Yoga: lessons from the journalistic dark side

I used to be a “journalist.”  More than a few times I’ve been published. Nothing like the Times or something famous– just kid’s stuff.  I never wanted to write for a paper or news site– not my thing.  Also, journalists have the worst job in the world.  Possibly the same worst job in the world as yoga teachers.  I think they’re both in the same frickin’ boat and for some reason they’re each trying to sink each others’ ship.  Kinda funny really.  And totally amusing when you get right down to it.

Journalists think they know everything because they have to go to school for it for at least 4 years.  That means they sort of get a cursory education in writing, language, creative language, English, sociology, and business but don’t know enough about any particular subject (excepting double majors) to be considered adept.  Likely they have to write for the school paper at some point where, if they’re lucky, their editor will only somewhat butcher their story or they will become editor and only somewhat butcher others’ stories.  Then they try and sell (whore?) themselves out to a mainstream publication with declining readership because that’s the plan.

Additionally, let’s face it– mainstream or even alternative journalism isn’t what it used to be.  There’s this grand idea of making a difference and this glorious vision of uncovering great lies and truths and changing the world.  The bulk of what gets written about these days, however, is corporate (read advertisers) friendly garbage.  Whatever great truth was written has to be neutered to make it into the paper.  If it’s published, be sure that the journalist, editor, or staff will be fired.  If you don’t believe it, there are many projects that talk about either the major stories that never make news (because of advertiser butt-kissing) or because the journalists were fired (try Project Censored for more information).

Finally, on the journalist note, there is a whole process that’s involved with writing stories.  There’s not just a “write whatever you like and turn it in.”  If you don’t understand the process, it’s easy to imagine you’ve been wronged from an unfavorable story.  Maybe you legitimately have been wronged in some fashion (I can’t really see the need to feature someone like this or this).  Either way, there is a process.

From my own personal experience, here is what I know to happen in the journalist’s lair:

  1. You love yoga so you pitch a yoga story.
  2. Your story is axed and you feel like shit while writing something about Justin Bieber because no one has class anymore OR your story is approved and you’re excited and giddy.
  3. You pick your favorite yoga instructor or someone you would like to know more about so you can have fun while you’re writing something you hope will make an impact (a name for yourself) and be awesome.
  4. You go interview your story teller.
  5. You excitedly perfect this piece of newspaper art.
  6. Your editor takes the article and makes you cut it into digestible pieces that completely rape your perfect piece into a shell of its former glory OR your editor tells you to add more stuff into the article to fill up space (make a word count). (you might skip ahead one step to step 8 if you’re pretty seasoned or your paper is apathetic enough).
  7. You try to keep your tone but it somehow dies a little and you do too.
  8. Step 6 repeats itself OR your editor finally accepts your draft making minor changes to it for stylistic reasons.
  9. Editor prints it as is (a little less shiny and somewhat dead) OR your editor BUTCHERS your article (they can do that) changing quotes around to make it more “interesting” hoping to make a name for themselves at your expense.
  10. You have sold your soul so when you read the article you “wrote” and see the changes you are completely devastated OR you’re the one who mis-used quotes in which case you cackle to yourself while basking in your digital glory.

Yes, sometimes it’s the paper and the decisions makers that make the article look like a horrid bit of mud-slinging or allow it to persist as one.  It happens to the best.  The thing about being a journalist is that if you say anything contrary (to advertisers, owners, businesses, your editors), you lose your job.  Journalism pays much better than yoga does, there are hefty student aid bills to put off and advertisers to keep happy, and for many journalism is a dream that’s finally been realized (otherwise why work so hard?) so you shut the butt up.  Maybe you don’t care about those things anymore and your “job” has become a more practical application of talents (you’ve got a family to support) or some other reason where you’d want to take an ujjayi breath and practice aparigraha (or abhyasa vairagya) in your infinite frustration at being a tool of deception.

In the case of the New York Times’ article How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body I might venture to say the writer was well on board with the allegedly “sensationalist” and “growing popular and reactionary trend of yoga skepticism” as some yogis have put it (albeit for slightly different reasons).  I just disagree the article is that bad.  If there was ever an exercise in ego-centric yoga it would be the yoga community’s inability to take any somewhat unfavorable yoga article with grace.  Yoga can injure– that can’t be questioned and anyone who refuses to acknowledge this is not being satya.

