There’s been a fuss recently about an article that came out in the New York times entitled “How Yoga can Wreck your Body”. The article details statistics about injuries caused by practicing Yoga, seemingly going against the common idea that Yoga is a healing and rejuvinating practice. The article also cited the “expert opinion” of Glenn Black, a seasoned and traditional yoga practitioner and teacher, about Yoga being a practice only for “people in good physical condition” and even asking some practitioners to “stop doing yoga” altogether.
I got into Yoga practice about 4 months ago as a form of physical exercise. During those months, I take an average of 2 classes a day, 5 days a week – there were a few days I’d spend over 4hours a day in practice. I do different types of yoga, depending on available classes at I Go Beyond Yoga – from Vinyasa flow, Ashtanga, Hot Yoga and Yin Yoga, and tried a week of Bikram Yoga practice at Bikram Yoga Greenhills.
I learned to love my daily practice and am slowly learning even more to live it’s principles. I have learned to accept that Yoga is not just about the physicality of the practice but more importantly, about spending time with yourself, in yourself, for yourself.
I’ve had my fair share of physical injuries and mental roadblocks, and have overcome them as well. I have torn my hamstrings, sprained my knee and twisted my ankles. I have my favorites poses and fear of others. I’ve had days when I could spend the whole day at the studio, and days when I’d rather not be near a mat at all.
I don’t, however, claim to be an expert – I’m definitely far from being one, in fact. But for what it’s worth, here are my two cents about the controversial article.
If there is one basic principle I learned in Yoga, it’s that, as a form of exercise, Yoga is about being one with your body. Yoga is not just about the asanas (physical postures) and Pranayamas (controlled breathing), but really more about the mental control and centeredness that come with executing them.
When I practice, I become conscious about the only two entities present on my mat – my physical self and my consciousness (ego). These two are ideally unified during the whole practice, and more especially even off the mat. Most times, however, these two are at a power play – the body wanting to push itself to it’s physical edge, but the mind has not prepared itself; or the mind wanting to move toward a challenge, but the body unable to execute.
I remember not worrying about the poses that required flexibility during my first week at class. I could bend over and touch the floor and my toes without struggling. My ego was definitely in agreement with my body. There were times, however, especially when I’m having a bad day, that my mind belittles my body in those poses. The mind makes you believe you cant do it today, not today. Makes you believe you’re too tired or drained, and it just can’t take the pose any longer. I let go.
Then came the hip opening asanas, and my body was aggressively negating what my mind wanted to do. At one point, I even shed a tear in frustration – I wanted to hold the pose for as long as I needed to, but my hips and legs were in pain. I let go.
It happens. I let go… I can allow myself to let go.
Moreover, being in a class of varying degrees of practices, it takes a lot of effort to focus on just yourself and what happens on your own mat. Once you see others lowering down further than you, sustaining the pose longer than you and taking the pose to another level of difficulty – your ego tells you that you want to be better than the next person or be at that level the next time. But this isn’t how it’s supposed to be. As my Yoga teacher would say, “No one else’s practice should matter to you except yours”. Yoga is not being about being better than the person next to you, or trying to be just like someone else in terms of strength, flexibility or endurance. Rather, it’s about being a better self both physically and mentally. It’s about pushing yourself toward your personal edge rather than against someone else’s resistance.
There is, however, a fine line between completely letting go and not even trying. To allow your mind and body accept that where you’re at is where you will always be. To allow yourself to believe that being calm is simply being comfortable. There is always dynamism in being still – as my Yoga teacher says, “There is no complete Yin, and no complete Yang”. Even in the most difficult asanas, there is a peaceful place. And in the easiest asanas, there is struggle.
They say, for example, that the most difficult pose is the Savasana or Corpse pose. It Is basically lying on your back with your arms and legs spread out and your eyes closed. Simple enough. We do this when we sleep, and is best when we’re exhausted from a long day. This is supposed to be a restrorative pose that allows us to let go.
It is the most difficult pose because despite the stillness of your body, you have to battle it out with your mind. In this pose, you let go of all that has been and all that will be, and you completely put yourself in what is here and now. The tendency is for us to think about what we did right and wrong in our practice, how our day went and how it will go, what we do next etc. To be in the present means just accepting what is here and now – which is, at this point, you and your mat still on the floor. As much as I want to, I find I haven’t been able to “perfect” this pose.
Once you learn to let go, the next difficult step is learning to get back on track. To refuse to be enclosed in your comfort zone, and to refuse to be confined in what you were able to do previously, is one of the biggest challenges in any practice – To make yourself believe that the next step is a leap you can’t take, is the biggest trap. If you’re not going to try, then it’s not going to come.
Therefore, I agree that Yoga can wreck your body – but only as far as you allow yourself to. If you push yourself too hard, and let your ego drown out the cry of your physical body, then you’re definitely putting yourself in a compromising situation. Once you refuse to listen to your body and focus only on being competitive, then you allow yourself to contain the pain rather than work through it in incremements.
I remember taking a special workshop of headstands and arm balances by Alex Roberts during my first month at practice. Naturally, I wanted to at least complete one headstand asana or an arm balance – I failed miserably. To make a 3-hr class short, I wasn’t able to mount anything fully. It was almost embarrassing. But what kept me from wrecking my body was what Alex repeatedly said during the workshop - “If you don’t get this pose right this time, doesn’t make make your practice less effective. It’s just yoga after all, we’re here to have fun.”
Your asanas don’t make your Yoga. And your Yoga doesn’t make you.
I think too that, More than anything else, Yoga can wreck you. More than just your body, yoga can completely breakdown most things you thought you knew about yourself. In my few months of practice, I have come to several realizations about what I allow my mind and body to do, and what I allow myself to believe. The power of Yoga, I have learned, is not really just “mind over matter” rather “self over matter” – to empower yourself to breathe through the struggles of the mind and the struggles of the body. It’s not only about letting your mind take over your body, but sometimes even allowing your body to take over your mind, but always allowing the self to moderate the struggle between both.
You define what your Yoga is about, and how far you’re going to take it.