Quite often people who are either injured or sedentary and new to fitness will ask us what type of yoga they should take, assuming that yoga is a “safe” practice that cannot injure them. They are often surprised when we tell them not to take group classes due to the high risk of injury. Unfortunately, it is not too uncommon for people to suffer injuries such as: disk herniations, torn achilles tendons, rotator cuff injuries, degenerative hip joints and even stroke resulting from doing extreme yoga postures. When this article came out in the NY Times with Glenn Black talking about the dangers of yoga we were relieved and fired up to share it!
There have been other prominent yoga teachers who have spoken about the dangers of yoga, but for the most part it is still taboo in our community to be truthful about the possible negatives including very real physical harm. In fact, not only does being honest make you a rebel amongst most yoga teachers, but can make it hard to find a place to teach! Trying to share useful information with a group of students are expecting to “yoga-cise” is not easy. Students get grumpy when you interrupt the “flow” of class to point out something that can help them avoid injury. A student once complained to Kim, “You’re good, but you give way too much information! I just want to move and not think so much about it!”
Sigh… So this is why we are so grateful to have such a popular and successful yoga teacher say what Kim and I struggle to say all the time:
Not just students but celebrated teachers too, Black said, injure themselves in droves because most have underlying physical weaknesses or problems that make serious injury all but inevitable. Instead of doing yoga, “they need to be doing a specific range of motions for articulation, for organ condition,” he said, to strengthen weak parts of the body. “Yoga is for people in good physical condition. Or it can be used therapeutically. It’s controversial to say, but it really shouldn’t be used for a general class.”
That’s right! You should be practicing movement that allows you to first function optimally in daily life before you start pushing it into upside-down, twisted, and back-bending territory! This ESPECIALLY applies to those of us who have led somewhat sedentary lives and want to start improving their health through movement! We have to remember that the physical postures of yoga originated in India, as Glenn Black points out in the NY Times article.
Indian practitioners of yoga typically squatted and sat cross-legged in daily life, and yoga poses, or asanas, were an outgrowth of these postures. Now urbanites who sit in chairs all day walk into a studio a couple of times a week and strain to twist themselves into ever-more-difficult postures despite their lack of flexibility and other physical problems. …there is now an abundance of studios where many teachers lack the deeper training necessary to recognize when students are headed toward injury. “Today many schools of yoga are just about pushing people,” Black said. …It has to do with their egos.”
I know, this all sounds crazy! So why do people even practice yoga in the first place? As the article states, it is known that “yoga can lower your blood pressure, make chemicals that act as antidepressants, even improve your sex life”. It has also been stated in several studies that yoga can help improve chronic pain (you can read one of our previous blog posts about back pain for an example). For this reason, people come to group yoga classes wanting to be “healed”. The problem is most group classes are taught by under-educated teachers (certification only requires a 200 hour training with VERY LITTLE focus on anatomy!) and a pre-determined set of postures that don’t take into account a practitioner’s level of self-knowledge, physical abilities or individual body types. Glenn Black even says:
To come to New York and do a class with people who have many problems and say, ‘O.K., we’re going to do this sequence of poses today’ — it just doesn’t work.
But don’t give up on yoga yet! There is hope! There are some good teachers out there that can actually help you and not hurt you! We have studied under several and this is how we developed SMARTer Yoga™. Our system is a more scientific, bio-mechanical approach to yoga than most other systems. While our techniques may not include “traditional” postures, we believe that any movement that links your breath and movement in the effort to create focus and a heightened awareness of your inner processes can be “yoga.” In one of our classes you will find yourself doing things that are not your traditional asanas. That’s because our focus is functional movement and the integration of all of your body’s systems. This process takes into account your physical history, personal idiosyncrasies and even your mental attitudes towards your body and movement, in order to tailor classes that will bring you to optimal well-being as an individual, which is very hard to do in a group setting! It is for this reason that we think yoga is better in private sessions or very small group classes. And now we know that we are not the only ones who think this way!
So, if you are in New York and want to start yoga safely, here are our suggestions:
Contact us! kim@smarterbodies or mel@smarterbodies (27th St., Between 6th and 7th Ave.)
Amy Matthews at the Breathing Project
Leslie Kaminoff at the Breathing Project
Alison West at the YogaUnion
Nevine Michaan at Katonah Yoga