Yoga is getting a lot of flak these days for how it can hurt your body. Specifically I refer to a recent article written by the science journalist and author of The Science of Yoga, William J. Broad, Women’s Flexibility is a Liability in Yoga, published in the New York Times on Nov 2, 2013. The point of Broad’s article may have been to warn practitioners to practice yoga safely. It may have been a means for Broad to sell more books. The real-world result for yoga instructors is that we are also taking a hit, and a lot of that criticism is that we are not being trained enough to teach yoga safely.
As a yoga instructor who cares a lot about the safety of my students, yet who also wants them to challenge their own limitations, a tenet of yoga that is beneficial on a physical and a spiritual level, this criticism is difficult to digest.
(Please notice I never said, nor do I say to "push through the pain" as Broad quotes yoga instructors... I do encourage my students to challenge their own limitations and to develop an awareness of what their body is telling them - an awareness that we have numbed through habits and lifestyle, and one which a good yoga practice can help us to restore, but that's another commentary in itself!)
When an article such as this comes out, I pay close attention to what it says and its implications. This article speaks directly to me both as a practitioner (being a woman of more than average flexibility) and as an instructor (making sure that I am educating my students to be aware of their bodies, and while challenging their limitations, also feeling and sensing pain that might be bad). Then I find myself searching for answers. Wanting more information.
I found some answers in Paul Grilley’s, noted creator of the Yin Yoga practice, response to Broad’s article. You can read his response here. (Thank you from the yoga instructors of the world to Paul for his response!)
I kept searching, questioning, examining my own body and working with the pain that I have been sensing in my own hip area, pain that a doctor I highly respect hinted might be a labrum tear or the dreaded F.A.I. – femoral acetabular impingement - mentioned in Broad’s article. While I don’t believe that it is for me this issue that is supposedly for far too many women developing into “agonizing pain and, in some cases, the need for urgent hip repairs,” it is a red flag that tells me to examine my personal practice carefully - what causes the pain and what relieves it. But more than that, this red flag helps me to become more aware of my teaching, and how I can teach better, safer, how I can avoid the overuse of a pose or action that might be causing this injury in the long term, yet to still challenge my students and give them the yoga class that they want. And, being an advocate and instructor of the Vinyasa style of yoga, one of many variations of the Hatha (physical yoga) practice that tends to move more vigorously from one pose into the next, often repeating the movements several times in a sequence, being more aware of these injuries of overuse will allow me to guide my students more safely and effectively. Focusing on the transitions is important, and the quality of movement through those transitions.
The main point to understanding this article then, from my view, is correlation, not causation.
Today I found another article, “Preventing Yoga Injuries vs Preventing Yoga, Part I: The Hip Labrum” from The Daily Bandha, a website seeking to educate yoga instructors through explaining the anatomy of yoga. This article quotes a study performed on professional dancers and the extreme ranges of hip motions they put their body through repeatedly. Having started my love of the body and movement as a dancer, I am thankful for this perspective:
“These results do not mean that the dancers should stop executing these movements, but rather they should limit them in frequency during dancing class.”
We don't have to stop doing yoga to stay safe. We also don’t need to blame our yoga instructors for their lack of knowledge. As one of my teachers has said with compassion, “We all begin teaching too early.” True. But we all need to continue to learn, grow, experience, and be open to changing our ideas so that we are able to educate ourselves and our students to practice in the safest way while still pushing that physical edge that we all know and love in yoga.
Yoga has so many benefits - people who are strong but tight can become more flexible; people who are flexible (muscular or hypermobile) can become more strong. Not to mention the benefits of meditation, of relieving stress, of improving and even healing physical ailments to a greater or lesser degree. But knowing where you stand and how to approach yoga is key. And I will not let an article written by a guy who seems to be out to get yoga in general, ruin what I love and what I do and what I bring into my classes.
Kristen is the creator of Indieflow Yoga and Yoga For A Cause. She lives and teaches in Denver, Colorado