Currently, there’s a heated discussion in the yoga world as to whether yoga really can wreck your body, following the publication of an article in the New York Times. Personally, I agree with the writer of the article, based on painful experience. But despite that, I still practice yoga, mostly as self-practice because I agree with Glen Black that a yoga practice needs to be something that suits an individual’s body, not something that comes in one-size-fits-all packages. Yoga has many health benefits, but as a fitness fad, yoga can only be injurious and many denialists have rubbished suggestions that yoga causes injury but that’s probably because they have not felt that kind of pain themselves.
The picture is further complicated by a proliferation of teachers who have no real anatomical knowledge or understanding of the effects of exercise on the body but who hope to insulate themselves from blame by accusing students of being too attached to their egos – whatever that’s supposed to mean.
All the counterarguments about the physical risks inherent in any sport miss the point: yoga is not gymnastics, nor is it adequate training for gymnastics. In general, many of the people who are capable of extreme poses were athletes before they took up yoga. To hold up extreme examples of what the human body is capable of as an ideal to work towards in a yoga practice is not conducive to a pain-free body, as many dancers and gymnasts will agree.
Some people are capable of achieving a high level of strength and flexibility with vinyasa yoga, which is not an ideal conditioning tool – no repetitive movement is – but what does that mean to a significant proportion of people who are in great pain, because they were told that yoga is harmless and that any pain they were feeling was their body ‘opening’ or ‘healing’? Or worse, that it’s their own fault because they pushed too far: who taught them to try this in the first place?
This blog has been around for about 8 months and is hitting over 1000 visits a month without much promotion. According to the analytics, the readers are mostly people Google-searching injury terms, looking for answers to the pain they feel. The most read topic on this site is ‘yoga butt‘, which is not exactly an injury, but a condition of the hips from practising a lot of yoga.
Much yoga pain has no directly diagnosable cause in the form of structural damage, but is a result of muscle imbalance caused by sequences that are unsuitable to a particular person’s body, or from practising a limited range of asanas repetitively and taught by people who have no understanding of exercise. Neck injuries and strokes, as referred to in the NYT article are not nearly as common side-effects of yoga as lower-back pain and Sacroiliac dysfunction are.
What is suitable for a particular body is usually found through experimentation and experience and listening to the body, not through blind obedience to a system or teacher or endlessly trying different modifications just for the sake of doing a particular asana or sequence.
Any time that students or teachers get too carried away with their own enthusiasm or belief system, something has to give. Usually, that’s the body.