I hope you are enjoying this little bit of Spring weather we are having in the middle of our Winter. I am headed to Florida mid-February for my annual vacation satisfying my need for warmth and sun usually right about now. But, at this rate, I can probably just camp out in Central Park! I have noted my vacation days below. Also, many of us have been discussing the NY Times Magazine article published the beginning of January in print and online. As promised, here is my rebuttal to that article (the following is an excerpt; if you would like to read my full rebuttal, let me know and I will email it to you).
“In Defense of Yoga – A Gentle Yoga Teacher’s Rebuttal to the NY Times Magazine Article” ©
Recently, the New York Times magazine section published a lengthy article entitled “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” by William J. Broad. It garnered much publicity and controversy in the yoga world, amongst teachers as well as students who were incensed by the title, tone and content of the article. There were so many responses sent to the Times that they had to cap the rebuttals after 12,000 were submitted, and there was much dialoguing on Facebook and other internet social media groups. If the author wanted publicity for his book being published by Simon & Schuster next month, he indeed received it.
I do not think it random that from his book entitled “The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards”, he chose a chapter on the risks and not the rewards. After all, fear sells and creates controversy – a great marketing ploy. But even though we can understand the author’s or publisher’s intent to drum up a yoga controversy for book sales, it is unfortunate that the topic of safety in yoga classes was broached in this inflammatory manner. The issue is a real one, and it deserves to be discussed in a scientifically and rationally, not in a fear-mongering way based on anecdotes and random cases.
It is obvious that there are always going to be risks of injuries in any activity that utilizes the body. People even get injured sitting at their desks at work — carpal tunnel syndrome and blackberry thumb are some common examples. Most people take for granted that when they “work out” or participate in any activity whether it be dance, weight lifting, kettle ball classes, skiing, running, boot camp classes, tennis, golf, etc., that there are risks, and they assume those risks. Yet, the NY Times article did not place yoga in context with any other common activity, and given its’ tone, it would lead one to believe that yoga was more dangerous than most other physical activities.
Another problem with the article is that “yoga” was used synonymously and exclusively with only one aspect of yoga – the asana practice or hatha yoga. Yet, “yoga” is much more than that. Western yoga practitioners are usually surprised when they learn that the yoga poses (asanas) are only one part of an “eight-limbed” path delineated in the revered and ancient yogic text, the Yoga Sutras, as the path to yoga or stilling the mind. The other limbs of yoga are: moral and ethical restraints and observances (yamas); inner practices and qualities (niyamas); breath control (pranayama); withdrawal from the desire of our senses (pratyahara); concentration techniques (dharana); meditation (dhyana); and the bliss or superconscious state (Samadhi). Sutra II-29.
Yoga is the continual practice of all these eight limbs. Indeed, asana, or yoga poses, are only mentioned three times in the entire Yoga Sutras. So the NY Times article conflates asana with yoga, and ignores the fact that asana poses are just one part of yoga. If practiced without attention to the other limbs this physical aspect of yoga is actually not yoga. As yogi Nischala Devi explains: ” Yoga is very popular, what is popular is not yoga.”
As mentioned in the article, I too have observed “many schools of yoga [that] are just about pushing people.” I have seen classes in which many students were straining in poses, out of alignment, holding their breath, and not strong enough to be doing many of the poses given without the option of modifications. The yama and niyamas, mentioned above, tell us to practice “ahimsa”, or non-harming, and “samtosa”, or contentment, while we do our yoga. This means that we must accept how our bodies are feeling in each class, and recognize and respect our unique qualities without pushing beyond any individual limitations. Without this “svadhyaya” or self-observation, we may be stretching, but we are not practicing yoga. If we are practicing yoga with attention to these important principles, it is unlikely we would “wreck” our bodies.
Yet another problem with the Times article, is that it generally assumes that everyone is teaching and practicing rigorous, athletic forms of yoga, in which headstands, shoulder stands and extreme twists are routinely taught. Yet, to lump all asana practice into a one-size fits all category is not truth-full, and is misleading. It does a disservice to all the teachers who teach Gentle Yoga and Meditative Yoga, and who have safely worked with students comprising many different populations. I, and many others, teach gentle or chair yoga to seniors, to the blind or visually impaired, to cancer patients and survivors, as well as to the general public. Although (or because) we are not practicing the yoga discussed in the article, our students find themselves more at peace, more energized yet calm, stronger and with more mobility of body – and not suffering the types of injuries discussed in the Times article.
I hope that I can help to allay students’ and teachers’ fears about yoga, given the scary title of the Times article, and serve to show how true yoga is more inclusive and comprehensive than what was described in the Times. Asana practice without the underlying principles of the Sutras is not yoga, and not all forms of asana practice are like the type described in the Times. Yoga is much, much more than what the Times would lead us to believe, and it can be a wonderful healing practice in which we may find peace, breath awareness, stress-reduction, increased mobility and strength, ethics, and spirituality.
Excerpted from a lengthier article: “In Defense of Yoga – A Gentle Yoga Teacher’s Rebuttal to the NY Times Magazine Article” © by Melissa “Mati” Elstein, RYT
For the full article, please send requests to firstname.lastname@example.org