Oh, this is rich.
The New York Times, striving as they always do to offer in-depth and quality coverage of all facets of Yoga culture and practice, has published yet another gem. I'm sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings, folks, but it's hot off off the presses, breaking news: Did you know How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body?
As an Astanga Vinyasa Yoga practitioner, I think my favourite thing about this article is that the word 'Astanga' never appears anywhere in it. Nope! It's not us this time. It's the Iyengar people! Wow, they must be spitting bullets over there in Pune. Hey ya'll, check it out! Iyengar Yoga wrecks your body! And this, according to an experienced Iyengar teacher. *snark*
Okay, sorry. But we Ashtangis get picked on enough in the media over the whole injury thing, it's almost a relief when the crosshairs zero in on another lineage. But seriously, Iyengar? What gives?!
"Popped ribs, brain injuries, blinding pain..." Sounds kinda serious, doesn't it? At least, it does until you hear the case studies. True life escapades of stupid people doing stupid things with Yoga. And getting hurt! Amazing!
-a male college student with a whole year of yoga under his belt decides to 'intensify his practice by sitting upright on his heels (Vajrasana) for hours a day, chanting for world peace. Dude was having trouble walking...ya think? *eyeroll*
-a young man with 18 months of yoga experience practised Sarvangasana (shoulderstand) with 'his neck maximally flexed against the bare floor' holding the inversion for five minutes at a time, causing a series of bruises down his neck. Diagnosis: Neck Trauma...well, duh! Use a pile of blankets under your shoulders, buddy! *sigh*
To the defence of the article, not all of the cases were as wacky as these. And to the defence of BKS Iyengar (in the second case study mentioned, the article places full blame on this yoga master for 'suggesting that this is how the pose should be done'), I'm certain that BKS Iyengar would have never allowed a student to practice shoulderstand in this manner. No yoga teacher worth her salt would.
The Iyengar teacher cited in the article, Glenn Black, points a finger at 'ego' as the root cause of most of these injuries. Okay, I can't argue with him there. Raise your hand if you've pushed your practice a little bit too far and hurt yourself... (I'm raising my hand) But let's also acknowledge that injuries can come seemingly out of nowhere. Genetic predispoition leads to weaknesses in the body or we develop patterns of unbalance over years of sports, work or just plain living. A momentary lapse of mindfulness can cause an accident. We've all been there.
Our bodies are fragile. They break. And they break, in part, because we use them. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing. It reminds me of a friend who cleared out her recently deceased grandmother's home and found hundreds of beautiful candles, all unused. Her grandmother had felt that they were too beautiful to light. My friend vowed to burn every one of them on her altar and glory in their beauty, savour every moment of every candle.
If our bodies begin to wear from joyful, mindful use, is this a bad thing? We can and should endeavour to create a sustainable yoga practice, but in the end, I would rather use my body and enjoy the experience of being 'embodied' rather than carefully sit on a shelf and never take any risks.
Annoyingly, Black takes a subtle cheap-shot at Astanga teacher Beryl Bender Birch, smugly reporting that 'one of the biggest yoga teachers in America' had limited mobility in her hip joints, requiring hip replacement surgery. What he doesn't mentioned is that thousands of other Americans have needed joint replacment surgeries from nothing more than sitting in their easy chairs watching television. I'm certain that Beryl has no regrets about her years as a runner and yoga practitioner. I know of other senior teachers who have perfectly healthy hips. My first teacher, Patricia Walden (an Iyengar teacher!) is in a stunning state of fitness and health for a woman in her 60s. She is one of my heros and role models.
Ultimately, that's the point I'm trying to make. Our spirits live in bodies. Bodies are impermanent. They age, they wear, they deteriorate, especially if we use them. We should use them carefully, but we shouldn't live in fear.
I was having some fun on Facebook today, citing other articles about 'stuff that wrecks your body.' For example, back in April we learned that 'Sitting Wrecks Your Body'. Apparently, 'Standing Wrecks Your Body' too. And don't forget walking: Yup! 'Walking Wrecks Your Body' (runners, I'm going to leave you out of this - you get pilloried enough in the media as it is).
Other things that Wreck Your Body:
- Hard Partying Wrecks Your Body (wassup, Charlie Sheen?!)
-Food Wrecks Your Body
-Tofu Wrecks Your Body (actually, this one just wrecks your brain, but what good is a body without a brain?)
-Forward Head Posture Wrecks Your Body (with a nod oto the Alexander Method)
-Alcohol Wrecks Your Body
Or, as so eloquently expressed by The Smiths, "...past the pub that wrecks your body." I'll leave you on that glorious note. And, um, don't dance or anything. That might wreck your body too.
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