Today a yoga student of mine told me that she was afraid to practice yoga, after reading the New York Times’ article of January, 2012 entitled “Yoga Can Wreck Your Body”.
What if, after years of practice, her body began to fall apart, or she came down with a strange malady (or a common one)? It’s a good question to consider, since we are all likely to come down with various maladies and problems, regardless of how we spend our time. But which maladies, and why?
In a broad sense, since we are all going to fall to pieces and eventually die, why the fuss? Why the article? One thing is eventually going to wreck the body; if not yoga, then gardening, or snowboarding, running, smoking, overeating, stress, or accident. Our bodies last for a limited time. But, as my yoga teacher has said, “If I’m going to die for the same reasons as the person who spent every night of his life at the pub, why did I do all this yoga?”
The common assumption is that that yoga is “good for us” and that yoga makes us more vital and healthy. In the first paragraph of the Times article, the author says he naively believed that yoga was “only a source of healing, and never harm.”
How could this be? For instance, medicine is a science designed to help us. Is it always a source of healing and never harm? Only when practiced in the right way. Even then, only when God and the people involved have the good luck and right treatments to heal. It’s the same with yoga. We have a science that can be used to support health. It’s also a science designed to support health so that we have a foundation to transcend our current absorption in our perceived individuality and know more about our nature and spirit. But this is only possible with good knowledge, good application, and good fortune. Some say that it is good fortune to have the time, space and ability to practice yoga at all. To take it a step further, it is good fortune to be able to practice yoga and to find good guides, at the right times, to help minimize missteps and misperceptions. For this we need instinct, sharp perception, knowledge, help and faith.
It’s just silly to think that yoga will always help and never harm, so we need to reflect upon why and how we are approaching the practice, what the practice itself is, why it is that way, and what we can do about it.
In the article in the Times, writer William J. Broad, claims that many long-time practitioners and teachers are physically compromised by injuries, diseases, and conditions exacerbated by years of yoga practice. (I thought it odd that he went back to cases in the early 1970's for examples, that he used as an example a teacher who was performing for a camera crew when she got injured, but anyway--)
Yoga teacher Glenn Black is described as telling some of his students to give it up and not practice yoga at all. I think Black is doing students a favor when he sees that someone is going to face tremendous challenges if they are to continue with yoga: the biggest challenge a practitioner of yoga faces is to see themselves clearly, find their arrogance and ignorance, and change long-ingrained habits of behavior, thinking, and movement. Even if we recognize something that is not serving us, and know that we would like to change, we all know that it is sometimes a nearly impossible task.
Yet that is the project at hand! Patanjali, who compiled the Yoga Sutras some 2,000 years ago, is said to have created three texts: one on grammar so that people could communicate, a text on medicine to support health, and the Yoga Sutras to address our psychology and spirit. As humans, we have a physical body, mind, emotions, spirit, and intellect. Each of these facets affects the others, so the yoga practice we do is a way to see physical manifestation of the more subtle layers of ourselves. The way we behave shapes our body, and the way we think shapes our movement, for instance.
On the same note, how we behave, and the habits we carry into the practice of yoga will be amplified: if problems arise, they are likely not caused by yoga, they are caused by what we've unintentionally brought with us: the habits and approaches so much a part of us that they are often invisible to us. This is what the practice is bringing to light. This is why you must be alert. Some of the 'problems' are reflections of our own habits, and when they are small and minor it is our chance to alter them, and mitigate any unfortunate effects. (This is a best case scenario sort of idea.)
Glenn Black says, “Today many schools of yoga are just about pushing people. 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.” He’s talking about the teacher’s ego! Students of yoga are lucky when they are unaware of the battles and pettiness we yoga teachers go through. At our “worst”, we feel insecure when our classes are small, we find ourselves becoming invested in the “performance” of our students, we compare ourselves with other teachers, and what we teach against other styles. I’ve seen teachers become proud at their students’ accomplishments in yoga, and take it personally when students “disappear” from their classes. I've been that teacher. And, as a teacher, I try to be conscious of these ego-based feelings, and recognize them. I endeavor to keep my focus on the needs of students, rather than my own, and to teach simple, useful things that I believe in because they’ve been useful for me.
