Tuesday, January 10, 2012

yoga: healthy or hurtful?

My yoga instructor sent me this recent New York Times article on "how yoga can wreck your body."

As in all other things -- even something as wholesome-sounding as yoga -- can be dangerous when taken to the extreme and when focus, awareness, and proper preparation are lacking.

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I love advanced poses. Watching others do them, I mean. To be quite honest, I'm not one to include those beautiful acrobatic asanas in my practice. Part of it has to do with my somewhat paranoid tendencies -- having lived by myself for years (before marriage), far away from my home country and my family, I sometimes had irrational thoughts about injuring myself during a home yoga practice, getting knocked unconscious and laying there undiscovered until days later. (I know... like I said, paranoid and irrational. But hey... it can happen, right? Knock on wood. Knock on wood with me, please.)

So I stuck with "safer" poses. Poses in which the chances of me getting knocked unconscious, or slamming my face onto the floor and breaking my front teeth (ok, so that's a bit graphic) are quite slim. It's a little ironic coming from someone who was a gymnast in her childhood. I guess I've turned into an overly cautious adult, but sun salutations, standing poses, seated poses, supine poses, gentle inversions have been my asanas of choice; practicing poses like headstand only occasionally - or unless with an experienced yoga instructor. So despite practicing yoga for about 10 years now, I can't do those jaw-dropping, gravity-defying advanced poses.

And you know what? That is ok. Throughout my yoga journey I've come to the realization that the ability to do jaw-dropping poses does not make me a "better" yoga practitioner. Don't get me wrong - I have utmost respect for people with the strength and balance to be able to do advanced poses. Their focus and discipline are inspiring, and their execution of these poses is like art in motion. It just leaves me mesmerized.

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I once heard someone say, "advanced poses are overrated." That was coming from a yoga practitioner who CAN do advanced poses. I chuckled at that, remembering my exhilaration when I first learned to hold an arm balance. I remember feeling a sense of both centeredness and expansion, in being able to focus my energy toward a pose and accomplish something I once thought I couldn't.

But in a recent yoga class, our instructor had us work on only 3 "simple" poses, breaking each one down all the way to the anatomy and physiology of the pose and the pelvic alignment that goes into the pose. (Our instructor is BIG on pelvic alignment - her classes have been extremely eye-opening and informative). Yes, we "only" worked on 3 very-basic looking poses, but these turned out to be incredibly complex. I've never worked this hard on "just" 3 poses in a long time. I felt those same feelings of centeredness and expansion at the same time. And believe me, I felt it in my muscles the next day. Safety is also a huge theme in her class - always focusing on breaking down the asanas to the most basic components, and preparing the body for each. Because it's not just the advanced acrobatics that can have potential dangers - even a seemingly "simple" pose, like a seated twist, can be unsafe if not done correctly.

The thought of potential yoga injuries (not just in myself, but in others) has been my major deterrent to going back to teaching yoga. I haven't kept up with my study of anatomy for a while, and I worry about not having enough knowledge in this area. Sure, I can probably still sequence a class fairly well. I still know some of the basic contraindications of poses. But when it comes to students who have pre-existing injuries or medical concerns, I am concerned that I may not have the anatomy knowledge to teach them safely. Not a fault of my teacher training by any means; I just haven't kept up with my self-study. I do need to revisit my yoga anatomy book (just found out there is a 2nd edition!). Here is another great book on the use of props in yoga (don't be misled by the title!). Props are extremely helpful for increasing safety, promoting proper alignment, and getting to the point of a healthy, delicious stretch.

Here is another interesting article on the topic of the possible safety issues in yoga.

And here is an interesting take on facing your fears in advanced poses.

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Do you find these articles on the "dangers" of yoga concerning? What are your thoughts on advanced poses? Do you like them? Do you face your fears or stick to your safety zone?

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Jen said...

Great post, Mia ... so many interesting thoughts to ponder. I agree that teachers do need to continue anatomy studies on their own (but I am guilty for not being as knowledgeable as I need to be) because there's so much to know about the body beyond initial teacher trainings. My general guideline (for me and for students) is to not do anything that causes pain or discomfort ... but that requires self-awareness and courage to NOT do what everyone else in class is doing (and maybe to explain to a teacher you're not familiar with or who isn't knowledgeable about anatomy or injuries why you're choosing not to do a pose or modifying the pose in a certain way), etc. That's hard for an "advanced" practitioner, let alone a beginner. And, sometimes you don't know what's going to be painful or harmful until you're right there in it.

I think advanced poses differ for each person. My advanced poses are ardha chandrasana and bakasana. Just as you described in your post, these poses are ones that required time, patience and strength to practice. I'm filled with joy and awe and gratitude whenever I practice them, and they do still challenge me; it's not like I've perfected them, even years later.

I do appreciate watching yogis practice poses that require incredible (to me) strength and flexibility. Do you remember watching the Ashtanga video during our teacher training? The jump backs into chaturanga were so gorgeous and effortless! I appreciate, but I don't envy ... I strive to build strength and flexibility into my practice, but I realize that I will look very different from others.

Mia said...

Hi Jen! I love what you said about advanced poses differing from person to person - that's exactly it! Because every person's anatomy is different. My biggest a-ha about anatomy in relation to yoga was Paul Grilley's videos on proportion, tension, and compression. I still try to think of those 3 things whenever I practice. Why do we even label asanas as "advanced"? I do understand the need to classify classes though so that prospective students will know what's right for them. But sometimes I wonder if such terms or labels feed into the idea of whether you're "good" or "advanced" or not.

It makes me recall when someone (whom I had just met) asked me, "are you an advanced yogi?" I was so thrown off by that question and didn't know how to answer for a second - but I think I just ended up saying, "nope, I'm learning all the time!"And interestingly, his follow-up question was, "can you do an arm balance?"

I guess what I worry about too is those really large classes - I can't see myself teaching one, when I go back to teaching. I get concerned about not being able to meet everyone's needs or really pay close attention to everyone individually, enough to be sure that each person is safe. Not that I think large classes are wrong - there can be such great energy in a large class (did you go to Sharon Gannon's when she was in Cincy? It was PACKED!). Of course, the verbal cues on safety should always be there regardless of how small or large the class is - I'm just not sure how confident I'll be teaching the latter.

I really like the last line of the NY Times article: "if you do [asana] with ego or obsession, you’ll end up causing problems." I only wish the benefits of yoga - practiced safely - were equally discussed. But then, that wasn't what the title of the article was referring to.

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