Every now and then articles are published by mainstream media outlets which warn against the dangers of yoga.
This article cites a study by the University of Sydney, which used a questionnaire to find out how many people suffer from musculoskeletal pain as a result of their yoga practice. And this article uses the same study to infer that yoga is dangerous and causes as many injuries as other sports (to all those yogis out there crying but yoga’s not a sport! — I’m with you!). This article has an even more provocative headline, and caused quite a stir in yoga circles when it was published.
Although these articles are frustrating in their often one-dimensional portrayal of what yoga is, the underlying message is worth listening to: physical yoga practice can cause injury and pain if not treated with care, respect, and sensitivity to your body’s limitations.
That’s not to say that all physical limitations are unchangeable with practice, but that if you don’t listen when your body tells you to Stop! Now! you are at risk of injury. And inexperienced students can be vulnerable when they’re guided by inexperienced teachers, unless they already have an embodied understanding of how they respond to challenges in movement.
William J. Broad’s 2013 book The Science Of Yoga was widely taken up by the press as a warning of the risks of yoga. And it was, in part; but it also contained valuable insight into positive aspects of yoga practice, and lots of information which could help teachers and students learn how lessen the risk of injury in practice.
If, rather than jumping on studies as evidence that yoga is dangerous, we could take a more balanced view and use the information they hold wisely, we could encourage a movement in which yoga students and yoga teachers are able to better educate themselves about the profound benefits and the inherent limitations of physical yoga practice — and of group yoga classes.
Students who understand that they know their body better than their teacher does are well placed to make conscious decisions about what they do and do not want to do in their practice.
And teachers who are dedicated to expanding their knowledge of anatomy and physiology, and who understand that they do not know what every body in front of them can or cannot safely do, are well placed to guide students on their way to an enriching and safe yoga journey.
Skill Over Speed
A simple way for both teachers and students to avoid injury in yoga is to switch their priority from speed to skill. Both within a single yoga practice, and in yoga practice as a whole, there’s a growing tendency to value fast movement and quick progress.
This is, perhaps, in line with the wider culture of instant information sharing and digital connectivity: there is so much on offer to us that we want to do everything quickly. We want our news stories to be short, with three-sentence paragraphs (1) — or at least, that’s what we’re told we want. We want our self-help books to be written in bullet points. And we want our yoga practice to be fast, sweaty, and get us to that perfect handstand quickly.
But speed in yoga means that you might try a challenging posture before you’re ready — and get injured. Or you might be moving too fast to notice how tired you are; how much strain your muscles are taking; or whether that niggle you’ve been feeling in your scapular is getting worse. And it also means that you miss out on a deep, emotionally fulfilling practice that can support you throughout your life.
If, instead of speed, you choose to value skill, you have the opportunity to build your practice, layer on layer, in a way that is healthy for your body and which gives you the time you notice and appreciate the changes you experience — both in the physical body and the subtle bodies (2).
A focus on developing skill helps you to see yoga practice as more than just a workout class. Appreciating the subtle skill involved in moving a body with intelligence opens up a world of detail that makes your practice and your own body more interesting. You’re not just going through the motions with the vague hope that you’ll have some flash of physical or spiritual progress. You’re engaging in the deep practice of learning to use your body to understand your self and your environment.
Skilful doesn’t have to mean slow, always. But you need to go slow to hone your skill. And in going slow, and becoming skilful, you’ll learn how to recognise the signs that you’re using your body in a way that could hurt it.
The same goes for teaching yoga: guiding your students to develop skill and move with greater awareness gives you the time to notice when something isn’t working for them. And it gives you the opportunity to become a yoga teacher — a guide for meditative movement, not mindless movement.
1. Liu, Ziming. 2005. ‘Reading Behavior In The Digital Environment: Changes in reading behavior over the past ten years’. School of Library and Information Science, San Jose State University, San Jose, California, USA. Access online here.
2. Muktibodhananda, Swami. 2000. Hatha Yoga Pradipika. India: Bihar School Of Yoga.