WASHINGTON, DC, USA, January 7, 2012 (By Sheetal Shah): I’d like to thank the The New York Times for continuing to fuel the relevancy of the Hindu American Foundation’s Take Back Yoga campaign. The latest piece in the Times Magazine, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” by William Broad, just adds more fodder to the campaign. Broad’s latest has naturally upset many in the yoga community – it’s a rather silly, one-sided piece that highlights a handful of people who have suffered injuries due to their yoga practice. The male college student sitting on his heels in vajrasana “for hours a day, chanting for world peace” is hardly the typical profile of an everyday yoga practitioner. It’s also rather curious that Broad had to go back as far as 1973 to find a healthy, 28-year-old woman who suffered a stroke due to backbending. Admittedly, Broad agrees these are seemingly rare, but goes on to note that yoga-related injuries have been increasingly since 2000. Pardon my immediate reaction, but isn’t that obvious? As with any activity that requires physical exertion, it is only logical that as it becomes more popular, the number practitioners will increase, as will the number of injuries. ”How Zumba Can Wreck Your Body,” anyone?
Moreover, Broad draws his conclusions from studies that were individual case reports which, according to the physicans at HAF, carry the stamp of least academic legitimacy and are effectively, tantamount to anecdotes. And while several systematic, randomized studies have demonstrated the health benefits of yoga, no large, matched cohort or epidemiological study has ever revealed the dangers, making me yet again wonder why his piece received so much space in the magazine.
But, putting aside the absurdity of Broad’s very narrow base of examples, there are two larger issues which his piece touches upon. The first is essentially the premise of the Take Back Yoga campaign: Yoga is not a purely physical exercise, and to view it as such is the crux of the problem. Asana is an important component of yoga, one with countless benefits, and in today’s body-image obsessed world, it is THE limb that has opened up the world of yoga to millions. But asana alone is not yoga, and as Glenn Black comments in the piece, “Asana is not a cure-all.” He is absolutely correct, and I commend his usage of the word “asana” instead of “yoga.” Asana is posture. Yoga, on the other hand, is a holistic practice rooted in Hindu philosophy that reaches far beyond the 90 minutes spent on a mat. As we at HAF have continuously said, “Yoga is a combination of both physical and spiritual exercises, entails mastery over the body, mind and emotional self, and transcendence of desire.” The goal of yoga is not physical – it is inner peace and ultimately, the attainment of liberation from worldly suffering, or moksha.
The purpose of asana is to train and discipline the body to be able to sit in meditation for extended periods of time. The mental state in which a person approaches their yoga mat is as important as their physical state. What and how much a person eats and drinks, what she sees and thinks, how one acts in her life outside of the studio – all of these are variables that cannot be ignored in a holistic practice. Even a quick perusal of the famous Yoga Sutras by Sage Patanjali will demonstrate the importance of actions, behavior, and thoughts outside of the yoga studio. Yoga encompasses concepts such as non-violence, truthfulness, cleanliness (both physical and mental), contentment with oneself, and moderation of diet. Attempts, such as Broad’s, to analyze asana and its effects in isolation of a practitioner’s lifestyle cannot be taken as a serious study on yoga. A dishonest and hurtful person may be able to twist, contort, and bend into countless asanas, but that doesn’t make him a yogi – it just makes him flexible.
The second problem, which Broad explicitly covers in his interview with Black, is the surge of yoga teachers who are not qualified to teach and are thus, prone to pushing their students too far, leading to injuries. When I began learning yoga, it was one-on-one with an amazing teacher, Holbrook Newman, who had years of experience and was adamant that I learn the basics before trying anything complicated. She was particular about my alignment in even the most basics of asanas and careful about how she taught me more advanced asanas, like headstand.
While everyone does not have the luxury of having one-on-one sessions to introduce them to yoga, there wonderful alternatives, like the studio I currently frequent, Ashtanga Yoga New York (AYNY) run by Eddie Stern. There, yoga is taught in traditional manner and new students, who receive personalized attention, are taught the basics before they are allowed to learn more. Despite having practiced for a few years, I was out of class (which was like an one-on-one session with Eddie) in less than 30 minutes the first three or four times I went to AYNY. There was no headstand, shoulder stand, nor backbending…and there was no injury.
Contrast that to some of the “Level 1” and “Beginner” classes I have attended over the years at various studios. Students who could barely manage downward dog were attempting headstands and wheel pose in class. In a class of 20 or 30, with only one teacher, that is a recipe for disaster. To compound the issue, in an effort to not exclude anyone (or perhaps make as much money as possible, depending upon the studio), its appears that the majority of yoga classes are “open to all levels” leaving the decision of which asanas to attempt and how far to push the body up to the students. As one of the newer students at AYNY, I know the feeling of practicing next to someone who has been attending class for six, seven, or eight years. It’s incredibly awe-inspiring and intimidating at the same time. It can be hard not to gawk and think to myself, “Yes, I can do that too.” I generally come back to my senses and to my own practice thanks to all the Take Back Yoga efforts I’ve been involved with at HAF. And then there is also Eddie hovering over me saying, “No more. You’re done for the day.” And there’s no arguing with that.