In Response to All Bent Out Of Shape

Returning from our trip to India, my friend Bonnie gave me the The New York Times Magazine, dated January 8, 2011, because of the article “All Bent Out Of Shape: The Problem With Yoga”  by William J. Broad. The author is a senior science writer at the paper and the article is adapted from his upcoming book, The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards.

With the dust of Indian villages, towns, and cities still clinging to my shoes, reading this article makes me think Broad is indeed naive, as he claimed to be until he was enlightened by yoga teacher Glenn Black, along with much of the yoga world here.

Yoga is a source of healing and never harm. That is not naive, it is a fact. What is naive is the individual’s delusional, foolish attitude by doing what is harmful, perhaps pushed by a teacher. A knife is an essential tool in the kitchen but if someone does not know how to use it, it can cause harm. In a violent person’s hand, it kills; in a surgeon’s hand, the knife heals. So the knife is not the fault, the way it is used or abused produces the different outcomes.

Yoga does not cause harm. Its abusive, uninformed, and misguided practice causes harm. Normally sensible, intelligent people, who research and question doctors, accountants, lawyers, for some unknown reason drop common sense on the floor along with their shoes when in a yoga class. It never failed to amaze me! I saw someone who had injured his cervical vertebrae through repeated headstands and handstands. He came to me to heal and then went right back to doing what caused him injury even though he was told that these positions were not for him. He could have opted to do simpler poses and held them for 30 seconds instead of several minutes. The choice was his and yoga could hardly be faulted. So the question is, What makes people make poor decisions that are potentially harmful to them? What is in their minds? What is the thinking? Do we desperately want to believe in something that is not real as we evade our own reality? Yoga asks that you face yourself and life with complete honesty, objectivity, and acceptance. It is fundamental.

In 30 years of teaching I stated that we would not do inversions–no headstands, handstands. Only some could do the shoulder stand. Reasons were given to explain why every asana was not appropriate for everyone. Many stayed on, many left because this was not what they wanted to hear–they wanted the asanas that had the potential to hurt them! Here, I totally agree with  Black’s experience after his spinal surgery as he tries to explain that these asanas are not for everyone and finds that people do not want to hear it.

I have heard yoga teachers brag about their yoga injuries as badges of honor. They are totally uninformed about the limitations and contraindications of the different poses. Broad and Black should read Asana Pranayama Mudra Bandha by Swami Satyananda. They seem to have missed one of the most important books written over 40 years ago. Injuries such as stroke, blurred vision, retinal detachment, are all risks associated with inversions (including prolonged downward dog) and those positions are contraindicated for many people. The limitations, risks, people who may be at risk, are all indicated in the book. Even backbends and foward bends require thought. For instance, in the locust the leg should be lifted just 6-12 inches off the floor. Lifting further no longer stretches the spine and instead compresses the lumbar vertebrae. This causes pain and possible arthritis. Observe and feel the body clinically and you will sense it right away.

The problem is that yoga teachers are not taught this, even though the information is there. The ones who know and refer to this book choose to ignore it. It is too much trouble to ask each class member their medical history. Fear of being sued is great. Modifications in a class are disruptive for them. The teachers find all these details bothersome and say that those who come do so at their own risk and as they sign waivers, the teachers bear no responsibility. The teachers are also wary of scaring away people as their aim is to pack the room and promote yoga as the panacea to all ailments and problems. The teachers are at risk themselves because of the ignorance. I have seen this many times at local yoga studios and at teacher training programs. There is a glaring lack of intellectual curiosity, thought, reflection, and scientific observation–all are required in yoga.

Just as every medication or vitamin out there is not for everyone, nor is every asana. An experienced teacher can help choose what is appropriate. Yoga is not just for those in generally good condition, if taught properly. It offers something for everyone. However, the way it is taught in American Yoga, it is true that a general class is for those who are pretty fit.

Several years ago, I went to a teacher training class on chakras at Dharma Mittra’s studio in Manhattan. The teacher was some medical doctor. I came away totally disappointed. The man knew far less about chakras than my students. He refered to a Bihar School of Yoga book and did not understand anything from it. After the class, I asked Dharma Mittra a couple of questions about chakras and came away wondering what the big deal was about him, he had waffled. Yes, he can do many tough asanas but so can an acrobat.

So whose fault is it that we put people on pedestals when they don’t deserve that place? People buy into the marketing and PR but surely after a class or two they should realize if it is for them or not. My yoga friends tell me how they are pushed to do inversions in various yoga classes (I no longer teach) and even though I have drummed into them over the years that they should avoid these positions, at least one of them got nudged into doing it in a class and felt she had hurt her neck.

Having  just returned from our annual India trip to life in villages, small towns, and middle class urban areas (as opposed to affluent South Mumbai), clearly people live very different lives. They squat to go to the toilet, wash clothes, sweep and mop floors, and clean dishes. They sit on the floor to cook, iron, eat, bathe, and socialize. The diet is whole grains, legumes, and fresh vegetables. Their lives are physically active. Most sleep on a mat or hard mattress on the floor. There is no air conditioning in the summer or heating in the winter. The gait of the walk is different. They do not wear high-heeled shoes. Asanas that apply to them may not work for the lifestyle, weather, diets, and bodies over here. For instance, laghoo shankprakshalan (bowel cleanse) is so much easier for the people in India than it is for people here. The yoga that I learned in India was physically far less challenging than anything I see now.

