By Sue Shekut, Owner, Working Well Massage, Licensed Massage Therapist, Certified Wellness Coach, ACSM Personal Trainer
This last week, the web has been a buzz about an article in new York Times Magazine about “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.” The article is well worth the read. In it, the author, William J. Broad, explores some of the recent news about serious injuries than can occur from doing yoga.
As a long-time yoga practitioner and as a person that has been injured doing yoga, I found this article welcome and extremely helpful. I admit, part of my own ego is stroked when I read others finally voicing the same “radical” opinion I’ve had for years, namely that yoga, like all exercises, is not 100% benign. Yoga can hurt you. When doing yoga, you really need to be mindful of your own body and not blindly following directions of your teacher or others.
I first tried yoga in grade school in grade school when my art teacher gave a series of extra curricular classes and told us she used yoga to help her stretch on breaks during long car rides. Years later I turned back to yoga as an adult to help combat my muscular tension from sitting at a computer all day. It was amazing–I felt better, stronger and, since I was already flexible, doing yoga only increased my flexibility. Which was great…at first.
When I came to Chicago about 20 years ago, I was taking advanced Iyengar classes (BKS Iyengar is a yoga guru of sorts, teaching in India for years and with a book out used by many Chicago yogis, Light on Yoga). Many of the classes I took where taught by Iyengar devotees, who tried to not only emulate Iyengar’s structural approach, but also his militant and almost fanatical demeanor. This teacher said that, according to Iyengar, “The pose is more important than the person.” I don’t know if Iyengar actually said that, but since this teacher did, I was not surprised when I soon got injured in his class. Along the way I met other experienced yoga students that told me to be careful and not overdo it as they had also experienced injuries doing yoga. Yoga, like all forms of exercise is not without some risk.
The Expert About Your Body is You
One of the biggest lessons I learned from my yoga teachers me was not so much how to do each pose perfectly. Instead, after experiencing a few injuries, I learned that I know my body better than any teacher, personal trainer or guru. And if something hurts, no matter what the teacher says, I won’t do it. In fact, I am rather picky about which yoga teachers I will take classes with. I let them know at the start of class that I do not want them to touch me or “adjust me,” a common practice in yoga classes I have taken. Adjustments are meant to be settle touches to a limb or your back to show you how to get in better posture and alignment. But many teachers I’ve taken classes with tend to push too much or too aggressively. It becomes an ego thing. “How far can I push my students?” And for students it can become, “how flexible can I be” or “I must work very hard even if it hurts just to be a good student and do it “right.” It’s yoga, not Mathelethes!
Know Your Experience Level and Don’t Over Do It
Yoga is supposed to be relaxing and allow you to really focus on your body, your breathe and connect with your body, not contort or injure your body (although injury does make you connect with your body pretty quickly!). When I do yoga now or recommend yoga to my clients, I show basic standing poses, some side bends and simple forward bends. AND to make sure they have a doctors clearance to do even those poses. I don’t advocate shoulder stand or headstands or even back bends for beginners. For some, these posts may be OK. But they are fairly advanced and, as the New York Times article shows, these poses can cause SERIOUS damage and injury, not just to your spine but to your brain. Who wants a stoke?
Yoga is Not a Rapid Fix–It’s Meant to be a Lifelong Practice
Another problem with yoga is the Western approach to it. We want to get rapid results, so we use maximal effort, as though yoga is a hammer and our body is the nail. Fitness isn’t about cramming in maximal effort into a short period of time to check that exercise off out list of goals. Fitness is an overall body balance of cardio, strength and flexibility. We can improve our cardiovascular fitness, we can improve our strength, we can improve our flexibility. But we can’t get the body we want by trying really hard. Our natural frames and muscles are made the way they are made. A man’s hips will not open as much as a woman’s because he is not made to birth babies. When men say they are not flexible, I say of course not! Stretching and yoga can help improve your flexibility, but you don’t need to be able to turn your body into a pretzel. Yoga can help increase flexibility but not beyond what is natural for your body type, frame and gender. It’s about improvement and feeling better, not about getting a gold star for most flexible!
Yoga is Meditative, A Way to Calm and Focus Your Mind
If you practice yoga, approach it as a time to relax and unwind. Treat each class as thigh you have never done yoga before (beginner’s mind). Really watch your teacher and tell him or her if you are not comfortable doing a particular pose. Modifications may be suggested or you may need to sit that pose out. That’s perfectly OK! Enjoy the rest between poses and be happy you are spending a few minutes away from your phone, email and workplace!
Practice yoga gently, not while hyped up on caffeine and adrenaline. A yoga session is meant to CALM your nervous system–it’s not Grand Theft Auto on Xbox. Some of my clients and many people I’ve spoken to don’t like yoga precisely for this reason–they can’t relax enough to benefit from gentle yoga because it makes them nervous to be that calm and focus on their breath and bodies. They need constant stimulation and the idea of “just laying around” or breathing actually stresses them out. But a really good yoga class, in my experience, is both gentle on your body (not easy or lame–yoga is a workout!) and so mentally active that you don’t have time to be bored. By mentally active I mean that during a good yoga class, teachers I’ve had are constantly calling your attention to an area of your body and having you focus on that. For example, in downward dog, a teacher may tell you to really open your fingers wide, put your pressure on the palm or heel of your hand, move your shoulders away from your head, attempt to pull your ankles away from your body towards the wall (not trying to put your heels on the floor though). Along with other directions. To avoid boredom and get a good yoga practice in, focus on these instructions, try to follow them and pay attention to your body. How does each movement feel? Are you breathing or holding your breath? All these details serve to not only make your yoga practice more physically comfortable, and give your body a good workout, but they also serve to give your active mind something to focus on beyond the next task on your do list.
Lastly, I don’t think that yoga is evil or that you should not do yoga. But when doing yoga, use your brain! Make sure the spots are comfortable for you–not easy, just not damaging your body!) Then, you can relax and enjoy the positive benefits of yoga…without causing damage to your body or your mind!
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