, is this pose working for me? How can I start at the first stage of any pose, and slowly advance, if advancing is right for me? Yoga is not a panacea, a one-size-fits-all cure all. It can be for every body with some understanding. Learning about the different kinds of yoga and finding the right one for you is important. This requires being honest with yourself–can you do the same things you could 10 or 20 years ago physically? In what kind of physical shape are you beginning this practice? Ask yourself, do I feel worse at the end of the practice than I did at the beginning? For this is never ever the required outcome. Find a well-trained teacher or teachers who have an understanding of the body, but also who are not teaching to gratify their ego-driven goals; teachers who want to learn about their students and to understand each persons body better, who will do their best to remind you to reach your own personal best.

Yoga when done right will create a peace and ease of mind that can best be described as experiencing bliss. In Yoga Sutra 3.56, Patanjali writes that “When the tranquil mind attains purity equal to that of the Self, there is Absoluteness.” Swami Satchindananda goes on to interpret this saying that, “We are not here to grasp a little of this and a little of that.” Our yoga practice exists so that we may grasp the “self-fish. Never lose sight of this and simply settle for the little things.” He goes on to say that “As you progress along the spiritual path, the sideshows will tempt you. It’s like a king is sitting there ready to give you everything. He has invited you to come to his party and be his friend and you are going toward that party. On the way, you see all kinds of variety show, magician’s tricks, some music being played. But you should know that they are all on their way to the party to play according to the king’s orders. When you get there, all of them will also be there…but when you forget that, you stand on the pavement and see only them and miss the king.”

Yoga can bring us many many gifts–flexibility, strength, courage, ease. But as you progress on the path of yoga, it is the deeper bliss of discovering your true self that becomes the biggest lure. Is headstand or upward facing wheel right for every body? No, they aren’t. But meditation is–and always, being able to sit, to contain our wild mind and senses long enough to sustain meditation and gain deeper awareness of ourselves, is the real goal of yoga. The rest is just the variety show on the way.