“Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.”
Pema Chödrön

Yoga can Wreck Much More than Your (Physical) Body


My teacher posted a link to an article titled How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body from the New York Times. Following are some highlights and emphasis forming a subjective extract of my choosing:

“the vast majority of people” should give up yoga altogether. It’s simply too likely to cause harm … Not just students but celebrated teachers too, Black said, injure themselves in droves because most have underlying physical weaknesses or problems that make serious injury all but inevitable … Yoga is for people in good physical condition. Or it can be used therapeutically. It’s controversial to say, but it really shouldn’t be used for a general class …

But the yoga community long remained silent about its potential to inflict blinding pain. Jagannath G. Gune, who helped revive yoga for the modern era, made no allusion to injuries in his journal Yoga Mimansa or his 1931 book “Asanas.” Indra Devi avoided the issue in her 1953 best seller “Forever Young, Forever Healthy,” as did B. K. S. Iyengar in his seminal “Light on Yoga,” published in 1965. Reassurances about yoga’s safety also make regular appearances in the how-to books of such yogis as Swami Sivananda, K. Pattabhi Jois and Bikram Choudhury.

… a growing body of medical evidence supports Black’s contention that, for many people, a number of commonly taught yoga poses are inherently risky … Russell found that brain injuries arose not only from direct trauma to the head but also from quick movements or excessive extensions of the neck, such as occur in whiplash — or certain yoga poses … Hyperflexion of the neck was encouraged by experienced practitioners. Iyengar emphasized that in cobra pose, the head should arch “as far back as possible” and insisted that in the shoulder stand, in which the chin is tucked deep in the chest, the trunk and head forming a right angle, “the body should be in one straight line, perpendicular to the floor.”

a 25-year-old man was rushed to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, in Chicago, complaining of blurred vision, difficulty swallowing and controlling the left side of his body … The patient had been in excellent health, practicing yoga every morning for a year and a half. His routine included spinal twists in which he rotated his head far to the left and far to the right. Then he would do a shoulder stand with his neck “maximally flexed against the bare floor,” just as Iyengar had instructed, remaining in the inversion for about five minutes. A series of bruises ran down the man’s lower neck, which, the team wrote in The Archives of Neurology, “resulted from repeated contact with the hard floor surface on which he did yoga exercises.” These were a sign of neck trauma …

These cases may seem exceedingly rare, but surveys by the Consumer Product Safety Commission showed that the number of emergency-room admissions related to yoga, after years of slow increases, was rising quickly. They went from 13 in 2000 to 20 in 2001. Then they more than doubled to 46 in 2002. These surveys rely on sampling rather than exhaustive reporting — they reveal trends rather than totals — but the spike was nonetheless statistically significant. Only a fraction of the injured visit hospital emergency rooms. Many of those suffering from less serious yoga injuries go to family doctors, chiropractors and various kinds of therapists.

Around this time, stories of yoga-induced injuries began to appear in the media. The Times reported that health professionals found that the penetrating heat of Bikram yoga, for example, could raise the risk of overstretching, muscle damage and torn cartilage. One specialist noted that ligaments — the tough bands of fiber that connect bones or cartilage at a joint — failed to regain their shape once stretched out, raising the risk of strains, sprains and dislocations …

… modifications are not always the solution. Timothy McCall, a physician who is the medical editor of Yoga Journal, called the headstand too dangerous for general yoga classes

Almost a year after I first met Glenn Black at his master class in Manhattan, I received an e-mail from him telling me that he had undergone spinal surgery. “It was a success,” he wrote. “Recovery is slow and painful. Call if you like.” …

Black is one of the most careful yoga practitioners I know. When I first spoke to him, he said he had never injured himself doing yoga or, as far as he knew, been responsible for harming any of his students. I asked him if his recent injury could have been congenital or related to aging. No, he said. It was yoga. “You have to get a different perspective to see if what you’re doing is going to eventually be bad for you.”

Yoga can wreck not just your body but almost all asepcts of your human being. Improper practice can wreck not just your limbs, but also your inner workings – your breath, your digestion, etc. Improper practice can wreck your perception, your emotional capacity, your relationships and more.

I believe that the greatest threat posed by malpractice of Yoga is that of spiritual abuse. There is in all of us a sense of seeking spirituality. It may be dormant for a long time but when it does come alive it expresses itself in our actions … it seeks experiences, inspiration, teachings and teachers. It is a precious awakening. When it is abused it goes back into hiding and in it’s place remains injury that fills with skepticism and cynism. Of all the possible Yoga injuries this one, I believe, is the hardest to heal.

Being a Yoga practitioner makes you a mechanic of your own being … what you do inside can be healing, expanding, enlightening and also damaging. Ironically, wrecking your body’s limbs is the safest form of “wreckage” because it can be perceived and addressed. It’s the other forms of wreckage that you may not notice but may accumulate over years of practice into systemic failures.

I am thankful to have been educated in a lineage of teachings that place the unique individual at the heart of a practice with a systemic approach of teaching that CAN be applied both in one-on-one and in group classes. I am proud that the names of my teachers are not listed in this article, though it is a missing part of the story. Yoga can be practiced safely and effectively.

I don’t think most people should give up Yoga altogether – there are many ways to injur yourself in this world, at least Yoga is a “path of injury” that leads into a place of light. People should take responsibility for their practices, they should seek better teachers and if they need to learn from self-inflicted harm then so be it.

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