Honesty in Yoga

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

In the New York Times is an interesting article titled, "How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body". Not having looked into the subject at all, I have no strong opinions one way or the other about whether yoga, at least as a kind of physical training, might be worthwhile. I am open to the idea that this discipline could, despite its dubious philosophic and scientific foundations, offer some benefits to its practitioners, but not inclined to look into the matter beyond that point.

What does interest me about the article is the following, particularly if we assume, for the sake of argument, that yoga does manage to offer physical benefits through its physical regimen:

When yoga teachers come to him for bodywork after suffering major traumas, Black tells them, "Don't do yoga."

"They look at me like I'm crazy," he goes on to say. "And I know if they continue, they won't be able to take it." I asked him about the worst injuries he'd seen. He spoke of well-known yoga teachers doing such basic poses as downward-facing dog, in which the body forms an inverted V, so strenuously that they tore Achilles tendons. "It's ego," he said. "The whole point of yoga is to get rid of ego." He said he had seen some "pretty gruesome hips." "One of the biggest teachers in America had zero movement in her hip joints," Black told me. "The sockets had become so degenerated that she had to have hip replacements." I asked if she still taught. "Oh, yeah," Black replied. "There are other yoga teachers that have such bad backs they have to lie down to teach. I'd be so embarrassed." [bold added]
Unsurprisingly, at the root of both the injuries and the persistence lies a mystical view of yoga as not needing to be understood rationally and intrinsically good. (Practicing anything this way is analogous to the following approach to travel: Toss out the road map and, if someone or something tells you you're headed the wrong way, press the accelerator to the floor.)

If yoga can, in fact, offer benefits, those benefits arise in some way. Therefore, there would necessarily be some basis in reality, understandable by reason, for such benefits. In that sense, yoga practitioners who ignore their own physical limitations in the name of "yoga" are failing to truly practice yoga -- at least in the rational sense of attempting to separate the wheat from the chaff regarding what that discipline might offer.
Among devotees, from gurus to acolytes forever carrying their rolled-up mats, yoga is described as a nearly miraculous agent of renewal and healing. They celebrate its abilities to calm, cure, energize and strengthen. And much of this appears to be true: yoga can lower your blood pressure, make chemicals that act as antidepressants, even improve your sex life. But the yoga community long remained silent about its potential to inflict blinding pain. [minor format edits]
There's not much else I can add to this, but to say that if you're taking classes in yoga from someone with self-inflicted yoga injuries, unless you know why those injuries occurred and how to avoid them, you are getting exactly the kind of instruction you deserve.

-- CAV


Burgess Laughlin said...

Your cautious and conditional analysis is on target. About 25 years ago, I studied Hatha yoga (Iyengar style) for three years, up to the intermediate level. (My office mate, when I was self-employed as a marketing communications writer, was a professional yoga teacher.)

Many of the poses in yoga, minus the mystical elements surrounding the practice, are in fact helpful to many individuals -- if done properly. The same applies to weight-lifting, roller skating, horseback riding, and running.

At one point in my life, about the age of 55, I had a lot of pain problems due mostly to inappropriate diet. Some of the lingering pain, after a radical change in diet, was due to accumulated posture problems. I found a very helpful book, Pete Egoscue, Pain Free.

I did the exercises in the book with exactness. The pain went away.

About 90% of the exercises were actually yoga poses! But minus all of the trappings of their Eastern origins.

I see the situation as partly analogous to the fact that religions, though based generally on mysticism, do have some valid points -- such as the concept of the sacred.


"Sacred" is an objective concept. Likewise, certain forms of stretches and strength poses in Westernized yoga can be very helpful to some individuals.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks for adding your better-informed perspective to my post. Also, your point about another valid idea from religion, the concept of the sacred is appreciated.

Jim said...

This post could just as easily be written about chiropractic, or acupuncture: there can be benefits, but ignore the mysticism and keep your eyes open.

wv: gutblut. Will yoga help me with my gutblut?