By Lisa Dawn Angerame
The yoga world is abuzz about the recent NY Times article: How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body, by William Broad, published January 5, 2012. It is an excerpt from the book, The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards, which will be published on February 7th.
When I got to New York Yoga last Thursday morning to teach the 8:25 am class, general manager LeighAnn asked me if I had seen the article. I did but had only skimmed it because I could hardly get passed the photograph of three members of cast of the Broadway show “Godspell” who were all in some version of a yoga pose. They all looked kind of silly, in silly outfits, with silly expressions on their faces, and not really in a recognizable pose.
By Saturday, the yoga world was on fire. Links to the article were popping up on the Facebook pages of many of my yoga teacher friends. Finally, I sat down to read it and, honestly, found it difficult to get through. Not because it was talking about injuries and trying to scare me, but because it appeared to be a profile of one yoga teacher and that yoga teacher’s opinion. My jaw dropped at this line, “’the vast majority of people’ should give up yoga altogether.” What?
About the scare tactics, the author cites several extreme examples of people getting injured at yoga like, for example, a woman having a stroke while doing the upward bow pose (urdhva dhanurasana.) This sounds pretty bad, but so does skiing into a tree or crashing a bike into a ditch. The author also cites “statistically significant” trends in the number of people showing up at emergency rooms with yoga-related injuries. The interesting thing to note, as any good statistician knows, that numbers out of context can make a good argument or prove something totally wrong. The author says that ER-related injuries from yoga more than doubled from 2001 to 2002. But what he doesn’t say is what percentage that is of the number of people practicing yoga. So while it seems like a high number, did the percentage double as well?
By Monday, not only was the article the most emailed piece from the Times, but also yoga teachers were reacting. They took to the blogs and starting discussing the article with students before, during, and after class. Mostly everyone has been saying that this article is “wrecking yoga” and that yoga is about taking responsibility for your own practice. People are also lamenting the business of yoga. This may all be true, but let’s not forget why we all practice in the first place: to attain yoga. What is yoga?
Yoga is one of the six orthodox philosophical systems of the ancient Indus civilization that was codified by Sage Patanjali some time around 2500 BC. The entire yoga philosophy is summed up in 196 short statements, the Yoga Sutras, that describe techniques as to how to attain the state of yoga, a state of being when the mind is still and silent by arresting its modifications. This leads to freedom from unhappiness. Using specific, technical terms, Sage Patanjali describes the transcendental experience that is yoga. The rest of the Yoga Sutras are there to give tools and techniques at how to arrive at this state.
This book speaks of the physical postures of asana, the practice that is most widespread today, in a total of three sutras. These sutras are actually referring to the seat of mediation and not downward-facing dog, warrior poses, or any others that are so familiar today. Where did these come from and how do they help us in attaining a state of freedom and happiness?
The asana portion of the yoga practice was codified in three main texts that are believed to haven been written during medieval times: The Hatha Yoga Pradipika (15th century), the Gheranda Samhita (17th century), and the Shiva Samhita (17th century). The Gheranda Samhita, as translated by James Mallinson, says there are “8,400,000 [asanas] of these, 84 are preeminent, of which 32 are useful in the world of mortals” (that’s us!). The Shiva Samhita describes four asanas and the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, as translated by Brian Dana Akers, says that asanas “give steadiness, health and lightness of body.”
But in 1919, Sri Krishnamacharya, a scholar and the father of modern yoga, went to learn from a teacher who lived in a cave in the Himalayas. He was made to memorize a now extant text called the Yoga Karunta which is most likely the basis for all of the physical postures we call yoga asana today. Krishnamacharya is the teacher of the four main teachers responsible for spreading yoga worldwide including Indra Devi, K. Pattabhi Jois (Ashtanga Yoga), BKS Iyengar, and TKV Desikachar (Viniyoga).
Fast-forward 50 years. Now, there thousands of teachers and millions of students practicing yoga. Why? Because it feels good! Moving the body into different positions stimulates our connective tissues as well as the endocrine system, affecting a physical, physiological, and psychological experience. Moving energy, excreting hormones, and working with the thoughts that come up while this is going on, teaches us how to concentrate which in turn helps us silent the rush of thoughts in our minds.
We all come to yoga classes seeking out like-minded people to practice with. We could just as easily practice alone at home. But we set up our mats next to friends and strangers and move together with the same desire. But this is where injuries happen. A group setting can breed competition. Check out his handstand. Look at her crow. We get pulled out of our own experience on the mat and covet what others have. We push ourselves beyond our limits, stop listening to instructions and, when not interested or afraid of the pose that is being taught, we do something completely different.
Pay attention! Most of the time, teachers are teaching from their own experience as a yoga student. This means that each teacher brings something to the mat in a group class. Listen. Test it out. See what you can do with it.
But, the most important thing about practicing yoga is that, just like any other activity, whether it is playing tennis or golf, running, playing piano or violin, being a journalist, designing websites, investing in the stock market, speaking a foreign language, it requires practice and familiarity with the fundamentals of that activity. Therefore, it is the job of the yoga student to become a teacher. That does not mean everybody has to go to a teacher’s training. It means that every student needs to find the teacher within, the teacher who is determined, who is clear about what they are doing, who is organized, who listens, who pays attention to what is going on around and inside them.
Does this mean we will be seeing fewer injuries? Maybe, maybe not. Practice, pay attention, and allow the asana portion of the practice to give you steadiness and lightness in your body. Then work on attaining the stillness between the thoughts and the experience, the state of yoga, pure happiness.