The Great Yoga Injury Debate

Are any of these people hurting themselves?

A New York Times Magazine story two weeks ago ignited a huge response when its author trumpeted the claim of yoga teacher Glenn Black that most people should give up yoga because they can cause themselves too much harm. The article went on to detail some crazy injuries by people doing extreme forms of yoga,  painting the entire yoga world as dangerous by extension. The examples were so far from the kind of yoga that most people practice as to be ludicrous.

But it did spark a more valuable — and realistic — discussion about yoga. One of yoga’s downsides, critics have pointed out, is the varying degrees of training for teachers, meaning students are not quite sure how skilled a set of hands they are in. Fortunately, Bikram yoga teachers are all taught intensively by Bikram and his most trusted teachers, which is one of the true benefits of Bikram.

But even in the hands of the best teachers, real yoga injuries do happen. And there have been some very thoughtful responses to the New York Times bombshell that talk about how you can avoid them.

One of my favorites came in a post on Elephantjournal.com, where yoga teacher Sarah Ezrin wrote that yoga doesn’t do the harm. “Having had many injuries from my physical practice, most recently tearing both my hamstrings, I can say without question that yoga did not wreck my body, I did, “Ezrin wrote.

Later, in a group discussion on the New York Times’s “Room for Debate” page, essayist Sarah Miller points out the absurdity of thinking yoga would be somehow exempt from injuries. “You’re trying to do difficult things, but you’re trying not to harm yourself, but you’re also trying not to let yourself down, Miller writes. “It’s very strange. It’s this play between effort and humility. It’s a fine balance.”

It is a balance Bikram students might struggle to find more than others because Bikram’s dialogue is forceful and aggressive. It urges you to push, to go beyond your flexibility, to use strength to build flexibility. This makes Bikram appealing to high achievers, to Type-A personalities, to athletes used to the achievement model of sports. But as someone who is an achiever-type — and one that has gone through a series of hamstring injuries, like Ezrin — I’ve had to come to a better understanding of the “push-push-push” dialogue and learn to listen more to my own body. It is a constant struggle. Constantly striving to improve often interferes (or drowns out completely) the mind-body connection.

Much of how your body speaks to you is through pain. But it’s a language you have to learn to interpret. Sometimes, your body is whining because it would rather be in a recliner with a good book. Other tweaks and pangs are momentary and fleeting. But sometimes, your body is telling you its limits today, limits it does not pay to ignore.

That conversation with your own body is not easy to hear in a hot room with a teacher instructing you to ignore the pain and push. But they don’t mean for you to ignore the true pain, the limit-setting pain. I have come to believe the aggressive dialogue is aimed not at the people already throwing everything they have into their practice, but the great numbers of people so so disconnected from their bodies that the constant pushing is necessary to get them to move at all.

(I find the two kinds of yogis easiest to tell apart during spine twist: you twist around and see some students are struggling as hard as they can at the end of a grueling class, dripping with sweat, while others are gazing aimlessly across the room.)

So, it is fair at times to think that the call for more effort is not meant for you. You can hear the dialogue but also say to yourself, “My body is telling me not to push here, so I’m not going to.” One of my favorite teachers today said that one of the best things Bikram teaches you is patience. You aren’t going to achieve everything in one day. Try, over and over, and you’ll get there. But you have to listen to your body. That’s how you avoid injury.

Later, I was reading a discussion board about Bikram postures, and a teacher wrote this in response to a question about someone with extremely tight muscles. And it all rang so true to me.

I don’t know this person, but in your description he seems like someone who is very headstrong and committed and focused. This is usually good, and as yoga teachers we appreciate students who work hard. Quite often, though, these same students will push too hard. It is amazing, incredibly amazing, how ‘less is more’ in the Bikram Class. When we teachers say “push push push kick kick kick” it’s for those students who are scared to death to do anything and need that direction. Once students go from initial fear to actual progress, continual pushing will eventually have the reverse effect. The body always wins: if you get frustrated and push it hard, it will laugh and push back twice as hard. It’s possible that his pushing too hard is making him stiffer than when he came in.

Have him work at 50% of what he usually does…maybe there will be a difference…

That has so much wisdom in it that I wanted to toss it into the debate about hurting yourself in yoga class. Yes, you can get hurt. Sometimes it’s the only way you learn how not to get hurt. But injuries are avoidable. It’s all in knowing how to listen.

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One Response to The Great Yoga Injury Debate

  1. Danielle says:

    Fantastic post! Very well said. Lots of love all the way from Sydney, Australia!

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