Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Can Yoga Really Wreck Your Body?

When I initially read the title of the New York Times article, How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body, I was ready to debate, argue and share my point of view. Then I read the article. And sadly, I agreed with most of it.

I started my personal Yoga journey at the age of 26 in 1997. Ashtanga (Power) Yoga was my introduction to a world that was foreign to me.  Nothing during my first year of Yoga remotely related to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras or the Eight Limbs. And I did what I was taught – push, work, challenge beyond limits. I received a “Yoga certification” the next year at a weekend aerobics conference in Baltimore, Maryland. I still recall the instructor asking me to demonstrate a move for the class because I was flexible – and I thought I was the BOMB! As a Yoga teacher, I taught what had been taught to me. Work, push, challenge. All of it was ego-driven and the complete opposite of the actual principles and spirit of Yoga.

Injuries from years of running and high-impact aerobics made me begin a self-study of naturopathic wellness, orthomolecular nutrition, and alternative medicine. I began monthly treatments of acupuncture, reflexology and massage. I studied and practiced different forms of meditation and started a serious practice of Hatha Yoga and Mat Pilates. My approach to Yoga had completely changed. In fact, what I was practicing in 2007 was so vastly different from what I had started in 1997, it felt wrong to call them both Yoga.

In the NYT article, William Broad details the journey of classically trained Yoga instructor Glenn Black. The main points Mr. Black makes that I agree with are:

  • Instead of doing yoga, “they [students] need to be doing a specific range of motions for articulation, for organ condition,” he said, to strengthen weak parts of the body. “Yoga is for people in good physical condition. Or it can be used therapeutically. It’s controversial to say, but it really shouldn’t be used for a general class.”

  • A number of factors have converged to heighten the risk of practicing yoga. The biggest is the demographic shift in those who study it. Indian practitioners of yoga typically squatted and sat cross-legged in daily life, and yoga poses were an outgrowth of these postures. Now urbanites who sit in chairs all day walk into a studio a couple of times a week and strain to twist themselves into ever-more-difficult postures despite their lack of flexibility and other physical problems.

  • There is now an abundance of studios where many teachers lack the deeper training necessary to recognize when students are headed toward injury. “Today many schools of yoga are just about pushing people,” Black said. “You can’t believe what’s going on — teachers jumping on people, pushing and pulling and saying, ‘You should be able to do this by now.’ It has to do with their egos.”

I disagree with the article in that I don’t believe Yoga will wreck your body – a poor Yoga instructor can wreck your body. Instead of avoiding Yoga, aspiring students should visit studios, observe a class before taking it, and ask the following questions:

  • Is the instructor teaching only on the mat or is he or she watching, moving, touching and aware of each student in the class? A teacher that treats the class like his or her personal workout or opportunity to shine will not be able to provide safe correction and alternatives for students in need.

  • Is the teacher pushing or pulling on students or gently guiding individuals into natural, safe and comfortable positions?

  • Are there props like chairs, blocks, blankets, belts, or pillows available? If so, does the instructor use them or share techniques about their use in assisting poses?

  • Does the class leader explain poses and offer alternate moves? A well-educated instructor will be able to discuss a pose from the perspective of anatomy and kinesiology as well as from an internal and organic point of view.

Like snowflakes, no two Yoga instructors are alike. Choose yours as carefully as your choose your physician or hair stylist. A bad perm can ruin your day, but a bad pose can ruin your body.


I was exhausted and ready to sleep on a two-hour flight to visit my mom. But as soon as I settled in my seat, I could tell I was next to a “chatter”.

“I haven’t flown in awhile,” the young guy seated on my right says to my profile.

I turn to him with a cold smile and say, “It won’t be bad. We’ll be there before you know it.” Then I turn to the window and shut my eyes. There’s silence for about 20 minutes, then…

“Is this bothering you?”

I blink a couple of times and turn to him.

