Youch! Yoga Injuries: How Not to Wreck Your Body

This entry was posted on Jan 9, 2012 by Charlotte Bell.

The New York Times Takes on Yoga Injuries

Last week’s New York Times article titled “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” made quite a splash in the yoga blogosphere. And the waves are still rippling out. Today, Cyndi Lee of OM Yoga asked her Facebook friends to share their thoughts on the article and has already amassed a huge number of comments.

As a practitioner who’s just passed my 30-year anniversary of continuous yoga study, I have to say that while I found the article’s title a tad bit incendiary, I felt that the article made some valid points. Anytime you take your physical body out of its normal range of motion, there’s a possibility for injury. In fact, any physical practice can bring about injury. In particular, a physical practice where one is encouraged to push or force one’s body into any sort of position outside its comfort zone has potential to cause problems.

Traditional vs. Modern Teacher Training

I personally would like to have seen the NYT article delve more deeply into modern yoga teacher training, a hot topic that surfaces now and again in the yoga blogosphere. Before the 20th century, yoga was transmitted from teacher to student, one on one. Having trained several teachers this way I can understand why. Each of my teacher trainees came to the table with different areas in which they had deep understanding and others that were less developed. A one-size-fits-all training with 40 other students would not have allowed them to develop—and in some cases, identify—what they needed to learn. I worked with these incipient teachers for a year or more, and I’m happy to say that they are competent as well as sensitive to the unique needs of their students. They are also quite aware, as I am, of how much more there is to learn.

While I’m certain that those who teach larger teacher trainings intend to produce competent and confident teachers with the maturity and experience to create a safe and inspiring space for students, I’m not sure that the current model is as effective as it could be. Six months—or often much less—in a class with 30 to 40 students, many of whom have little prior experience, is not the ideal learning situation for a system as vast and deep as yoga. The teachers I trained individually all had many years of regular, continuous practice under their belts before they even considered training to teach. All had taken classes from a variety of competent teachers, as well as workshops and retreats. They also regularly practice meditation. It is the depth of their experience that has made them the wonderful teachers they are—much more than their training with me.

Thirty years of practice has taught me that yoga needs time to marinate. Like homemade soup that benefits from sitting undisturbed, overnight, our bodies and minds need time—including down time—to integrate and blend the practice into our lives. There is no substitute for years.

Yoga is Not Just Poses

We all know that yoga is not just poses, but asana remains the centerpiece of most Western practice. I wonder if the rise of yoga-related injuries might also be related to the fact that asana has been taken out of its original context. When the physical practice for its own sake becomes the be-all, end-all, it is much easier to become forceful and competitive, which IMO is the source of many yoga injuries. Consider how practicing the eight limbs tempers asana practice:

  • Yama:  The yamas teach us to approach practice with honesty, generosity and the spirit of non-harming.
  • Niyama:  The niyamas teach us about contentment, self-study (so that we know how poses affect us), and that our practice is not just about ourselves, that our practice is for the benefit of all beings.
  • Pranayama:  Giving our breath primacy in asana practice, as Donna Farhi teaches, shows us how to practice with the continuity of our breath in mind, so that we don’t move beyond the limits of our body’s ability to breathe freely.
  • Pratyahara:  Pratyahara teaches us to not become attached to the pleasant—or unpleasant—sensations we feel in practice.
  • Dharana:  Dharana steadies the mind so that we can see more clearly what is happening in our bodies as we practice.
  • Dhyana:  Dhyana refines our awareness of the experiences of each passing moment.
  • Samadhi:  Gives us a taste of the settling of the mind into silence—the true definition of yoga.

In my book, Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life, I outline practical ways to weave the eight limbs into asana practice.

You can find it here.

About Charlotte Bell
Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. Her third book is titled Hip-Healthy Asana: The Yoga Practitioner’s Guide to Protecting the Hips and Avoiding SI Joint Pain (Shambhala Publications). She writes a monthly column for CATALYST Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. Charlotte is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010.