Various items part 2: wreck your asana?

Continuing a peek at various items across the yogaweb:

This article in the New York Times, about the dangers of yoga, has been posted on my Facebook wall at least a dozen times, e-mailed to me to by students, and become a constant topic of conversation in classes over the weekend.  I started writing about it last night, but decided to wait and put the Lulu stuff up instead.  I’m glad I did; there’s been a lot of response to the article, some knee-jerk and defensively hostile, some saying it’s important and long overdue, some saying both at once.  A few thoughts:

1. Glenn Black, the teacher profiled in the article, is a serious teacher of teachers, and a mentor to Jill Miller, who I study with and think the world of.  His classes, I’m told, have evolved into the epitome of a careful, moving examination of the body.  That said, he’s also more than a little “old school” (favorite quote attributed to him: “There’s NO crying in yoga!”), and I get the sense he’s enjoys being a bomb thrower.  (“Most people shouldn’t practice yoga.”)  And he came up in the old school, in his own training being held in extreme poses for long periods of time (and at one point he may have taught that way, I’m told…), so the fact that he needed spinal fusion surgery, while unfortunate, is not shocking.  Of my friends and acquaintances who actually know Mr. Black a little, some are raving about the article citing Glenn the sage, some discounting the article castigating Glenn the bomb thrower.  I suspect, as is often the case, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

2. This article is an excerpt from a much larger book, which is next on my list of yoga books to read.  The NYT chose to print the yoga cons- they’ll no doubt sell papers and get web hits- but my understanding is that the book puts as much or more time and attention into the pros of yoga.  So let’s not get ourselves all (metaphorically) twisted out of shape until we can read the book.  (Release date, 2/10/12 or so)

3. Several blog responses (as usual, yogadork summarizes) argue with the specifics the article mentions about spinal rotation or neck torque in shoulder stand.  I do think the author could have been more careful (he’s a science writer, for God sakes!), but that misses the larger points, below.

4. There are systems of yoga and “senior teachers” who, for reasons of tradition or stubbornness (often called ego) teach dumb things.  In my own experience, I know this to be true.  And that includes teachers leading big conference sessions and selling DVDs, and teachers in “old, time-tested” styles of yoga.  Once I was arguing with one of my friends, who I did a teacher training with, about the need to adapt our practices as we learn more about the body, even if it means changing the way we do everything.  She said something like “but do you mean that we shouldn’t ever teach (very prominent, relatively old form of asana imported from India with all the flourishes)?”  And I said yes, that’s exactly what I mean.  Sorry, but there’s a reason you won’t ever see me at a Bikram class, or a couple of other styles I won’t mention out of respect for the teachers and their selfless work for the cause to yoga.  As the book Yoga Body, last year’s controversial buzz book clearly illustrates, the yoga we practice in the west is young, and came about in a very particular set of social and political circumstances.  Some of the teachings are very wise, some perhaps less so, and we should certainly consider our own time and circumstances in how we adapt that practice to our own bodies.  No sacred cows.

5.. Yoga is a powerful medicine- most people reading this know someone (possibly themselves) who are being healed in no small part by yoga.  But arsenic is a powerful medicine too.  So is iodine.  Those two are also classified as poisons last time I checked.  Can yoga be poison?  Sure.  That doesn’t mean everyone should stop practicing, any more than we should ban oxy or arsenic or other powerful medicines.  I read this article as a clarion call to teachers- know what the hell you’re doing, and if you’re not sure of something, don’t teach it. (There’s poses I don’t teach, not because I don’t like them, but because risk in a big class outweighs reward)  Teach to the edge of what your class can handle, not more.  Get help when you need it.  Study, study, study.  (I heard recently of a young teacher who recently ruptured a hamstring trying to do a split to impress a member of the opposite sex.  I don’t blame their teacher, or “yoga”, for that mistake. And I don’t automatically think they are or will be a bad teacher. I’m just not sure if I were hiring yoga teachers that they’d be my first call…)

And students, showing off can be both counterproductive and often dangerous.  Many systems, yoga among them, teach that the body is a temple- treat it accordingly.   Don’t assume that because the person next to you pops into split or presses into handstand you need to right now.

My goal is to lead students to a lifelong practice, and I wish them all very long lives.  Skipping an arm balance or a headstand here and there, putting the needs of the body ahead of the wants of the ego won’t kill you, I promise.

This isn’t exactly good news, but I promised myself this week I’d end upbeat.  The other big “buzz” article in the Times recent’y was “The Fat Trap”, looking at the evolving science of weight loss and why it’s so hard to keep weight off.  I appreciated this article tremendously, and have to give this information much more thought.

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3 Responses to Various items part 2: wreck your asana?

  1. marcia says:

    agree. i always suspect these black and white articles. aren’t most things comprised with a shade of grey. I also find no end to “excuses” for people to NOT try something that so many people through the ages have found beneficial to mind/body connection. as usual, an expression so true to the ages, “don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.” people will always be drawn to yoga and stay with it as they feel their bodies and minds heal and expand. there is no greater proof than that.

  2. Ross Knights says:

    Part of what you wrote I would summarize as “Question Authority”–applied to yoga traditions. As a yoga practitioner guiding others in the pursuit of the benefits of yoga, we have a responsibility to ask “Why?” and not to accept blindly the teachings handed to us, lest we propagate and/or perpetuate dogma.

  3. Amy says:

    Pat, Thanks this was very measured and fair- I didn’t like the New York Times article because it seemed poorly sited with subjective stories (the guy in the sqwat ? I mean come on…) and thus lost you important point about thoughtful safe teaching. As always I really enjoy your blog.

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