When Yoga Hurts

ashtanga yoga pose
Photo Credit: IYC Kudanshita

Yoga is really popular, wouldn’t you agree? As with most things, along with soaring popularity comes a fair amount of skepticism and critique. A recent article in Time Magazine very briefly explored the casualties of the current yoga surge. According to the article, entitled “When Yoga Hurts,” 13,000 of the current 14 million practitioners are winding up with injuries directly linked to Hatha Yoga. By my calculations this is less than one percent (0.09285% to be exact), and I can’t speak for everyone, but to me this seems to be a vote in favor of the practice, its practitioners, and its teachers. Imagine if any other physical activity maintained such a low occurrence of injury.

Now, I should add that I’m biased. I have been practicing yoga for over a decade, and teaching for half of one. And admittedly, I have suffered an injury or two as the result of an overzealous practice coupled with a lack of respect for the state of my body at the time. Yet I’m a fanatic believer in the power of the practice. Yes, injuries do happen, and the spectrum of fault is about as wide as the injuries themselves. In my experience, injuries occur most often as a result of our tendency toward the extreme activity and stimulation, known as rajas in some yogic circles. And yes, sometimes injury occurs as a result of an improper adjustment from the teacher. In fact, I just returned from a five day training with my teacher, who led off with the statement that “teaching yoga is one of the most under regulated and overly invasive professions around.” In many ways this is true. It is not required that you complete dozens of trainings or years of study to teach this practice, and indeed there are probably thousands of “yoga teachers” out there who know very little about the safety and risks of yoga asana. In the years since I received my 200 hour certification I have run the gamut of adjusting from very hands on to very hands off, and I have definitely ended up on the conservative side. From the perspective of a teacher, I do my best to approach the class experience as individual to each student. So, with the exception of safety and the occasional deepening, I do not feel that it is my place to alter their experience of asana simply because I might have a toolbox of techniques and experiments. As practitioners, we all know how much we love a good smoosh in child’s pose or a crank in prayer twist. But as we begin to bring awareness to the subtleties of the experience instead of expectations of an observer, we begin to deepen our sense of what Yoga can accomplish both on and off the mat.

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However, if yoga injuries are on the rise, even a fraction, then we as students, practitioners, and teachers might do well to reevaluate our intentions for the practice and reframe our experience as the process of deepening our awareness of our bodies, our minds, and our selves. In addition, maybe we as students should take more responsibility in choosing a qualified, well trained teacher. We can consider our role in the shift from a one on one, teacher student driven practice to an aerobics class that has been edited for content and renamed Hatha Yoga.

Finally, the Time article states that the practice of yoga does not offer a “comprehensive way to get fit,” though it seems to point to the fact that a dilution of the practice could be the culprit. In contrast, there are many studies, such as the one on the Mayo Clinic website, that have shown that the practice of Hatha Yoga has a significant effect on the levels of the stress hormone, Cortisol, in the body. And as you probably know, so many of the illnesses and disorders in today’s world are a result of or intensified by our current levels of stress. If we can manage to keep that little monster under control, so many of the other issues like diet, exercise and rest, begin to take care of themselves. So, my recommendation would be, choose your teacher wisely, understand that there is a lot more to the practice than breaking a sweat or stretching your hamstrings, and be respectful of your body, no matter what anyone else may suggest.

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