The New York Times Magazine has an article today titled in typically provocative style, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.” It’s really long, extremely anecdotal (recounting individual cases dating back to the early 1970s), and, as usual, heavily based in the writer’s individual experience. (And in one of those bizarre editorial moves that indicate desperation for zaz on the webpage, seems to be illustrated by the zany antics of the cast of Godspell.)
Anybody who reads this blog has no doubt been injured practicing. I’ll let you judge the essay’s purpose yourself, but it comes down to this:
A growing body of medical evidence supports [yoga teacher Glenn] Black’s contention that, for many people, a number of commonly taught yoga poses are inherently risky.
No kidding? I did not know that.
When I injured my knee last year, a colleague at work asked me how I did it. “I was doing a crazy yoga pose (kapotasana, actually, but “crazy” for short). “I’ve had the same surgery,” he said, “I was chasing my daughter’s pet rabbit in the back yard.”
When I explained what I do to my friend and physical therapist, Tom Hendrickx, he said, “You don’t do yoga. You’re an amateur athlete.”
We don’t blink when someone says “I broke my leg skiing” or “I strained a hammie kicking a soccer ball around.” Why is it the media seem so shocked when a yogi pushes her body past its limits and, surprise, suffers an injury? When I asked Tom if he thought I should quit Ashtanga, he said, “I think you should do what you love. Just don’t be stupid.”
Exactly. All of William Broad’s stories in the article are studies in stupidity. My own is no exception. It wasn’t kapotasana that tore my meniscus. It was my ego. Broad seems to blame a “naïve” belief “that yoga was a source only of healing and never harm.” Yoga, like all powerfully transformative philosophies, has an inherent paradox that each practitioner/student must work out: It’s self-interest that gets you to it, but the first lesson is the emptiness of self-interest. The instant your attention flags, your ego appears, and injury is inevitable. Simple as that. And as complicated as that.
This is one of those posts done from atop my high horse.
Of course, my high horse in this area is pretty darn short — but in this rare instance, that’s precisely what (I think) gives me the authority to wax all high and mighty.
I see a lot of Ashtangis (and there’s another problem, I realize, I shouldn’t see anybody during practice) who motor their way through many of the standing poses in First. There’s a casualness to these poses or, even, a seeming rush to get on to … something. Later poses, I guess. Yes, I’m probably looking at you, Second Series practitioners.
What I figure they’re missing is all the benefits from First.
Now, I’ll take a quick step back and openly admit that my practice is far from perfect — it may be farther from perfect than any of the people I’m critiquing. But the result of that is this: I get something out of every pose in the First Series and the Finishing Poses. It might be the stretch (and strain) to reach my toes; it might be that extra bit of twist; it might be a little more openness in my shoulders from Urdva Dhanurasana. It’s certainly — these days — the strength of trying to pull back without brushing the floor.
I can imagine if you’re really flexible, Utthita Trikonasana maybe just seems like a bother. After all, down the road a piece is Kapotasana and more. I understand the desire to get there.
The reason I react is pretty simple: I doubt I’m ever going to get there. And I see people who can really reach the full expression of some of these “simpler” poses — but they don’t. They move into it, take a few breaths and move on.
I’d kill to be able to do that. (Kill in the sense of Arjuna’s doing his duty, you understand.)
But, believe it or not, this isn’t meant to be just about me and my Ashtanga frustrations. (That could be a whole other blog.) It’s a reminder that all of the poses have value. And that value isn’t just the burning of bad fat that seems to be the benefit from most of First Series.
There’s that breath thing. If you’re zipping through poses or not being — I hate to use the word — mindful, you’re missing what’s the real point of the practice. Don’t take my word for it.
Somehow we each have a deep inherent knowledge that if we control our breath we may control our mind. There is a yogic saying that states: “The mind is more difficult to control than the wind but if we are able to control our breath we may control our mind.” Yoga is built upon this simple concept. When controlling the breath the yoga practitioner feels a deep state of calm and an evenness of the mind. This is due to the regulated focus upon the breath during practice. This information that I have provided may not be scientific but I believe it to be true and I also believe that if you were to approach other practitioners of yoga they would also agree.
Linking movements done on the breath set up a distinct sensation pattern in the nervous system which allows the following movement and breath to go to their full extension.
We’ve all heard an admonition to “breathe deep” in the Mysore room, right? We all know that the fundamental purpose of Ashtanga is that pesky Ujjayi breath (with even peskier mula bandha a close second).
It’s an easy thing to forget, though. So think of this as just a long-winded way to say, “Ujjayi!”
(I am curious if my sense that people are trying to get to the poses that “matter” is right. Is it?)