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, 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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Meet Bikram Yoga Manhattan teacher Raphaelle Romana

Watch the latest in our video interview series, as new teacher Raphaelle Romana talks about her experience at teacher training last fall, as well as her journey from growing up in France to her life as a Bikram teacher in New York.

Soon, however, Raphaelle will be heading to Dublin, Ireland to teach at a studio there. Catch her classes at BYM while you can!

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The latest in our posture videos: Standing Head to Knee

Watch the latest in our posture video series: Standing Head to Knee, or Dandayamana-Janushirasana, or the one where you expend most of your energy locking your knee. Bikram Yoga Manhattan’s Rachel Kaplan demonstrates as director Raffael Pacitti explains the dynamics of the posture, its benefits and why it is both so important and so challenging.

Catch up with our whole posture video series by subscribing to our YouTube page and keep up with all our news on Facebook.

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Our Jeanne Heaton tells her incredible story

If you have visited this blog, you are familiar with Jeanne Heaton, our inspirational teacher who so generously blogged about her experience at Bikram Yoga teacher training last fall. But Jeanne had not told her whole story publicly, until now.

Jeanne bravely told her story of how she used Bikram to recover from a life of addiction in a riveting article in the New York Times Style section today, a moving piece I hope you will read and share with anyone whose challenges seem too steep to overcome. She talks about overcoming her challenges in an accompanying video, which I hope you will also share.

For those of us at BYM, Jeanne has been a constant source of inspiration. Her dedication to the practice and now to her students is deep and heartfelt. Now, by sharing the details of her struggle, Jeanne hopes to reach more people who feel there is no way out of their pain. Her message: there is hope and Bikram Yoga can be the physical and emotional dimension of recovery from anything.

We are so lucky fate brought Jeanne to BYM (thank you, Francine Volpe!) and now her light can shine far beyond our studio.

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No place like home (studios)

Recently, I had an opportunity to practice at a different studio. It’s a rarity for me, as it is for many of us. We settle in someplace, have a membership, and it becomes like home.

Where do you call home?

But a class in a new studio was eye-opening. Even if the postures are as familiar as old clothes, so much is different: the heat is different, the people are different, the air is different. It was a challenge and felt a bit unsettling. There wasn’t anything wrong with this studio, so it took me awhile to understand why I did not enjoy it as much. After class I realized, there was a reason I stuck with Bikram Yoga Manhattan after trying others. Actually, in a lot of ways, BYM picked me.

I thought it was worth sharing why our studios became my home, not as a sales pitch but a prompt for everyone to remember why they chose where they practice. Sure, it could be as simple as location. And not everybody has the choices we have here in New York. There might be one Bikram studio in your city. But studios all have their own personalities, their own charms and faults.
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A Birthday in the Family

Bikram Yoga Manhattan’s family wishes a happy birthday to our wonderful director, Raffael Pacitti.

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Latest posture video: Standing Separate Leg Stretching

We’re moving on in our posture video series, tackling the always-challenging Standing Separate Leg Stretching posture. It’s not just challenging because its Sanskrit name is Dandayamana-Bibhaktapada-Paschimotthanas­ana, but because it focuses on muscles particularly bedeviling to those who sit all day: the hamstrings.

Watch as Bikram Yoga Manhattan’s Rachel Kaplan demonstrates the posture at its loveliest, while BYM director Raffael Pacitti explains its dynamics and medical benefits.

Catch up on our entire video series on our YouTube page and Like us on Facebook!

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A nugget of wisdom: “Don’t attach”

This hurt? Try letting go.

Often, Bikram teachers float little pieces of advice into their dialog, during postures or during savasana. Of course, our retention rate is not necessarily the best when sweating out a small lake, but sometimes a nugget of that advice gets through.

One came recently that suddenly struck me as making a lot of sense. The advice was, when something is difficult or something hurts, don’t attach to it. As in, the problem is there but it’s not really part of you. Once you attach to it, you make it a part of you.

It’s esoteric but I decided to see if it applied. I thought maybe I could use it to get over the final hump of an injury. The pain of a pulled hamstring was stubbornly hanging on and certain postures were going nowhere. It was like running into the same wall every day. And the wall wouldn’t move. So, I tried detaching from it. Before every posture that usually hurt, I tried not to anticipate the pain. I focused on some other detail. I let go of the injury.
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Latest in our posture videos: Standing Bow

Watch the latest in our posture videos: Dandayamana-Dhanurasana, or Standing Bow Pulling posture. This is our long-awaited video on a posture everyone seems to love (or wants to love!) but torments us so. Bikram Yoga Manhattan director Raffael Pacitti explains the mysteries behind the posture and why falling isn’t such a bad thing. Rachel Kaplan demonstrates everything beautifully, even the falling part.

You can catch up on all our videos on our YouTube page — subscribe and get all the new ones automatically — and keep up with all our comings and goings on Facebook.

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Catch up with one of Bikram Yoga Manhattan’s newest teachers: Jeanne Heaton

In the latest of our video interviews with BYM teachers, Jeanne Heaton, talks about persevering through teacher training this fall and diving into her new life as a teacher.

You may have seen Jeanne’s interview before she left for training, when she told her story of how Bikram yoga changed her life and set her on this path. Now, she chronicles the latest step in the journey and what she finds so irresistible about leading students through the practice.

You can catch up with all of our teacher interviews as well as our posture video series on our YouTube page. And then come take one of Jeanne’s classes!

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