Monday, January 23, 2012

How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body

I have been writing about how I came to have chronic SI joint pain - I believe it is because of yoga. Recently I received a newsletter from Susi Hately Aldous with a link to an article called How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body. This is some scary stuff. Young people causing brain damage and strokes from doing too much, too fast; dedicated yogis literally wearing out their joints; still more succumbing to "Yoga Foot Drop" - a problem with deadening the nerves that run down the back of the leg which then causes difficulty walking. Check the link to the article (above) and read what Susi has to say below.

Yoga is amazing. All of us yoga teachers have been awed by watching what can happen with yoga. And, when not done appropriately, major problems can occur. You would be shocked with how many emails I receive each week from yoga teachers - from the "rock star" yoga teachers, as well as from teachers who are "less known". They ask questions with a similar theme . . . "why is my back sore, I do yoga!" As I share the mechanics of what is happening, I also add...."it is because you do yoga that your back is sore".

Y'see the trouble is two fold. First, we have to remember that we are westerners pursuing an eastern philosophical movement program that has important tenets (yamas and niyamas) as the foundation. If we follow those tenets, we'll progress in our practice - in all its forms - physically, mentally, and spiritually. Second, we need to consider the term "Asana" which, when loosely translated means, "sitting comfortably and still". This means, that no matter the asana you are practicing, are you "sitting comfortably and still" or are you in "tension"?

Consider your practice - when you are in Warrior 1, Warrior 3, Triangle, Headstand, Downward Dog, or any other myriad of asanas, are you in tension? If you are. . . you aren't practicing yoga . . you are "doing fitness".

It sets up an interesting predicament, doesn't it? A predicament which has me understand and have compassion for why it is so difficult for yoga practitioners in the West "to get it".

  1. As a culture, there is a preference for the "end", not the "journey" or the "process".
  2. Many trainings are about "going deeper" since there is some apparent belief that "going deeper" is "better". (I recall a teacher who came to a training of mine who was utterly shocked that my training was the first she had been to that wasn't about depth of asana and she was so "wow'd" that she felt so good).
  3. There is a focus on not paying attention to the pain, to move through it as opposed to listen to it.
I am all for a physical challenge, and for the mental and spiritual stretch required to see my "blind spots" so that those things that restrict or limit me can be resolved; just as I enjoy practicing with energy and prana and transcending the physical plane. But truth be told, the physical plane is where we live, and Newton's laws still reign true. Biomechanics and Kinesiology are facts of life on this earthly plane, and we need to honour their principles. If you don't honour them, you will suffer the consequences.

Does this mean that "some people should give up yoga all together" as written about in the article? Well, that assumes that yoga consists only the physical postures in their classic form. Perhaps in those times of injury, it is actually time to read up and embody the yamas and niyamas so the journey back to the mat, the journey back to living the life you want to live, through great yoga therapy and then modified asanas, is one of exploration, curiosity and awe.

If you think someone would benefit from this information, please pass it along.
Best,  Susi
Susi's Facebook Page

After reading the article and reading what Susi had to say I checked in with Kristin from Namaste from Duluth. We work together but teach different styles of yoga so I always like to get her opinion. Besides, her reasoning is generally well thought out and well articulated. Here's what she says:

NY Times article - interesting. Not surprising, but interesting. My thoughts: on one hand, the article is true. Yoga can cause injuries. Long term debilitating ones. Painful injuries that take forever to heal or never heal.

On the other hand, find me an activity that isn't riddled with injury:
  • Soccer - long term head injuries, knee issues, sprains, etc
  • Hockey - just read about the player(s) who've been paralyzed recently
  • Running - knee, hip, ankles, lower back
  • Swimming - probably the most gentle of all, yet aerobic, but hell, you could drown!
  • Martial arts - you could list these better than I
  • Road cycling - impotence, lower back, knees, shoulders, decreased bone density
  • Baseball - rotator cuff, oblique sprains, blown out knees, broken bones
  • Hiking - blown out knees, hip problems, spinal problems (from carrying a pack), etc.

The other thing I questioned in the article was somewhere it stated - in an informal study - that OMG! 42 people ended up in the emergency room in a given year for injuries sustained doing yoga. Really? 42? I can guarantee more runners end up in the emergency room than yogis. That would be ONE class in NYC - the rest of the nation is fine.

The business with strokes is a bit odd. Given the number of activities in which younger people are participating in (yoga, gymnastics, dance lines) that involve back bending, I would think you would have to be predisposed to stroke to begin with. That to me is two unusual and very extreme situations - not a trend.

So yes, yoga can cause injuries or even inflame existing injuries. I don't dispute that. And as in any activity, the responsibility is up to the individual to practice safely. Therein lies the problem IMO. Getting the practitioner to practice safely no matter the style of yoga they do.

I sent this off to my Saturday yoga peeps and one of them replied back that they'd rather risk injury and to have fun than remaining sedentary and afraid of moving.

~ Kristin, Namaste from Duluth

My teacher, Deborah Adele, has also weighed in on the topic in her blog post, "Sculpted or Free" which I have pasted in below:

A recent New York Times article discussing the harm yoga can cause, has created quite a stir. It has also created an opportunity for us yoga practitioners to re-look at our yoga practice, an opportunity that I am grateful for.

I find it so easy to seek change while unconsciously holding the very patterns I am seeking to change. It is so easy to “sculpt” myself into the person and the pose I am desiring. It is this sculpting that tempts injury and harm.

The purpose of yoga is to free our bodies and our minds. The only way this can happen is through our own surrender. To the degree that we surrender to the pose, is the degree to which the pose can begin to show us where our unsupportive habits lie. To the degree that we are willing to be the recipient of the pose rather than the designer, is the degree to which the real change we are seeking can happen. This is true on and off the mat.

It takes real courage, I think, to surrender to a pose rather than sculpt ourselves into it. But the results are very different; one leads to continuity and harm, the other to real freedom.

~ Deborah Adele, author of The Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga's Ethical Practice

I'm curious to hear what you think. Please do share and please be careful in your practice. Mindful, kind yoga is the way. ~Sara