For teachers, there are financial and ego-based motivations for teaching and for attracting students. I know that students get excited by trying and accomplishing new things. When I taught vinyasa yoga in the first few years of teaching, I definitely collected yoga ‘tricks’ which were possible, but impressive, and would stir the enthusiasm of students. A good teacher will not be personally invested in your “successes” in yoga, but will guide you in good faith, with detachment and compassion, and all of the knowledge they have. With an inexperienced or egotistical teacher, the student has to realize that they have not only their own ego to keep in check, but that of their teacher.
Ego (which gives rise to pride and arrogance), in both the student and the teacher, is just one of the klesha (causes of suffering) described by Patanjali in the Yoga Sutras. The others, briefly, are:
- Avidya: Wrong or incorrect knowledge. Is what we perceive accurate? This is the mother of all challenges in life. If we could correctly and clearly perceive the world around us and within us, we would always know the best thing to do, the best action to take. However (as I was saying above), the human condition is that our perception is always distorted. We are individuals perceiving through our own personal lens of past experience, hopes and expectations, fears and etc. The purpose of yoga is to help clean the lens so that, in this case, we can choose a good teacher, appropriate practices, clearly see what is going on as we practice, exercise good judgement, and proceed with confidence.
- Asmita: Ego (mentioned above). Necessary for sanity and a sense of self in our world, with the downside of selfishness and greed, excessive self-preservation.
- Raga and Dvesa: Attachment and Aversion: Again, due to our personal preferences, culture, and experience, we are drawn to some things and have an aversion to others. In the context of yoga practice, do you avoid certain postures just because you find them unpleasant or difficult? Do you return with gladness to certain other postures because you can do them so well? Everyone does this. But again, with discernment and knowledge, we can have a practice that includes the work that is best for us, whether we like it or not.
- Abhinivesa: Fear. Fear that some harm will come to us, that we will fail, be embarrassed, have to face challenges, or fall short are obstacles that cause us suffering. Not to mention the fear of death itself, which brings up again our ego attachment and love for this life experience. Yet we will all die, all fall apart, and experience illness and pain.
As with any tool, yoga practice can be used inappropriately, and harm may come to either the tool, or what it is used upon, or both. A metaphor: Imagine using your nice kitchen chef’s knife to make a dugout canoe. First of all, the knife is the wrong tool for the job. It will be very inefficient in reaching the goal, the canoe may not turn out very well, and the knife itself will likely be ruined. It could be said that something like this has happened to the tool of yoga: yoga asana has become an exercise, a reason for the marketing of props and clothing, a fad, and a diversion. Many of us are proud of being a 'yoga practitioner' and identified with our yoga stuff and yoga lifestyle. Yoga asana was intended as one facet of a broader practice, which was not intended to be a practice with mass appeal. That said, general, simple activities are good for maintaining health and well being; advanced practices may not be appropriate for every person or every life. The article in the Times is a good reminder to be aware of what you’re doing, where it comes from, and why you’re doing it. And even when you've been working with sincerity and the best of intentions, to be alert and ready to admit small mistakes before they become big ones.
Ego drives teachers to teach beyond their means, practioners to practice beyond their capabilities. Time invested compounds our attachment to our practices. For those of us with years, or decades invested in practice, we would hesitate to give it up, considering time already invested. My high school ceramics teacher was one of the greatest teachers of my life. John Kantar was among the kindest, most dedicated teachers I’ve known, and used ceramics as a tool to teach us about history, the earth, and how to be a good person. Mr. Kantar is a very wise man. He told me that he took stock of his life every year, and gave himself the opportunity to give up what he was doing and choose a different path. It takes a lot of courage to even consider starting again, to leave the familiar for something more suitable. What's suitable may be to delve deeper into what you have begun, and it may not.
When I began the practice of yoga, I thought it was about one thing, and over time, there have been many occasions when I thought: “this is not at all what I thought it was.” These were moments when I looked at my new understanding, and decided to keep going. I believe that I was naïve, and that my first understandings were superficial, and the more I learn about yoga, the more interested I am in it (so far!).
For our own good, we need to find teachers and sources of information that we trust and stay alert. We need to practice discernment, and vigilance, to see where we are, and what we need to do, and be courageous as we proceed.