I’m all for exposing the risks of popular health, diet and fitness trends. I’m always skeptical of any regimen that is touted as safe and/or good for everyone, and like to see such claims debunked with objective evidence. But sometimes even this cynic reaches my limit of “BEWARE!” stories.
Like this week, when there were several headlines about the injuries yoga can cause.
Several of the stories focused on the serious hip problems that can result when people push themselves too hard in their yoga practice. (Oh gentle yoga, you are crueller than you appear.) Interestingly, the point was made that it’s often the unusually flexible and more experienced practitioners who run into trouble. They’re so pliable that they can easily get deep into postures without necessarily having the muscle strength or proper alignment to stay there safely. So they end up damaging their bodies. Some even need surgery.
I don’t doubt any of that. I’ve practiced yoga for many years and have experienced its power to heal, strengthen, soothe, frustrate, discourage and, yes, injure. But nothing’s perfect, right?
(As a side note, I’ve found the same ups and downs with meditation. A lot of it depends on your attitude, and we often turn to these practices when we’re in a vulnerable or negative state already. Is it any wonder tuning in to yourself might be particularly painful at a juncture when you’re in a lot of pain?)
At a certain point, you’ve got to recognize that everything you do has the potential to harm you. Including doing nothing. So paying too much attention to the dangers of over-doing yoga (or anything else) can be counterproductive.
In my experience with yoga, the difference between a restorative practice and a destructive one doesn’t depend as much on what I do with my body in class as with why I’m there. Is it a penance for the chocolate chips I had for dinner the night before, or a genuine attempt to give my ego the silent treatment and just focus on trying? The former’s a lot more likely to result in over-extending and injury than the latter.
“Pay attention to the breath,” yoga teachers often say. Which sounds so simple, but can be incredibly complicated when you’re wrestling with questions of whether vegetarian poutine counts as a healthy post-yoga dinner; how to cover the chequing account so the mortgage payment clears; and whether the pants you’re wearing might be part of the bad Lululemon batch that ended up inappropriately sheer.
The real good that yoga offers to do is training you to turn down the volume of those questions. To let them ebb and flow, as they will anyway, and become aware of the you that’s left when they subside.
I agree that you can hurt your body doing yoga. But unfortunately, that damage pales in comparison to the damage that you can do to both your mind and body if you don’t do yoga — or some other activity that allows you to “connect” or “tune in” to the quiet beneath the chaos. In my estimation, the opportunity to learn a means of navigating difficulties with poise and calm — difficult poses, difficult situations, difficult times of life — is worth the small risk of damage to hips or ligaments or joints.
Not that it’s an either/or, of course. Good yoga teachers help you to both connect to your own body and to protect yourself from physical injury. And the more connected you are to your body, the less likely you are to injure it.
Still, there will always be a possibility of damage. The question is what to do about it. Almost two years ago, the New York Times Magazine published an article headlined “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.” It was an adaptation of William J. Broad’s then upcoming book The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards. The piece focused on Glenn Black, an extremely experienced yoga teacher who had come to the conclusion that the vast majority of people shouldn’t be doing yoga at all because of the risk of harm.
Black reported seeing yoga practitioners tearing achilles tendons and requiring hip replacement surgery. At the end of the article we learned that Black himself had had to have spinal surgery; a result, he thought, of “four decades of extreme backbends and twists.” In other words, a result of yoga.
Obviously tales like Black’s are discouraging. And they should be. We ought not to knowingly repeat patterns that will cause pain and suffering. The problem is that such tales, broadly told, are discouraging in the wrong way. Instead of preventing students from approaching yoga as a competitive sport — from doing yoga “with ego or obsession” as Black puts it — they sour people on yoga completely, dissuading them from trying it at all. As a student of yoga who has gained far more than I’ve lost from the discipline, I find this frustrating.
Yes, yoga pursued without great care, attention and — dare I say it — kindness can break you down more than it builds you up. In many instances, it does both at the same time. I know a lot of people who regularly enjoy both strained muscles and improved muscle tone, pulled hamstrings and greater range of motion, thanks to their yoga practice. But it’s not like the same can’t be said of running or swimming or even chiropractic adjustment or massage. In most cases, attempts to do right by your body will result in some misfires, especially if you stray from moderation. You’ll probably find the same is true for attempts to better your spirit and mind.
As someone who has perfectionist tendencies, I always have to remind myself that the important part of my yoga practice is not achieving the desired pose, it’s trying to achieve it; while being exceptionally respectful of, and brutally honest about, my limitations at the same time. Even then, I still give in to ego and push further than I should, just not as often as I used to. If I can get credit and benefits from the effort, I can give up a little of my investment in the actual nabbing of the goal. That’s what yoga has taught me.
I think everyone should have a chance to learn that lesson. It’s possible no matter what kind of shape you’re in. Personally, I’m convinced it’s possible through yoga without suffering the horrible physical effects about which we’re hearing more and more.
But if there’s nothing I can say to convince you to try yoga, then at least do this: Experiment to find your own way of stretching your body and soul. In short, don’t let the spectre of potential ill effects keep you inert and brittle. Because everything can hurt you. We humans just have to weigh the options. And then we have to choose the path that offers the best chance of suppleness and grace at a level of risk we can stand.
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