Yoga injuries arise for various reasons: inappropriate use of yoga, ignorant teachers, students who refuse to use common sense. Adequate data and statistics are not available to assess yoga injuries. As more people practice yoga, the number of injuries will rise but the ratio may remain the same. People who practice yoga here also have other activities that can cause injury–dance, Pilates, jogging, weight training, strength training. It is often impossible to assess what caused injury.

Finally, people understandably feel compelled to go to “brand” names whether it makes sense for them or not. As I look around, none of these “yoga teachers” are really yogis to me. They are in the business of physical fitness classes that use yoga asanas out of context and with little understanding. It is more about the business of yoga, the inflated personal ego of the teacher, and the ego of the student.

Simpler asanas are far more effective than complex ones. But hardly anyone teaches the simple ones because people think they are getting more for their money with the difficult, showmanship asanas. There are places that hold true to the integrity of yoga–Satyananda Yoga and Himalayan Institute from the northern lineages of raja and tantric yoga; and Desikachar from the southern hatha tradition. A general class is possible for people if it is designed with thought and care. I did it for many years and we had no injuries.

As far as Indian gurus go, not all are the gurus they claim to be–many have their own ego trips and issues. Using some common sense is always helpful. Iyengar will be the perfect teacher or guru for many but he is not for everyone. For me, it was Swami Satyananda and even though I respect Iyengar, he was not for me and I would never have suited him.

Traditionally, the guru is a spiritual guide as well as a psychotherapist and a physical therapist. He holds you by the hand, body, mind, and spirit. This relationship is rooted in trust. It is nothing like dropping into a “yoga class”. A true guru is hard to find and how many out there really want one?

People get what they seek. So please don’t get all bent out of shape about yoga.

7 thoughts on “In Response to All Bent Out Of Shape

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    1. You are welcome! I think it is important to have honest and open conversations on yoga. This is finally a sign of maturity to me as before everyone tiptoed around the subject and criticism was unacceptable. Indians need to accept that yoga has to evolve and adapt to different lifestyles. There has always been diversity in yoga practice in India. In the West, particularly the US, people need to understand that they have taken one tiny but important aspect of yoga and blown it up thinking this is it. They have ignored the cautions and taken to foolish extremes in many cases. Sometimes the American “yogis” are like teenagers–they know best till they know otherwise. Indians have taken to “imported yoga” (like everything imported is better) in large cities and it is cooler than traditional yoga. Yoga was not such a big deal in India till the West embraced it. It is interesting to see both sides objectively! Yoga has gone through many phases in its history and in its current renaissance is arguably a victim of its own success.

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      1. “a victim of its own success” . . . nicely put!

        Beginning with my 200-hour training 8 years ago, I immersed myself in the study of yoga in all of its dimensions . . . and have, of course, only scratched the surface. As teacher, I emphasize safety and respect. As practitioners learn truly to respect themselves–their whole selves–I believe their practice becomes more in line with yoga’s original and essential purposes. I am equally grateful for what yoga has done for my overall health and well-being, and for what I know it does for the health and well-being of my students.

        Because of that, Broad’s article upsets me with the thought that it will keep some people away from something that has such great potential to heal. I hope those who read his article read your response.

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  1. Meena,

    I urge you to publish this article to the New York Times in response. As usual what you say makes total sense and comes from many years of practice and study.

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    1. Hi Kathryn,

      By the time I saw the article after the India trip, all comments were closed. So I forwarded the link to this blog post to the Times editor of the article, Sheila Glaser. There are a lot of visitors coming from NYT to the blog and to the website over the past 3-4 months so something must be clicking. Many from India are coming via NYTimes!

      There was such a hoopla in India while we were there about getting school children in Uttar Pradesh to practice surya namaskar. They did end up getting about 480,000 kids to practice one day to get a Guinness record. The Muslims were really upset and asked Muslim kids to not participate as this was seen as an attempt to “saffronize” education. So they ended up not making it mandatory–which was the right thing to do as I don’t believe anyone should be coerced into doing anything and perhaps the fundamentalist Hindus could have had the intention of “saffronzing” education.

      I am glad we can all openly and honestly talk about these issues that need to be aired and be more transparent. For far too long, yoga magazines and publications have refused to look at anything objectively. They still don’t, even on book reviews. What is wrong is evaded or covered up. Brand name people get away with anything. So I am truly glad that mainstream media, unconstrained by this self-imposed silence in the yoga media, has finally enabled a much-needed dialogue and a range of valid perspectives. People who choose to practice yoga will be better informed and hopefully make better choices for themselves.

      As I no longer teach, have nothing to sell, nothing to advertise, have no conflict of interest, there is a tremendous freedom to express what perhaps needs to be said and others are unwilling or unable to say. Seeing what happens in India as well as the West, objectively, as I am deeply rooted in both also offers a different perspective. Indians need to understand that yoga has to adapt to people’s lifestyles, climate, etc., just as they adapt Chinese, Mexican, Italian foods to their tastes and what is available to them.

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  2. Thank you for a complete, comprehensive, and illuminating response to the NYTimes article!

    What people seem to forget in yoga is its insistence on linking together (yoking) all aspects of the person into an integrated and balanced awareness, which is the point of Yoga. There is no quick fix and no separation of its constitutive elements if it is to be effective.

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