In this modern age, I think so much has been lost in translation and it almost pains me to be a part of the yoga community at all sometimes– literally and figuratively.
I am the first to tell you that yoga has saved me. When I went through some of the worst times in my life, yoga was right there to help me get through it. I probably wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for yoga and it’s many benefits. I love yoga.
Before I sound like some born-again-yogi, lest anyone forget (or never know), yoga isn’t just putting your foot behind your head in some crazy bondage pose. Yoga is a lifestyle with a compatible health science called Ayurveda. Yoga is something that pre-dates all of this nonsense harkening back to the very beginnings of civilization. I am here because of the yoga lifestyle.
It sounds like some snotty differentiation that really holds no importance though I personally feel the distinction is crucial. Asana is the vessel by which many people are exposed to the deeper aspects of yoga overall. Ahimsa–non-harming; Satya— truthfulness, meditation, breathing exercises, there are so many things that are intensely healing and wonderful despite their not obvious connection to yoga. Yoga is a misnomer. No matter, however, because the misnomer is misleading and it hurts.
Why I Think Yoga Hurts
From the typical understanding of yoga, it was generally practiced and handed down to men who didn’t teach so much as engage in different esoteric explorations of yoga. Stuff like: what will happen if I keep my arm raised for a year in the name of Shiva? When you realize that yoga was this practice, you start to see 2 things:
- Yoga Sutras and texts are based off the assumption that you’re going to become one of these yogis
- A lot of valuable information could have been lost over the years because these people aren’t exactly easy to find and are not likely taking students.
Much of what is taught in America specifically (and most Western countries for that matter, and presumably– while I’m at it– most other countries outside India and certain parts of Asia) hails from Krishnamacharya. Krishnamacharya was the last very popular yogi to learn from one of those cave gurus (cave guru: what happens to the ascetics– raise your hand for Shiva guys– after they tire of begging on city streets). His guru told him to go forth and teach the public yoga and not bother with all the somewhat self-destructive arm and cave stuff. So Krishnamacharya went forth into a householder lifestyle where he had kids and taught yoga instead of doing the other sannyasin thing.
Householder, by the way, is the term for anyone that doesn’t become a yogi, priest, or other renunciate.
So Krishnamacharya went path of householder and taught many people– some of which have become quite “famous” and successful off of their foundation in his principles (Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois for instance).
The problem– and this is something that happens in this day and age too (as though 100 years was such a long time ago– giggle)– is that these students weren’t lifelong students of Krishnamacharya, they were students for a few years at best and, while they may have remained friends, their style was not necessarily based in the rich teachings that Krishnamacharya had to offer– theoretically. Caveats are always necessary.
Krishnamacharya spent about 10 years learning yoga daily and that, theoretically, that might not be enough! Who will ever know? There comes a certain day when your teacher says: you’ve done and learned enough. Go now. When does that point come? This is pre-email as well so it’s not like if your guru forgot something that you would be able to receive a message a month later telling you to make sure you engage mula bandha in virabhadrasana 2. You would have to go back to the cave to double check that everything is all good. These aren’t the kinds of pilgrimmages that are easy to make either. It’s a cave– that’s probably somewhere difficult to get to. You have to trust.
The point is, that while Krishnamacharya had much experience learning yoga and had much time and knowledge to disperse in any willing students, his students had even less time with him than he had with his guru. If 10 years is enough, then what about 5? What about 1?
Now, we have some yoga teacher programs that certify you after a 10 day intensive! 10 days! That’s (yes, I did the math!) .37% of the time that it took Krishnamacharya to receive his guru’s blessings! You haven’t even earned a full percentage point! Maybe it’s 100 hours or even 200 hours– out of the 43800 hours that Krishnamacharya spent (assuming he slept 12 hours a day for 10 years)– 1/219th of his time investment. That’s stupid. This is the state of yoga today.
Now the other thing that most people forget is that Krishnamacharya spent his time teaching one person at a time. These days we cram like 400 people into one room and even have instructors bragging about teaching thousands at a time! OH MY GANESH! How can you even know whether someone is doing adho mukha svanasana or picking their nose when there are that many people in a room let alone teach alignment and safety?
Regardless– that’s a rabbit hole we’re not exploring tonight– when the people that teach Krishnamacharya’s teachings go forth into the world and spread the joys and healings of yoga, I truly believe that many of them taught what was good for their bodies and did not consider that the poses might not have been great for all bodies. Imagine that someone was so stiff and sick they could barely move their neck– you as a teacher would say: crank it back as far as possible. Then this student remembers that and tells their students “crank it back as far as possible” even if this doesn’t apply to 90% of the students in the room. It’s not a question on their knowledge, it is something we all do when we don’t have someone to check our silly thoughts and say: “no silly– that’s for YOU, not for them. For them, they need to lengthen their neck.”
Then those students tell their students to do the yoga pose in a way that’s injurious to both the teacher and the student and then this gets passed on like a game of telephone. Operator– my neck is injured! What now? The yogis teaching their style of yoga don’t have these ailments because they practice what is perfect to them! They practice in alignment with yoga philosophy. If they were to stop practicing in this manner, they would injure themselves!
It’s not yoga. I refuse to believe that yoga isn’t the panacea it’s made out to be. I think that yoga asana practiced inappropriately is terrible and damaging. But that’s not yoga. Because yoga is a lifestyle and practicing yoga in alignment with the lifestyle won’t lead to injury. Like that sound logic?
Why I Think Yoga is Harmful
To me, what makes yoga harmful is the fact that it’s not weighted with any sort of honor for its roots. You can not tell me it’s honoring to teach someone something resembling yoga in 10 days. Not even 6 months. Sure 6 months is better than 10 days! I would just love to see more being given to students of yoga than is currently offered. It’s like people just show up, teach a class, collect some money and go home. This is not yoga! This is business as usual! A teacher training in many different world locations is amazing but what is the practical nature of such a training when people can’t afford the knowledge!
You must practice with the ideas of the yoga lifestyle as your guides. You don’t harm yourself or force yourself to get into a pose (practicing ahimsa). You don’t try to get the foot behind your head– that’s aham (ego)— just because it’d be awesome— it just happens. You don’t force yourself into a twist or backbend just because the bendy chick leading the class can do it– just do YOUR good yoga.
I feel like this has been lost in these teacher trainings, yoga videos and such. I feel like the more ridiculous your pose is, the better and more highly esteemed you are. This is not the idea of yoga at all and this is why people get injured!
Back in the days of yoga, there was walking, building, hauling, and all sorts of laborious tasks to be performed. Now we waddle to the car, the store, and sit on the couch. Maybe we sit in a yoga pose– big deal. We don’t stabilize and use the muscles enough and then our hyper-flexible bodies can’t deal with the flexibility with stability and the body gets injured.
The body gets injured from being repeatedly pushed too far! And, simultaneously, the body gets injured from not being pushed far enough!
Yoga, again, is a lifestyle. Use your judgment and think intelligently about what’s comfortable for you. Who cares if the teacher doesn’t like your modification? Whose body do you need to be loyal to?
(This post was inspired in part by the New York Times article entitled How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body. Excellent information for any practicing yogis. This also reminds me of some great anatomy & physiology of yoga posts by Roger Cole on Yoga Journal as well.)