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Jan 2012

Greetings Yoga friends -

How the New York Times can wreck your (naivety about) yoga...

Ha, I couldn't resist the title. But seriously, what a great article in the New York Times, despite its provocative title, of How Yoga can wreck your body. Summary - a number of postures, notably headstand and shoulderstand, and perhaps of yoga schools, such as hot yoga, are too hard on average bodies to allow a long-term injury free practice. More scary, some extreme poses can, in rare circumstance, cause immediate and serious injury.

It has been fascinating to watch the reaction of the yoga community. The link has gone viral, the article discussed and opinionated. Many have welcomed the focus on student safety. Others have tried to put it in context of the many benefits of yoga. I have seen two lengthy and defensive rebuttals: Yoga doesn't hurt people - bad teaching and aggressive students cause injuries.

I cannot say that I am in the defensive camp. I don't think our response is adequate if we use it to justify ever more layers of teacher certification, nor thrust a mea culpa on injured students. I think the article is great journalism not because it shows a balanced view (it doesn't) but because it is smoking out something not talked about enough within the yoga community.

We are focused on the externals of the yoga postures.

I know. That's about as radical as saying that corn flakes are a breakfast cereal. We all know that. Kind of. But what if we own that more deeply. And not just that it's a recent western issue. Iyengar's seminal book on the yoga postures, Light on Yoga, included a prominent numeric key rating them from easiest to hardest. An invitation to external competition. I know of several senior teachers who made a life long project to achieve every pose in the book.

And in focusing on the externals, we inevitably see that the way to advance our practice is to do more difficult postures. Admitting that some of these are not good for us can feel like a betrayal of our commitment to yoga.

I had a long-term, highly proficient teacher on my massage table recently, in rehab from a minor car accident. We had talked before the session about the ups and downs of her recovery. Finally, sotto voce, she confessed something. "Doing yoga makes my back hurt more". It was the first time she had said the words out loud, and was such a relief to admit. I was honored by her trust, and the courage of her authenticity.

And yet, yoga was the most potent tool in my own recovery from a traumatic climbing accident last year. Not some challenging posture, to be sure. That would have been a little awkward given body-brace and crutches. But the mind-body connection enabling me to safely get into early rehab, the ability to self-sooth and focus on healing, and the visualization of movement even in stillness. All skills I had learned in yoga class.


But is it Yoga? Rehab walking last year at Smith Rock, including community, positive affirmation and meditation.

What is the way forward? Millions of americans are walking into yoga studios and fitness gyms, and they are not looking for meditation. We can't tell them to forget the postures. And we need the movement, the physical vitality, the balance to our stressfull yet static lives. 

So what is the motivation to keep us coming to class, some sense of continuing to explore and evolve our personal yoga practice? Rather than asking what new, more challenging postures I sholuld do, perhaps we can ask how to get more juice out of these existing poses. More strength. More balance. More mind-body connection. More positive affirmation. More vitality.
Can this be our yoga path? Not to push further into the external, but draw deeper into the internal. I am inspired by my friend CJ McPhee who has developed a program called  Energy Moves.  She gives one permission to combine fluid movements and still postures with rich imagery, visioning and more focus on the inner experience, all designed to transform the practitioners emotional and physical vitality without any need to strive for more 'advanced' postures. 

Certainly there is a playful dance between the exciting draw of the overt and visible postures, and the inner juice of our personal experience. I gave an intro yoga class the other day. The students had never done yoga. All of them were in their first class. Coming to the point where we could sit, propped, on the floor was a big and exciting step. And then, towards the end, I wanted to lead them through a simple vinyasa using the wall as modification. But before doing so, I had them watch me doing a full sun salute. Was it ego? Did I perpetuate this same focus on the external? That was not my intent. I asked them to watch for the breath, the focus, the energy of the poses. They could see it more easily in such a powerful sequence, one where I myself had to be fully engaged. And then encouraged them to bring that same feeling into the sequence of modified wall dogs and stretches.

Interested to hear your thoughts and experiences - Eugene