Jawahar Bangera, a senior Iyengar Yoga teacher, said “Yoga is perfect; do not blame yoga — it is your approach to it that is flawed.”
We live in a prescriptive culture — we want to fix the sufferings of life with a pill, a pose, an idea or an ice cream sundae. Last week, I was canceling my reservation for a hotel I have stayed at for many years in India, and the proprietor asked me what to do for her aching back. After being forced to sit for long hours over the computer, she was getting pains in her lower back and wanted a pose or two to fix it.
I said, “Try this salabhasana pose; see if you feel better.” Extended sitting and leaning over computer keyboards, I thought, can “wreck” your lower back. Salabhasana — gently arching the spine by raising the legs and chest off the floor while lying face-down on the floor — can reverse the injuries that bad posture can bring. What really “wrecks” our bodies is living. Eventually, everyone, no matter how fit or careful, will succumb to the failings of the body. It just isn’t destined for endless years of uninterrupted functioning.
Yoga has become a popularized cure-all for all the stresses of life. Few understand that yoga is not defined by a series of poses, fancy breathing and meditation. Instead, yoga has been evolving for thousands of years with esoteric practices involving body and mind to see what we are really capable of on the playing field of life, to explore the infinite realm of consciousness and to elevate that consciousness to happiness and freedom from harm, suffering and ignorance. However, most of us have not succeeded, but still the carrot of enlightenment dangles, beckoning.
Within the last 25 or so years, yoga has come under the view of a popularist culture, a culture of fad. It is not surprising, therefore, that an article entitled “How Yoga can Wreck your Body” was published in The New York Times, as though yoga can be spoken of as that which is condensed into the commercial yoga classes available on every corner in New York City nowadays and every town in America. In the article, references were made to people attending classes like these, being taught to stand on their head and sustain injuries from the inexperience of the teacher or the “ego” of the participant wishing to “do more.” Further reference was made to zealous practitioners using yoga books as teachers and following instructions in print, only to end up with strokes and other serious medical conditions. Therefore, the conclusion is “yoga can wreck your body.” Yes it can, but is all this competitive posturing done in yoga classes actually yoga? Emphatically — no!
I don’t disagree that many of the more advanced poses, and even some of the simpler ones, can put tension and undue strain on the joints as well as the nervous, circulatory and the digestive systems. However, that strain needs to be measured, intelligent and not excessive. A good athletic trainer or health practitioner can add challenges to the body without exceeding the body’s ability to integrate and adapt to those challenges healthfully. How does one avoid being “wrecked” while practicing poses? That caution, knowledge and wisdom comes with finding an experienced, authentic and knowledgeable teacher who can guide you on your chosen path. In addition, your search should integrate yoking modern and evolved medical and exercise science. Yoga poses are a visceral practice, and the knowledge that is garnered by practicing and observing oneself is also invaluable in avoiding the dangers of highly flexed joints.
Weekend warriors beware: Yoga is not for the uninitiated. And if you happen to find yourself in a yoga class uninitiated, carry your own sense of responsibility and inner listening toward this ancient practice. Then you can begin yoga safely and with anticipation of the growth in your own consciousness and health.
James Eavenson has been teaching yoga in Ithaca and New York City for the last 11 years. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.