Just yesterday, it seemed everyone from chiropractors, M.D.s and your mom recommended yoga to cure your ills. In the last few weeks, however, yoga’s reputation as a cure-all exercise has come under fire. With the publication of “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” in the New York Times and the release of the book The Science of Yoga, yoga poses, practitioners, teachers and the entire practice have come under fire.
Yoga can be dangerous – you can die – says author William Broad in his interview with Fresh Air that aired on February 7, 2012. I say, sure you can. You can die doing anything: driving your car, running, cycling, swimming, in surgery or even sitting in your chair. Should stop living for fear of dying? Besides, deaths from yoga are extremely rare says Broad – yet, that point was one of the first made in the Fresh Air interview.
Really? Where along the way did Broad and others lose the moderation and sense of reason that yoga brings? Listening to Broad’s interview yesterday, I had to practice mindful breathing to mellow my blood pressure. (Deep breathing does lower your blood pressure as well as offer a multitude of other benefits.)
Broad says he suffered a back injury from yoga – which he has practiced since the ‘70s. He comes to reveal, however, that this injury happened while he was completely distracted by a pretty girl and chatting during his practice. That’s not yoga – that’s moving into a position without awareness. He lost the breath and failed to be present in his body while practicing – he injured himself stretching, not during yoga.
I don’t doubt that Broad is an experienced practitioner and well-researched, but I do question some of his comments. He is enamored by Iyengar practice which is strictly alignment based – not always keeping in mind that bodies differ significantly. Iyengar is about using props to get your body to fit a pose, rather than adjusting a pose to fit your body. I agree with Broad that not every pose is appropriate for every body – but who knows this best? You do – the practitioner. If you feel uncomfortable pain or have hesitation about attempting a pose, use common sense and don’t do it!
Broad also commented that “Most people think of yoga as thousands of years old and perfect. Well, it’s changing a lot — and some of that stuff is making the poses gentler and in some ways better for you.” I don’t think any yoga teacher or group claims that yoga in any of its manifestations is perfect – it is a tool to gain physical and mental awareness and clarity. Like any tool, it can be misused largely by those who view it as a one-size-fits-all program. Hundreds of yoga schools and philosophies exist for a reason. Different aspects of the practice speak to different people. Implying that yoga is being fixed or bettered is very un-yogic. It implies that somewhere out there, yoga can be made perfect. Yoga isn’t about being perfect – it is about accepting where you are now.
I also take issue with Broad’s one-dimensional approach to yoga, at least in his New York Times article and NPR interview (I must give him some benefit of the doubt as I have not read his book.) He seems to separate yoga from meditation. In many yoga philosophies, the purpose of the postures and a rigorous practice is to get you ready to sit still. Broad didn’t speak much about the significance of the breath – except to note that yoga breathing doesn’t help to get you more oxygen. True, but more efficient breathing can improve your well-being, your immunity and your mental clarity. Performing yoga poses without dedicated attention to the breath is just stretching or gymnastics. When you lose focus on the breath – you are more likely to get injured as is demonstrated by Broad’s own experience when he admittedly became distracted and show-offy for a cute chick. Does Broad even get that yoga should help you let go of your ego — your need to show off? Accepting this is more important than any headstand or crow pose.
Finally, Broad’s constant reference to “advanced” yogis concerns me. What is an advanced yogi? Someone who could perform in Cirque de Soleil or someone who can let go of ego, focus on the breath and live in the present. A pose doesn’t make you advanced – sometimes the most advanced practitioners bow out of practice and simply breathe for an entire class. His comments only add weight to the statements I hear people make all the time: “I’m not good at yoga,” “I can’t do yoga because I’m not flexible” Yoga is not being about good or bad, advanced or beginner. We are all starting from somewhere and it is an individual journey. Broad’s comments seem to brush off this very essence of what makes yoga, well, yoga.
While Broad does note benefits to yoga and I’m sure more are expounded upon in his book, too much emphasis seems to be placed on the negatives – on debunking this system of holistic exercise that can play a role in healing the body from the inside out. He constantly refers to the science – ignoring the intangible aspects of yoga that has allowed it to stand the test of time. Yoga is an experience, not just exercise. Without that understanding, misconceptions about the practice will continue.