This article was originally posted on TheKnow on Nov 8, 2013, in an edited format.
The New York Times put out an article earlier this week showing that yoga can be seriously detrimental to the body, causing severe pain to the hips of fairly serious female yogis. My social media feed blew up more or less immediately as all my peeps started to rabble and grumble and several friends with hip issues swore off yoga forever. Three of my friends emailed the article to me directly – "What do you think about THIS, yoga-face?" – people all up in arms, because the whole thing is supposed to help you live forever and whatnot.
So, fine. I am not a 20-year yoga practitioner; I am not a doctor. I am but a speck in the universe with no fancy data or degree. I AM, however, a yoga teacher (and the owner of a pair of very stubborn hips) and as I've been encouraging you to explore your own practice and truly believe you should continue to do so, I feel like I should respond. So here's what I think.
This all seems like an inevitability. And kind of obvious. Blerg. Depressing but true. Hear me out, if you would.
Yoga has been widely adopted as a hot, hot piece of the get-fit pie in Western cultures. Here in America in particular, the word lends to images of bending and twisting and sweating in stretchy clothes on colorful rubber mats. I am a large proponent of colorful paraphernalia. People seriously love this version of yoga. It is approachable and super fun! High fives for everyone, because yoga can be such an incredible force towards the good, and if desire for fitness and a LuluLemon sports bra is the way in, then I'm all for it. However... a tiny, gentle reminder this isn't exactly the intention, nor the promise, of the practice.
Yoga, as defined by the Yoga Sutras (the oldest recorded yoga text), is this and only this: we become whole by stopping the mind from turning things in the wrong way.
Translation: the practice of yoga is that which helps the sadhaka, or practitioner, to clear away the mental muck and see some real truth, to see the true Self.
Quoi? What about the handstands?
The asana are one limb (out of eight) of the yogic path to enlightenment. The other seven limbs are about discipline, breath and meditation work and definitely do not mention anything about handstands. The asana practice may be a gateway drug to a happier, healthier life, but it is not, on its own, the yoga.
The asana practice is a physical purifier, essentially - it was designed to create a healthy body, as well as to move energy from all over your body into your central channels so that your enlightenment potential is tip-top and you're set up to sort out that chitta vritti, or twisty-turny mind-stuff, without bloating or a sore knee getting in the way. It is definitely not intended to be practiced in a silo. Certain traditions don't even recommend attempting the asana until your meditation is in a good place, because let's face it, our brains are kind of a mess and the asana is a grueling practice requiring acute mental sharpness. Which brings me back to the hips thing.
Truth is, the majority of American yogis are not practicing eight limbs. And they are so important. But, I mean, right? Probably not. Four days out of five, I am also a "probably not." This doesn't makes us bad people; it's just the reality of the busy-bee culture. However, it is likely the lack of attention to those seven less-glamorous limbs that makes modern yogis susceptible to injury.
Three reasons why:
1. The asana are HARD. The practice as a whole is meant to be hard, so as to burn away the gunk and purify the body from the inside out. IT IS SUPER HARD. Do not be fooled by the cute outfits.
2. You are a unique snowflake and not every pose works exactly the same way on every body.
3. We have eyeballs and like to compete with the people around us, because, who knows. (hint: it's that mind stuff from earlier)
Because the majority of us are not working on our mind-stuff as per the other seven limbs (which might help us away from a quest for physical perfection), we are likely always pushing ourselves harder than makes sense for our bodies. If your brain is twisting your perceptions around, you're not likely to be listening to your body for the subtle cues that something isn't right. Also, you're likely to be attempting to out-handstand Red Yoga Pants next to you for no real reason other than your need to be the winner.
Even if it's just the tiniest bit harder because Red Yoga Pants is a total show-off, even if your left hip is only off by the tiniest of smidges in your Warrior I, this is the kind of shit that will wear on your body over time, guaranteed. Have you ever practiced blindfolded? It FEELS different, and I can guarantee you that your poses look different because you are more likely to be honoring your body and making the modifications, however slight, that make sense for you. This doesn't mean avoiding any and all discomfort, but it does mean taking a quick scan of that discomfort and categorizing it as safe and endurance-building tension versus pain. Always, always back off of anything that is causing pain! It might be a tiny tiny pain, but it is your red flag that something is not right. The poses were designed for and by people who were on a journey to clean their minds and who were listening like hell to everything their bodies were saying. They were avoiding injury like the plague because injury would only hinder their ability to achieve enlightenment, which was the only goal of the whole thing.
Now, if you're practicing asana three to five times per week and the idea of a yogic path is a bit much for you, that makes you an athlete. For real. Go you! Because yoga makes you feel good and involves soft lighting and emotional music and sometimes maybe makes you cry, it often gets dumped into the 'soft lady workouts' bucket. Do not be deceived. As mentioned above, this shit is for real. It is bodyweight resistance training, it is a serious endurance workout, it is incredibly hard and super strenuous. A baseball pitcher who pitches for an hour 3-5 days per week, if he or she is not SUPER careful, might end up with a sore rotator cuff that needs reconstruction in ten years. Nobody would argue that that person is an athlete, and nobody would be surprised about the sore rotator cuff. Why is this any different? Is it the pants?
Do not, under any circumstance, let society or your twisted mind-stuff tell you that you are not an athlete. You are, totally and completely. Even if you ARE on the eightfold path, you're still an athlete. Be careful with your body. It is your vessel! And you are stuck with this one for the time being – you want to keep it feeling good.
Please keep practicing. Please look into the rest of it, if it piques your interest at all, because it is kind of the majority of the thing and will improve your asana practice, guaranteed. Above all else, do what works for you, and leave the rest, but do so from an educated perspective, keeping your own best interests (and those of your body) in mind.
That is all I have to say about that.