Not long ago the American yoga world was upended. Yoga, the ancient practice that Americans have adopted in increasing numbers over the past 10 years, had its dark side exposed by an extensive article in The New York Times. Written by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer William Broad, the article first appeared on the web with the inflammatory title, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.” A few days later the article appeared in the New York Times Magazine under a title that was only slightly less incendiary.
The article made huge waves in the yoga world. Pointing to several cases of serious injuries—from hip replacements to sudden stroke—all of which happened in the 1970s, the author highlighted yoga’s physical dangers. While I question the author’s use of 40-year-old anecdotes to make his case, I feel that the conversation he started is long overdue.
There are many reasons for the rise in yoga injuries in the past 10 years. More people are practicing; of course, there will be more injuries. The rise of high-volume, quickie trainings that have produced thousands of well-meaning but undertrained yoga teachers is certainly a factor, and an important issue that deserves a conversation of its own. But I see this as a symptom of a deeper issue.
The root of the issue is that we have imported one fragment—asana, the physical practice—of an ancient Eastern practice into contemporary Western culture. The problem with plopping one component of a practice as vast and deep as yoga into a completely different culture is one of context.
In the West, from an early age we are conditioned to interpret physical endeavors through the lens of competition. Think about it: We watch competitive team sports for entertainment. Even sports where the judging is clearly subjective—think ice skating and gymnastics—are competitive. For many of us physical endeavors like running, hiking and bicycling are subject to the “no pain, no gain” conditioning we’ve all grown up with. We almost expect to injure ourselves in physical practice, so on the surface, yoga injuries might seem completely normal.
Let me clarify that I’m not knocking competition. I grew up going to Cincinnati Reds games and watching the Olympics, and I still enjoy these things. I’m also not saying, “Western culture=bad, Eastern culture=good.” I’m simply pointing out that most of us have been conditioned passively, simply by growing up here, to equate physical activity with striving for excellence, winning and pushing ourselves hard to get there. This is neither good nor bad. It is simply the context from which most of us, at least initially, will perceive and interpret asana practice because that is the lens with which we are most familiar. When competition, striving and forcing are our context, yoga injuries are likely to occur.
We all know that yoga is not just about poses. Yoga is a comprehensive eight-limbed system that encompasses mind/body/spirit practices. For thousands of years yogis studied and practiced the first two limbs—yamas (ethical precepts) and niyamas (personal practices)—before beginning to practice asana. Integrating concepts such as non-harming, truthfulness, self-reflection, contentment, wise use of energy, non-greed and selflessness—and practicing from this foundation—creates a very different context for learning asana than “no pain, no gain” does.
Most people coming to yoga practice for the first time are not interested in philosophy, however. This is why it is important for teachers to have at least begun the lifelong process of integrating the yamas and niyamas into their own lives. When we as teachers come from an integrated practice of the yamas and niyamas we are less likely to transfer a competitive message to our students. When the yamas and niyamas become our context, our students are more likely to act from this context.
If we took just the concept of non-harming to heart, and practiced asana through this filter, practice in the West would look very different. As it is, we watch classmates, teachers, and the plethora of YouTube videos and magazine photos of people doing fancy poses, and we think this is “advanced” yoga. We judge ourselves as either good yogis or bad yogis based on how we measure up to these images. Judging ourselves in this way is not only antithetical to non-harming, it is also antithetical to how the yoga tradition defines mastery of asana.
The Yoga Sutras define mastery of asana as the point “when all effort is relaxed and the mind is absorbed in the Infinite.” There’s no mention of “perfecting poses” or performing “advanced” poses. The idea that some poses are advanced and others beginning is purely a modern invention. Until the British colonized India and introduced gymnastics, the majority of asanas were simple, seated poses designed to prepare one’s body for sitting meditation.
If we practiced from the context of yoga’s radically different idea of mastery, far fewer yoga injuries would occur. Instead of trying to force our bodies into poses that are structurally unachievable for the vast majority of people, we would instead relax into the pose we are in at the present moment, and the practice that is appropriate for our bodies right now—no matter what it looks like or how seemingly simple it is. The freedom that the yoga tradition promises is available not through fancy poses, but by relaxing into the pose of this moment, here and now.
How the Eight Limbs of Yoga Promote Healthy 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, and that our practice is not just about ourselves, that it is for the benefit of all beings.
- Asana: The sutras say, “The physical posture should be steady and comfortable.”
- Pranayama: Breathing practices show 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 how not to 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.