Practicing Safe Yoga

The recent yoga controversy over New York Times Science writer William Broad's 5-page article How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body rocked the yoga and holistic health communities. Long time yoga teacher Glenn Black is quoted in the article saying "the vast majority of people" should just give up yoga altogether, based on his belief and experience that yoga can inflict damage on your body. The article and subsequent commentaries quote various medical experts and publications confirming a host of yoga-related injuries.

20 million Americans are estimated to practice "yoga," up from just 4 million in 2001. That's a huge growth in numbers, but exactly what is everyone practicing? Yoga originated in India as an 8-limbed spiritual practice and path to divine realization. The Americanized version of yoga focuses almost exclusively on the third limb of this path called "asanas" or physical postures.

In the 8-limbed yogic tradition, asanas help you learn to master your body to reach a point of stillness and meditation. Due to the tremendous health benefits that can be gained through the twisting, massaging and stretching of the body and its internal organs and all its energetic pathways during asanas, Western practitioners of yoga have plucked this practice from the 8-limbed path to create a highly commercialized and competitive $5 billion dollar industry removed from its spiritual context.

With its focus mainly on sculpting sleek bodies, maintaining vibrant health and polishing poses to perfection in a competitive push with self or others, Western yoga offers all the designer accessories, clothing, props, trends and yoga styles to satisfy every niche of the market. However, asanas practiced without awareness of the first two limbs on the path — non-violence and moderation — most certainly do have the potential for leading to self-injury.

A well-experienced yoga teacher brings the greater awareness of yoga to his or her students and steers students away from the potential for self-injury by not fostering competition in class or goading students to "do better" or "stretch further" than the body is willing to allow. He or she offers modifications of easier options for each pose and individualized pose corrections to guide students in finding their optimal level of exertion at each moment. Choose a yoga class based on the quality of the teacher first, and location, schedule and cost second. Search until you find a teacher you feel confident about and a class you can enjoy. 

Not that yoga is easy. My first year of practice was quite the challenge. I came close to calling it quits many times amidst the frustrating grunts and groans of getting into position, until I came to realize that yoga was not about conquering poses and getting it right, but letting go and settling in. When practiced with the full awareness of non-violence and non-competitiveness, yoga is as safe and essential to good health as daily grooming. It is Western commercialization that has provided less healthy "fast food" versions of yoga to us — pleasingly packaged, convenient schedules, tasty additives, but missing many of the essential ingredients necessary to provide a whole yoga diet.

As a 16-year student of yoga, I find that yoga is the second most important remedy in my medicine chest. First is my belief that my body is my friend and knows how to keep itself well when I pay attention to its needs; my brain affirms this by continually sending "healthy" cues to my body to keep it on track. Yoga not only gives my body the regular physical maintenance it needs to stay healthy, but also keeps me in close communication to know what my body is asking for. If anything, it's no yoga that's more likely to cause the wreckage.

Carol Bedrosian is publisher of Spirit of Change holistic magazine. Email