Today, I woke up to find both my twitter and facebook walls covered with a myriad of posts by several different yoga institutions expressing their discomfort towards an article (see here) published in the New York Times titled "How can Yoga Wreck Your Body". And, even if I seem to agree to some extent with many insights given by Mr. Glenn Black, I also think that the whole publication is highly biased, sensationalistic, and somehow manipulative. In my opinion, the article introduces the topic in a neutral fashion, but ends up satanizing the whole practice and painting it like the perfect recipe for disaster.
As a result, I would like to shed some light on the issue with my very limited experience on yoga. The first thing that is necessary to clear is that yoga can be indeed a very dangerous practice, that is a fact that any seasoned practitioner should know, and every teacher must keep in mind. Any respectable teacher would never disagree on that. Yoga is as dangerous as sharp scissors. Scissors are a very useful tool, but you would never dare to run with them, nor would you scratch your back or poke someone's eye with them! Any useful or powerful tool is as harmful as the benefits it produces. Think of nuclear power, fire, medication, and even food! Getting injured or not will depend mainly on you and the use you give to your practice.
I remember a few months ago, when I was practicing with my study group back in Utrecht, after our lunch break my teacher called us back into the room to address this very same issue. She kept repeating that yoga was a sharp tool which could be very harmful. She emphasized that teachers should always be aware of their students' physical and psychological limitations as there are parts of the yoga experience which are not for everyone. Even meditation, which is usually regarded as inoffensive, should be approached with a great deal of care by people who suffer from certain psychiatric conditions, and teachers should NEVER encourage their students to leave their medication.
In summary, The NY Times article was not "breaking news", there are however a few simple points to take into consideration when practicing yoga.
1. Self Assesment
I would be lying if I said that I started yoga just for the sake of it. Most of us get initiated into this beautiful practice for the wrong reasons, such as being fitter or improving our health. Still, you have to keep in mind that yoga requires discipline. There are many injuries in yoga which come from practicing inconsistently. The real yoga happens outside the studio and beyond the mat, so if you are just looking for an alternative to spin class or aerobics, then maybe you should look for something else.
There is a never ending list of teachers of many different personalities and different schools of yoga. Some of them have years of experience, while others are newbies in sharing their little knowledge. Teaching yoga is a GREAT RESPONSIBILITY, and requires vocation, not everyone is cut to be a yoga teacher, and it is important that you identify this. One of the first things that you need to do is establishing a positive connection between yourself and the teacher. If the teacher is too sweet, too talkative, too tough, too methodical, or too soft for your taste, then you should probably find another one. There are many things to consider when choosing a teacher: Is that teacher concerned about your safety? Is the class too crowded and the teacher is too busy to pay attention to everyone? Is it clear to you the way the teacher delivers feedback and instructions? The body is a reflection of many daily habits. You can see quite a lot about your teacher's style through his or her body. Keep in mind though, that there are no perfect bodies! One last thing to think about is your teacher's commitment to the yoga practice: A gym teacher who knows a bit about stretching is not a yoga teacher. Look for someone with a complete background in yoga who teaches something which he fully understands. If you are not liking a teacher, do not stay until you are injured, you are not bound to any person.
3. Each body is very different.
It is very important to realize that there is no such thing as a "complete asana" as those beautiful pictures that we see in yoga books. There is nothing written when it comes to how far into the posture you should go as long as you listen to your body: simply lifting your nose from the ground in cobra pose as a beginner is exactly the same as going deep into a backbend. Also, there will always be things which your body won't be able to do, and some others you will find much easier than most of the people. This may be due to several anatomical variations which we might not be aware of: some people have larger tarsal bones which won't allow their ankles to produce a deep flexion, and some shoulder joints are not able to fully rotate. Personally, I have a condition in which one of my sacral vertebrae is not fused and works as an extra lumbar vertebra. I found out about this when I developed sciatic pain as a result of an irresponsibly deep and messy forward bend. Nowadays, I am very careful with forward bends. It's OK if I can just tilt a few degrees while the lady next to me would be able to lick the floor if she wanted to. An advanced yoga practice is unrelated to how far you go, but how in your body you are. Going into a painful place is not being in your body.
4. Follow the rules.
Even if the concept of a "full asana" varies from body to body, there are certain things which your body must do in each pose. For example, when practicing Uttanasana (Standing forward bend), many people seem to think that the goal is touching the floor no matter what. That is completely wrong, as the goal of Uttanasana is only to stretch the hamstrings by taking the sitting bones towards the ceiling. It is completely irrelevant if you can only touch your knees, the floor, or even put your head on your shins, if you are not following the basic rules of Uttanasana, then you are not doing Uttanasana. When sitting in meditation, the instruction is to sit with a neutral back, you might choose to use a chair or the wall as long as you are not sagging or collapsing your back. The shape and the form of the posture are not important, only how well you understand the rules of each asana.
5. Individual practice.
Serious yoga teachers tend to be insistent about a personal practice at home. Practicing at home, even if it's just a few minutes a day is very important. Do keep in mind that you must never attempt to go into advanced practices without the help and supervision of a teacher. Take it easy at home, do not try to do the same stuff you do in class. In addition to this, when you are in class, try to think of it as a personal practice done in group. The only thing that matters is what you are doing, do not get competitive, it doesn't look right, and that will only lead you to a big injury.
6. Advanced stuff.
Yoga is an everchanging practice which is progressively constructed. I don't believe anyone can master yoga. As such, there are postures, breathing techniques, and meditations which should only be approached by people who have built the foundations of those practices. While we should always face our fears, we should never try something we don't feel ready to do. Again, listening to your body is key. Sometimes just watching others, or going into the preparatory steps of an asana is just as fun and illustrative as the asana itself.
7. Analyzing your practice.
The pain caused by an injury, and the pain you feel after workout are very different and we must learn to distinguish between them. When your practice is over, assess your body, there should be no tensions or painful sensations. Places like the knees, other joints, the lower back, and the neck should never hurt. This will be the best feedback to you. Yoga must be a tool for improvement, not something that causes you distress.
8. Soft eyes and empty mind.
One great thing I learned from one of my teachers is the concept of soft eyes and empty mind. When we are too worried or tense, it is possible to see it in our faces. Relaxing the eyes in order to have what Dona Holleman calls periphereal vision (you won't be able to focus a point, but you will have a broader picture of the world) and unwinding your mind will take you to a more conscious practice in which you will be more in your body, more able to follow the rules, and less prone to injuries.
Each and everyone of us has a handful with our bodies. It is only our responsibility to take care of it. When in class, listening to your body, following instructions, and being conscious of your limits will greatly reduce the chance of being injured. Still, sometimes there are accidents and unforeseen situations which might get us hurt, but this can happen in any place too.
I really wish everyone who practices yoga to have a very pleasant and responsible practice free of worry. I hope nobody gets lost in the shapes and forms of the asanas and strives for a deeper understanding of their bodies. Do not fear yoga, as yoga is just a tool, fear what you make out of it!