Yoga Injuries: Whose Fault Are They?
This morning, YogaDork posted an article about a man who successfully sued a Bikram studio for a severe back injury. The 58-year-old veteran claims that teachers encouraged him to push past the pain of an old injury to the point where he broke his back. The student claims that teachers told him that doing more yoga could fix his physical issues and that his inflexibility was due to mental issues resulting from his financial instability. Sound familiar?
I get it that mental/emotional issues do sometimes manifest in our bodies. On my first insight meditation retreat in 1988, I sat with severe pain in my left shoulder for several days. I desperately—and largely unsuccessfully—tried to be present with it without judging or resistance. Then in a single instant, the picture of a guy I’d been in an on-again, off-again relationship over a period of many years appeared. In that same instant, I watched myself let go of my attachment to that relationship—an attachment I’d thought I’d released long before. With that release, my shoulder pain instantly disappeared. Yes, the body and mind are connected.
But the thought that teachers who may or may not know you can psychoanalyze you and prescribe more yoga as the cure-all for anything that ails you is problematic. The New Agey shaming that blames every physical issue on a deep-seated emotional problem is punitive and a major overreach on the part of teachers who are unqualified to diagnose such issues. Sometimes a back injury is just a back injury. Sometimes restrictions are due to immutable variations in someone’s joints—not mental blocks. Sometimes a sore throat is just a sore throat, not an indication of some unsaid issue that needs to be spoken.
So Who’s Responsible?
The studio/defendant in the recent lawsuit blames the student, calling his lawsuit a scam. Often when students injure themselves in yoga class, teachers and studio owners are quick to place responsibility on the student. And in some ways they are correct. We are all responsible for being aware of what’s happening in our bodies when we practice. But the combination of the competitive atmosphere in so many popular studios, and the proliferation of teachers who have not yet realized that more, faster, sweatier, kick-butt yoga is not necessarily the answer to everything that ails you is a recipe for injury.
Most of us do not start our asana practices with much, if any, subtle physical awareness. It takes time to dismantle the armor that keeps us from feeling our bodies, and when a class is moving really fast and the practice is designed to kick butt (i.e. yield the most sensation possible), it is much more difficult for students to develop the awareness it takes to keep themselves from going too far. When it’s all about extreme sensation, there’s little chance of accessing subtlety.
It takes years for teachers to develop the sensitivity to be able to look at someone’s asana practice and see where he/she might be compromising his/her health. Early on, many teachers can see if a student is not aligned according to whatever alignment paradigm they learned. But we humans are not one-size-fits-all. Trying to fit the vast and varied panoply of physical/mental/emotional traits that combine to make up humanity into a narrow paradigm does not serve individual needs. The ability to see each individual does not come the instant someone finishes a 200-hour or 500-hour training. It takes years and lots of questions, and listening to the answers you hear—especially if those answers don’t conform to the way you were trained. In a word, we teachers don’t have all the answers. We need to listen to our students in the same way we encourage them to listen to themselves.
A student of a certain age—like the 58-year-old veteran—can’t get away with a balls-to-the-wall yoga practice. Our bodies change. That is what they are genetically programmed to do. It is not a mistake. Even though my body is still capable of doing Eka Pada Rajakapotasana I no longer practice it. I can feel what it does to my joints, and I don’t like it. I’d like to keep the joints I have!
As a longtime teacher I believe that the responsibility for injury is shared by teacher and student. But ultimately as teachers, the lion’s share of that responsibility lies with us. We are in the position of authority, and many students, especially less experienced ones, will default to following our advice over listening to their own internal cues. We’re the experts, right? So please, please, please, be careful what messages you send, and what advice you give. Words are powerful. We can use them to encourage and empower our students, or we can use them to exert our will and our position of power over them. Please choose your words carefully, and always be open to listening.
If you’d like to read more of my commentary on yoga injuries, visit these links: