You’ve likely heard about the many benefits of yoga, but a recent New York Times story, has stirred up more than a little controversy in the yoga community.
“How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body,” by science writer William J. Broad, quotes a long-time yoga teacher who “…has come to believe that ‘the vast majority of people’ should give up yoga altogether. It’s simply too likely to cause harm.” He goes on to describe a number of cases where people have been injured doing yoga, including himself.
The research in the article isn’t groundbreaking: doing any form of exercise you could potentially hurt yourself. If you look at the injury rates of other physical activities, the number of injuries sustained from yoga would pale in comparison.
Practicing yoga is just like anything in life: You have to push yourself in order to grow. But you also have to know your limits and when you’re breaking them. If you stick to your comfort zone, you’ll never be able to increase your flexibility. If you push to the point where you’re not only uncomfortable, but in real pain, you’ll likely injure yourself.
The reasons that yoga makes “serious injury all but inevitable,” according to the Times story, range from students’ underlying physical weaknesses to inexperienced teachers pushing too hard to the growing number of inflexible “urbanites who sit in chairs all day” straining to twist themselves into difficult postures.
I’d argue that it’s those desk-bound urbanites that may need yoga the most. People like me, who spend more than eight hours a day sitting plugged into a computer but disconnected from their bodies, can benefit greatly from spending an hour stretching tight muscles and alleviating stress.
Yoga has taught me to be more mindful of how far I can push myself by tuning into my body and quieting my mind. It took me months before I could touch the floor with my palms in forward bend, and more than a year before I finally mastered a headstand. And that was okay with me because yoga isn’t a competition.
As I was in pigeon pose in a recent class, I heard our instructor ask the 60-ish woman next to me if she could help her deepen her pose. Though the woman said yes, she quickly told the teacher when she was pushing her too far.
“That is as deep as my leg will bend — it’s not going any farther today!”
The teacher immediately backed off, encouraging her to keep practicing the pose at home to help open her hips. The article’s point that yoga teachers push students too far, doesn’t address the point that a big benefit of yoga is that it puts you more in touch with your physical limits.
Yoga is called a “practice” for a reason. You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to tackle every pose. It doesn’t matter if you can touch the floor with your palms during your first forward bend or your thousandth, or if you never get there.
We go to the mat to learn to better listen to what our bodies are telling us, and to better hear that quiet inner voice drowned out by the noise of our busy lives. It’s a shame to discourage the majority of people from practicing yoga and missing out on all of the mind-body benefits that going to the mat has to offer.
Photo credit: By Lynne Sladky, AP