The New York Times recently published an editorial called, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.” It has stirred up some backlash from yogis and yoginis from around the globe. While it is an interesting report on the history of yoga injuries, the article should have a subtitle, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body: the Dangers of Ego and Asana.” It serves as a reminder, to all yogis and yoginis, to practice mindfulness while doing asana practice and to drop egos and competitive attitude. It begins and ends with yoga instructor Glenn Black.
Glenn Black spoke of well-known yoga teachers doing such basic poses as downward-facing dog, in which the body forms an inverted V, so strenuously that they tore Achilles tendons. “It’s ego,” he said. “The whole point of yoga is to get rid of ego.”
This is exactly correct. Presence of mind is crucial when doing asana practice. It is similar to being “in the zone” if you are into sports. Feeling connected to your environment and your body, in its most pure form, this state of mind is ego-less and free on conscious thought, fully engaged in the present moment. Yoga should be practiced with the same presence of mind. Also, breath and ease of movement are of great importance. Yoga should never be pushed. Again, don’t push through asana practice. It is a passive exercise. Listen to your body. Feel it. You should be totally relaxed with the only muscles engaged being essential to the asana. Scan your body for unnecessary tension and release it. It is all done with pranayama.
But the yoga community long remained silent about its potential to inflict blinding pain. Jagannath G. Gune, who helped revive yoga for the modern era, made no allusion to injuries in his journal Yoga Mimansa or his 1931 book “Asanas.” Indra Devi avoided the issue in her 1953 best seller “Forever Young, Forever Healthy,” as did B. K. S. Iyengar in his seminal “Light on Yoga,” published in 1965.
Actually, Iyengar constantly reminds us of the potential of all asanas, bandhas, and pranayama being able to cause just as much harm as good if done improperly. He also stresses that yoga should be practiced with the supervision of a guru. A luxury few of us have.
A critical issue that often goes overlooked in yoga, is the environment in which one practices. Mirrors in yoga studios are great for admiring yourself and others, if you want to massage (or hurt) ego and encourage competitiveness. They cause problems with concentration and focus. Maybe you wanna do better than that show-off. Stretch further, balance longer. Or you want to talk to her after class. Nonsense. Yoga is an inward practice. Meditation and pranayama will help you clear your head of it. The article closes with Black again. Only this time a year after spinal surgery,
which had its origins in four decades of extreme backbends and twists. He had developed spinal stenosis — a serious condition in which the openings between vertebrae begin to narrow, compressing spinal nerves and causing excruciating pain…his feelings on the subject deepened by his recent operation. But his warnings seemed to fall on deaf ears. “I was a little more emphatic than usual,” he recalled. “My message was that ‘Asana is not a panacea or a cure-all. In fact, if you do it with ego or obsession, you’ll end up causing problems.’ A lot of people don’t like to hear that.
Drop the ego. Clear your mind. Breathe. Close your eyes and feel the asana. Don’t push. Feel. Your intuition will work for you. The non-conscious brain is wired to process multiple inputs and thoughts simultaneously, while the conscious brain is made to focus on one thing at a time. More on that here. With a present mind, the asana will happen naturally and safely.
Yoga instructor, Alanna Kaivalya, of New York City, humorously addresses the editorial, somewhat annoyed by it, in her post, “Can Yoga Wreck Your Body? Absolutely! It Can Also Save Your Life” She makes a good point that yoga injuries can happen just like they can in any other kind of physical activity or sport. She goes on to stress the importance of practicing with an experienced instructor.
There are twenty million people practicing yoga in the USA. Studios and schools are cranking out instructors in a cookie cutter fashion. Seek out experienced instructors and broaden your own knowledge base. Educate yourself. Yoga is a philosophy. Read “Light on Yoga,” by Iyengar. And most importantly, no ego and asana.