The NY Times Sunday magazine recently featured an article about the dangers of yoga, titled “All Bent out of Shape, the Problem with Yoga”. The author goes into gruesome detail of various injuries sustained by both students and instructors in their intensive practice of yoga. After discussing the article at length with friends and teachers, I’ve decided it’s typical of sensationalist journalism, creating a provocative title and inserting some truths amid the extreme examples that prove the author’s point.
The article, adapted from a book called “The Science of Yoga, The Risks and Rewards”, forgoes discussing rewards to explore the terrifying risks. It reminds me of TV ads for medications. They show you the wonderful benefits of taking a drug to cure or help a specific ailment, but then run through a litany of horrible side effects, finally including the possibility of death.
We know every physical activity has risks of injury caused by pushing too hard or G-d forbid due to an accident. One can sustain severe injuries skiing, running and diving, and in any contact sport, but gentler activities like walking and bicycling may also cause pain. Being inactive is not an option. We need to exercise to keep up our mental and physical health. It’s best to find something enjoyable, so you’ll actually want to “just do it” enough to be healthful. My favorite exercise is walking on the conveniently close Atlantic Beach boardwalk. It makes my day when I take the time to do it. I go when I can but some days are simply too freezing and I really needed a reliable year round activity.
I “discovered” yoga years ago then got really immersed in it and recently completed the rigorous 200 hour teacher’s training course. My experience as a student and teacher is quite different from what was called “typical” in the Times article. I look at yoga as a kind of dance or series of movements with the breath and without the vanity. My yoga practice has no mirrors to make you feel inferior. Injuries can be caused by ego- wanting to attain an unreasonable goal or pushing yourself further to match what someone else is doing before your body is ready.
As a certified yoga teacher, I’ve learned how to do all the basic and some more advanced movements by breaking them down and doing them in stages. I’ve studied related anatomy and how a posture can help contract and release muscles. I was taught correct body alignment and the contraindications and benefits of different poses. I was advised to be compassionate and to listen with full attention to myself and students.
Yoga philosophy includes the concept of ahimsa – non violence, both to oneself and to others. Nonviolence to yourself means developing a deep awareness of your own body. Your body is different from anyone else’s and may differ from itself from day to day, from the morning to the evening. I’ve learned that nobody can tell me how far I should push myself; only I can tell how comfortable or uncomfortable I am in any position. I’m continuing to learn to respect the human body by listening to what it’s saying. I’ve learned there is a wealth of information that includes way more than the postures.
I’m studying the importance of the breath. What’s to learn, we’re all experts since we breathe naturally from the moment we’re born, no? Yes, but somewhere along the line we stop breathing deeply so most of our waking hours our breath is shallow. The breath is a gift from G-d and connects the mind and the body. Focusing on the breath brings your mind here and now and invites you to listen closely to the sensations you’re feeling. I learned a bunch of varied methods, both gentle and active, to control breathing.
I was encouraged by each teacher to find my own “fullest expression of a pose”, to explore my own edge but not go beyond it. I get the same benefit at my edge as you get at yours. Whether in a gentle or beginner’s class, intermediate or advanced, actively scanning your own body to discern between feeling discomfort or pain is crucial in determining if you’re just pushing enough to strengthen and lengthen your muscles or going too far. If you can’t breathe in a pose you’ve gone too far!
Although I love yoga, there are postures I dislike. They may be exactly the ones I need to be doing but are difficult or boring, like core strengtheners; and I try to get through them. Others, like crow, wheel or headstand are challenging and risky, and have prerequisites of core and upper body strength. I may not be ready for those and only do them with coaching and assistance or else back off. I’ve learned that the challenge is about finding which moves are right for me rather than about showing off.
As in any sport, one needs appropriate equipment to practice yoga. Luckily I don’t need much! A quiet, warm, safe space, indoors or out, loose-fitting clothes, a mat, towel or carpeting, a pillow or blanket for support and some drinking water is all! Music, candles, straps, bolsters are nice extra touches, but unnecessary.
Yoga is about going within, finding the breath and flowing with it. Moving quickly through a series of postures makes me sweat. Moving slowly allows me to fully and consciously engage my muscles. Twisting poses help release toxins from my body, standing or sitting with a tall spine makes me feel taller and lighter. Forward bends bring a healing calmness to my nervous system. Back bends open up the chest and heart allowing me to breathe easily and making me feel more generous and loving. Balancing poses force me to focus. The resting pose helps me quiet my body and mind. These are all wonderful benefits, even if I feel them only for an hour before returning to the outside world. Feeling good in an ideal situation like the yoga studio helps strengthen my resolve to try to keep that same sensation under more difficult circumstances!
After reading the article, I got nervous. Am I doing the right thing by practicing yoga? Am I going to be a capable teacher? Will I give the right insights and advice? I have to trust my teachers, training and myself and answer yes. I was taught to ask about previous injuries and how a student is feeling. I was instructed that it’s ok to say “I don’t know”, “I’ll look it up”, “consult your physician”, “don’t do it”, “let up on that pose” or to offer an alternative. I can tell a student how I feel holding a pose, but not how he feels. I offer a meditative centering before beginning the movements and a delicious guided relaxation after the exercises. I try to make a student feel good about herself during the class but hopefully it has a more lasting effect.
There are many wonderful exercises and activities, each different in its approach. Whether super hot or cold, solo and meditative or social and group-oriented, slow and gentle or fast and extreme, take responsibility for yourself and be your own best advocate! Above all, your exercise regimen should make you happy!
Miriam Bradman Abrahams is Cuban born, Brooklyn bred and lives in Woodmere. She organizes author events for Hadassah, reviews books for Jewish Book World and is very slowly writing her father’s immigration story. She is teaching yoga at Peaceful Presence Yoga Studio. firstname.lastname@example.org