“My music. Is it too loud? My girlfriend – well my ex – my ex-girlfriend hated for me to play my music so loud that she could hear it from my headphones.” He motions to the large, sound-canceling headphones wrapped around his neck.

“No, it’s fine. I’m good. Enjoy.” I snuggle even closer to the window, hoping to give him the sign that I want silence.

“Yeah, I have to play it loud because I’m deaf in my right ear.”

Sighing inwardly, I sit up and turn to him in defeat. It’s obvious he wants to talk and I’m chosen to listen. “Yeah?” I say with pretend interest.

“Yeah, when the bomb went off I got shrapnel in my arm and leg and now I’m deaf in my right ear. My best friend saved my life shielding my body.”

“You were in the military?” I ask with a little more interest.

“Yeah – the army. My best friend is – was - a Marine. Three of our friends were killed in the blast and most of us on the truck were injured.”


“Yeah, even crazier, my best friend came home and was killed last week by a drunk driver. That’s why I’m flying down here… for his funeral.”

I don’t have a response so I simply look into his sad brown eyes and nod.

“We’ve known – we knew – each other since we were six. We grew up together and after we graduated, we both went into the military. He was like my brother. I wasn’t sure I would be able to make it down for the service, but I knew I had to.”

He stops speaking and looks down at his right hand – his fingers are flexing and unflexing. He absently traces a long scar along the inside of his forearm. “I got this scar from the bomb blast. I couldn’t move this arm or walk for months. My rehab took eight months.”

We talk for the remainder of the flight. About his childhood. About his life in Boston and how he ended up working and living in Atlanta. About his love of cars and how he rebuilt the engine of several classics.

“Did you or your friend ever get married and have kids?” I ask, now genuinely interested in the life of this young soldier.

“No,” he says a little reluctantly. “We were so dedicated to our work there just wasn’t a way to do it.” He pauses a beat. “I did have a girlfriend and I asked her to marry me, but she didn’t want to wait. I knew I was going back to Afghanistan and it wouldn’t be fair to ask her to wait for me.” He looks down at his hand and flexes his fingers again.

He tells me about the “brotherhood” of the men he served with. He flexes his hand as he relates the story of a young boy who worked at a vendor booth on base. The boy was feeding information to a cell group just off base, and a suicide bomber from the cell took out five of his “brothers” and injured several more.

“You can’t trust anyone over there. Only your brother. Only your brother.” He rubs his knee and flexes his fingers.

Suddenly he looks up at me, “I’m sorry I’m talking your ear off. When I was in rehab, my doctor told me talking about things would help. The post-traumatic stress is…” he shrugs rather than finishing the statement.

“If you hadn’t been injured, would you have gone back?” I ask.

He doesn’t hesitate. “Yeah,” he says nodding and looking directly in my eyes. “Yeah.”

“I’ve been in the military since I graduated at 17. I wanted to serve and protect my country instead of sitting at home doing… what?” He shrugs again, then mumbles, “I ended up sitting at home anyway, huh?”

I don’t respond. I simply look at him and he looks at me. Other passengers around us, who’ve all been listening to our conversation, sneak glances at us.

We continue talking as the plane lands and passengers begin deplaning. I notice his limp as we walk down the jetway. We walk and talk together like old friends as we make our way to baggage claim. After grabbing our bags, we head outside laughing and joking.

Eventually, my mother’s car crawls up, and I’m actually a little disappointed to end our conversation. He reaches out to shake my hand, but I hug him tightly instead.

I whisper in his good ear. “Thank you for serving our country. I’m sorry to hear about the death of your friend, but I hope you will be a comfort to his family. Enjoy reuniting with your brothers and try to have a little fun while you’re here.”

He puts his hand on his heart and looks at me. “God bless you. Thank you.”

I’m grateful for the sacrifice this man and his brothers have made. I’m grateful for my relatives and friends who have served like him and possibly even with him. I’m grateful for my mother, waiting patiently for me to put my bags in the trunk. Thank you…