Yoga teachers must do a 200 hours teacher training.  To pretend that any yoga teacher who has done a 200 hour training could truly believe they’re educated enough to teach fuck all but themselves is intriguing to me. I’ve written about this somewhat, elsewhere basically showing that 200 hours is a pitiful percentage of what most “master” yogis have invested in learning the art and discipline:

      • 10 day intensive of up to 100 hours (most likely way less than that): 1/438th of Krishnamacharya’s yogic schooling, 1/262nd of Iyengar’s yogic schooling for example
      • 200 hour training: 1/219th Krisnamacharya’s yogic schooling time; 1/131th Iyengar’s schooling time
      • Assuming that Iyengar went to school for 6 years (though in some places it states 2 years) and Krishnamacharya studied in the cave for 10 years both yogissleeping 12 hours a day) you have Krishnamacharya’s total hours at 43800 and B.K.S. Iyengar’s hours at 26208.

Not many people understand much about yoga either– they have a misconception that it’s stretching or something else that’s not quite on point.  Most people never try yoga or try it once and realize that it’s pretty challenging and are content to leave it at that.  Those who become hooked-on-yoga are likely not to question the system because they walk away feeling like floating on clouds is possible and life is one big bliss trip.  The great thing about being trained as a yoga teacher is that you can have no idea what you’re doing and people still think you’re qualified because you know more than they do about this yoga thing (the $1 certificate from a pack of 20 from Staples that reads 200 hours doesn’t hurt either).

Maybe you’re an excellent teacher– there are many of those– but you know that at some point you weren’t so excellent and you’ve probably made lots of terribly dumb mistakes in your rookie days.  It’s okay because everyone makes mistakes (that’s natural) but don’t pretend like because it’s yoga and there are caveats and warnings added to the instruction that it’s safe.  You may have inadvertently injured a student by lack of instruction or a bad adjustment.  It’s not because you’re a bad person, it’s because you didn’t know.  Even people that go to school for a long time don’t know sometimes but they have more to fall back on then 200 hours of “training.”

People who have 200 hours or even 500 hours (yes, this makes me a total hypocrite as a 200-500 hour trained yogi) are not, IMHO, qualified to teach yoga.  If you don’t know what isometrically means and you don’t know the nuances of even cat-cow, then you probably should not be teaching contortion and headstand.  Yoga can go so deep that done improperly can leave you crippled.  Sure it seems so obvious that you flex your foot in agnistambasana to protect the knees but don’t ask how many people have hurt themselves because their teacher forgot to mention that!  Sure it seems like it’s not your fault because they didn’t feel the pain in class but rather experienced knee joint pain later. Or the teacher mentioned to flex the foot but didn’t bother to check that the feet were seriously flexed so the toes were in line with the knees but instead assumed that because the “WARNING” was given, that was good enough. ONE EXAMPLE OF MANY.

It is true what Glenn Black via the author’s words says about yoga.  I agree that:

        • “It is [yoga] if you’re paying attention.” — asana is but 1 small part of 8 limbs and a large 2 part book on sutras of which only a handful are on yoga poses. Many teachers like to be hip and point out that anything is yoga is it’s done with intention.
        • “[A]wareness is more important than rushing through a series of postures just to say you’d done them.” Isn’t this the point of yoga? Isn’t this why we teach the breath with the postures?
        • “”the vast majority of people” should give up yoga altogether. It’s simply too likely to cause harm.”  Most people have no idea what they’re doing. Most people don’t listen to instructions or don’t hear instructions. Most people have emotional and physical stuff that already exists or comes up during any practice. Most people do at least some poses incorrectly.  It’s time to face the facts that if most teachers aren’t incredibly knowledgeable, most people are going to injure themselves.
        • “most [yoga practitioners and students] have underlying physical weaknesses or problems that make serious injury all but inevitable.” Just because you’re strong or “fit” doesn’t mean you don’t have some weakness that will manifest itself down the line.
        • “Instead of doing yoga, “they need to be doing a specific range of motions for articulation, for organ condition,” …to strengthen weak parts of the body.” This is ideally what yoga is supposed to do anyway but the limitations of a “flow” class make this impossible to achieve and teachers kind of write it off as part of the whole deal of having a vinyasa based class.
        • “Yoga is for people in good physical condition. Or it can be used therapeutically.” — Doesn’t everyone say this?  Vinyasa is for healthy bodies and specific asana postures are therapeutic in application. This is just basic yoga 101.
        • “[Yoga] really shouldn’t be used for a general class.”— In all likelihood he’s referring to vinyasa in particular but if he’s even referring to more alignment based styles like Iyengar this still holds true.  (See quote: “most practitioners have underlying weaknesses that make injury inevitable”)
        • “To come to … 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.” It doesn’t.  For many reasons only a few of which are: everyone in a goal-oriented culture will push too hard, there is no such thing as excluding people in a sue-happy culture, sedentary people are more likely to injure themselves because of weaknesses (same as the flexible ones)…
        • “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. Many come to yoga as a gentle alternative to vigorous sports or for rehabilitation for injuries.” With so many different ability levels in one class, how can you cater what you’re doing so it makes sense and doesn’t injure anyone?  It’s quite challenging and possibly impossible.
        • “But yoga’s exploding popularity… means that there is now an abundance of studios where many teachers lack the deeper training necessary to recognize when students are headed toward injury.” So true.  It’s a lucrative training business that yoga thing.
        • Timothy McCall, a physician who is the medical editor of Yoga Journal, called the headstand too dangerous for general yoga classes. It’s standing on your head! Compressing your neck!  How could this be appropriate for general classes?!  Silly.
        • “My message was that ‘Asana is not a panacea or a cure-all.” The yoga sutra agrees!
        •  In fact, if you do it with ego or obsession, you’ll end up causing problems.’” If you do anything with ego or obsession you cause problems. 

