I trust that many of you have read or heard about William J. Broad’s “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body,” an article featured in the New York Times at the start of January. This yogi is still buzzing about the exciting debate that Broad has sparked throughout the yoga community.
Broad’s reports of yoga-induced injuries disturb and disappoint me. But they fail to shock me. Rather, his article reminds me that we Americans need to take a more active and discerning role in the way we move our bodies.
Sure, yoga can serve “as a nearly miraculous agent of renewal and healing” for some people, but it is not by any means a panacea for all of us. We cannot blindly rely on the inherent healing and strengthening properties of yoga without exploring what our bodies can handle in a yoga practice.
During a yoga practice, we need to prioritize and obey the signals that our bodies send to us. Yoga instructors, dogmatic yoga philosophies (i.e. Bikram), and other yogis, present us with (sometimes dangerous) challenges that our egos desperately strive to meet. As informed and precautious yogis, we must separate ourselves from the ego, breathe, and listen to our bodies. Slowing and personalizing our yoga practice will significantly help us avoid injury.
For example, since reading this article, I’ve directed more of my attention to how my body feels in poses that I simply assumed I could do and advance because I’ve been practicing for several years. I usually challenge myself to take 3-4 consecutive Wheels rather than taking Bridge. I figured that the intense discomfort and burning sensation in my lower back that subsided hours later demonstrated my serious commitment to taking risks and widening my comfort zone. Broad’s sickening findings force me to contend with the potential harm that I cause my spine and central nervous system. So, in recent classes, I’ve taken Bridge more often to ease the acute pressure that I feel in Wheel. I I’ve focused on my lower spine, waited a few seconds before I take another backbend, and draw my knees into my chest and rock side to side (spinal massage) if I feel overwhelmed. I separated myself from my ego that told me to keep up with the other yogis and that I was a lazy, unmotivated student if I could not take Wheel several times in a row. Instead, I attended to what my body needed and prevented physical damage.
While I advocate for a conscious and critical exploration of the extent to which we should pursue the physical practice of yoga (hatha yoga), I still believe that EVERYONE can benefit from yoga. This type of movement offers us an almost infinite number of ways to take poses in proper alignment. Also, with the help of TRAINED yoga therapists or healers, we can reap significant health benefits.
And of course, regardless of our physical limitations, all of us can pursue the mental study of yoga. As only one of the 8 limbs of yoga, asanas (poses) alone cannot transform our lives and help us heal our suffering in the ways that embracing the other 7 limbs can.
In short, EVERYONE benefits from yoga if they approach this ancient art in an informed and discerning way.
Listen to your body. It has much knowledge.