Though Iyengar is a master and highly educated yogi, let’s not pretend that this is the same “formal training” that one would speak about in a mainstream publication– you know a formal training of bachelors of art or science with a compatible degree in medicine, anatomy, exercise science or whatever other related intellectual adventure.  To a yogi who thinks 200 hours is sufficient training, B.K.S. Iyengar yoga school sounds like the Yale University equivalent of a “formally educated” B.A. or B.S.  The thing is, that if yoga school was real school you could qualify for financial aid.  Since you can not, let’s not pretend that yoga school matters just yet when talking to college educated folk writing for college education believers or alumni.  Iyengar’s school is unfortunately by the culture at large’s technical definition: informal.  It’s not an insult to Iyengar– it’s pointing out the views of the culture at large.  This is just the way things are in America and how much more American can you get than New York Times.  There is no insult here, it’s simply a statement of the culture’s views on “formal” and “informal” training systems.

Yogis get mighty snappy about that kinda stuff though.

The thing is though, there is simply a synopsis on literally how yoga can wreck your body in such an article, not on how evil yoga is or how terrible an individual is.  This is simply a “hey– wake up!” It’s true that yoga can wreck your body.  Sure any sport can wreck your body but the thing is that yogis bill yoga as “for everybody” and “therapeutic.”  If you are going to make such claims, you must follow through on your statements.  You are not honoring your statements if many teachers don’t know right from left (okay that might be all teachers at some point) as far as the risks and rewards that yoga is comprised of.

It is completely stupid to assume that because an article knocks yoga it’s crap. What is crap is the attitude that teaching 200 students regularly isn’t going to injure anyone because they’re all on the “honor your body” system.  You can’t expect that everyone knows what they’re doing, will remember what they’re doing, won’t go too far, won’t go far enough or whatever.  You can’t pay attention to yourself teaching 200 people.  It’s not right.  Krishnamacharya taught 1 person at a time.  He wouldn’t even teach some people (including Mr. Iyengar) because he didn’t think they were worth teaching.  If you want to talk so much about how yoga is inclusive and perfect, look to its roots.

I feel like people who can’t accept that yoga has multiple faces are people that know nothing of its history.  Yoga is a great discipline and the teachers that have perpetuated it are very strict about its form and dissemination.  To think that because you’ve taught for 10 years off a 200 hour training you have any right to criticize someone for saying “yoga can hurt you” is ludicrous.  I’m so sick of hearing about how the mainstream media is attacking yoga.  The mainstream media is simply stating what no one else in the yoga community is: yoga can hurt you if practiced improperly.

Lest any teacher be so full of their own ego that they can’t see the vulnerability their teaching can present, I hope they never hurt a student due to their own limitations.

Make peace with the journalists– they’re struggling just like all the thousands of yoga-teacher-trained kids out there trying to make a living following their dream.  At the end of the day both students– no matter how much time they’ve invested– have little to no hope of getting a well-paying job fresh off the teacher training (journalist grad) circuit because of an over-abundance of “qualified” applicants.  We’re all in this together– be grace.

(For a synop on all the lovely articles critiquing the New York Times “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” check out the lovely and wonderful Yoga Dork).


With ananda,


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