Can Yoga Wreck Your Body? The Dark Side of Yoga (with Shades of Gray)

Jill Miller by Jill Miller | January 13th, 2012 | 13 Comments
topic: Fitness, Health & Wellness, Yoga

Yoga Pain

On January 5th, the New York Times website ran an article entitled “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” that included excerpts from William J. Broad’s forthcoming book, The Science of Yoga: The Myths & Rewards. Within minutes of it going live, extreme controversy ensued…

Much of the storm stems from yogi Glenn Black’s message – that asana, when performed without awareness and with an attitude of obsession and unchecked ego, can create profoundly negative consequences on both the body and mind. The article goes on to illustrate a number of documented cases in which physical yoga postures caused severe, sometimes chronically debilitating physical ailments.

It seems that a lot of people didn’t like hearing that. A New York City yoga teacher (who chose to remain anonymous) commented on The Daily Beast, calling the article “unnecessarily negative.” “To write a piece that goes into such depth with anatomy, it can only instill fear,” warns another NYC teacher. Other comments on the Times article saw it as a ploy to sell newspapers and books: “This alarmist journalism serves no other purpose than selling paper over fear,” wrote one commenter.

So who is Glenn Black? And is he dissing yoga?

Glenn and me at the airport on our way back from a month of training in Costa Rica, 2004.

Glenn Black’s voice and message in William J. Broad’s article is quite familiar to me, as he has been my mentor and teacher for more than 20 years. In all the time I’ve known him, he’s been the “yogiest of yogis,” living a life that has included multiple stints of seclusion practicing asana, pranayama, meditation and the like. He studied in India with BKS Iyengar, and his supernatural sensitivity to the human body led him to apprentice for more than nine years with the legendary Shmuel Tatz in NYC, the creator of a specialized form of Physical Therapy called Body Tuning. Yogis in search of a holistic approach to healing from injury and pain often work their way up the food chain to Glenn.

Glenn avoids the limelight and generally steers clear of the consumer end of the yoga industry. He has, by choice, remained very much out of the public spotlight, making his living doing Body Tuning and teaching yoga to a very small handful of students and clients. That is why, when he told me he was interviewed for a book on yoga, I was shocked and thrilled.

One thing I know about Glenn, though, is that when he chooses to speak, he doesn’t sugarcoat his beliefs or experiences. And since he has seen numerous yoga-related injuries, it may seem as if he suggests in this article that yoga itself is harmful. But Glenn was simply doing what he does best: educating and raising awareness.

The Shoulderstand that could not withstand

I too have witnessed my fair share of yoga injuries. I remember working with one student who had multiple disc bulges in her neck and experienced shooting pains when turning her head, yet she insisted that Shoulderstand was not creating or exacerbating the problem. This pose is touted by yogis as the “Queen of all Asana,” and it is a goal for many practitioners. The challenge with this pose is that very few humans have the off-the-charts range of motion and strength to be able to do it safely. (See Paul Grilley’s brilliant analysis of this pose in Pranamaya’s video.)

Shoulderstand can create a host of issues in the neck vertebrae and discs, as well as in the shoulder joints and ribs. The damage doesn’t always show up overnight, but the repetition of poor form or one’s body just not being suited for this particular pose can do massive damage over time, which was the case with this student. She was not aware of any negative sensation while doing the pose, or even afterwards, as her body was not giving her that feedback. Until it finally did.

Many of the responses to the NY Times article blamed the injured yoga students, arguing that “they should have backed off,” that “no one in their right mind would hold a pose for that long,” and that “they obviously were not listening to their body.” “If someone is practicing ‘authentically’ then they will not hurt themselves,” insisted one commenter. And so on. I would like to suggest, however, that for many of those mentioned in the article who were injured, they simply may not have sensed that they were putting themselves in harm’s way until, unfortunately, injury occurred.

The student I mentioned with neck pain was a dedicated yogini with more than 20 years of experience, numerous teacher trainings and a strong meditation practice. She had impeccable alignment in her poses. But until she reached Glenn, no teacher had warned her that her neck and shoulders did not have sufficient range of motion to withstand Shoulderstand. This was specific to her body, and since she had no feedback from her teachers, or warning signals from her body, she had no idea that she was slowly damaging the delicate tissues of the neck until it began to hurt all the time. Luckily, she found Glenn and he was able to treat her neck and request that she give up that pose.

Sometimes there is a disconnect in the body between what we are doing and what the physical actions are doing to us. This student believed that Shoulderstand was a healing pose; all of the literature declared it so, but ultimately it was not an appropriate pose for her because of her body’s specific architecture. Unfortunately, she was not able to feel the negative effects that were building up in her body. How is this possible? Blame it on proprioception.

Proprioception – Friend or foe?

Proprioception is defined as “a body’s sense of itself.” Our body’s ability to propriocept can be deceiving. The brain calculates millions of sensory impulses every minute; some of these sensations are brought to conscious awareness, but most of the time our mind is too busy to notice each and every sensation. We can also “numb out” our own sensory feedback loops by overstretching nerves and thus easily “blow past” a safe end range. From this, micro-damage and micro-tearing can occur at the soft tissue level until one day you hear a loud POP in your hamstring or feel a searing explosion of pain in your neck or lower back.

This is one of the many ways that, unfortunately, yoga can damage the body — even in the most vigilant of us. I’ve seen the story run its course hundreds of times and have even played it out in my own body, as has Glenn, who shares his spinal surgery story in this same NY Times article.

A call for awareness

Those who practice yoga need not fear that their practice is being maligned or threatened by this article. It is simply a call for more awareness and a moment of reflection for students and teachers alike. The article asks us to acknowledge that yoga can harm as well as heal. I am okay with embracing that there might be a “dark side” of yoga and that it’s not just a one-way street filled with bright light.

In between this dark and light is a complex gray area. Gray — like the color of the human brain, and just as magnificent. This gray area asks us as teachers and students to be willing to face the intricacies of both the practice and our bodies. This gray area requests that we continue to educate ourselves and refine our sense of self, including studying basic human anatomy so that we have a higher awareness of what we are doing physiologically when we put ourselves into a pose. This gray area can mature and grow just like our brains and manifest new connections and new awareness. I am okay with grappling with this gray area. And I hope you are too, because what it really does is make us more balanced practitioners.

I am thrilled that my teacher has spoken out and told the world what he sees as danger in the practice of yoga. He has been the inspiration behind my development of Yoga Tune Up®. With it, my whole mission has been to help people develop a better ability to propriocept from inside out so that they are developing sensory-rich relationships from body to brain and brain to body. My hope is that by becoming a connoisseur of your own flesh and bones, you will develop better skills of discernment when approaching all movement — asana or otherwise — so that you live better in your body.

So please, practice yoga, but do it with a heightened awareness of your specific body’s architecture, and remain open to the fact that some poses (or some ranges within a pose) may not be right for you.

Comments

  1. Well said, Jill! This is an important reminder that yoga instructors need to be teaching people, not poses.

    Carol Krucoff | January 15th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  2. Hi Jill,

    Great to see your words here…and written by you in response to the media extravaganza around the controversial article. Thanks for the balanced response!

    Valerie Moselle | January 15th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  3. From a traditional Indian perspective – it is good what the initial NYT article said.
    A discipline to subsume one’s ego and rajas, has somehow in the west come to reinforce the opposite.
    The yama and niyama, the prerequisite to yogasana has been conveniently sidelined. No one explains the deep connect between yoga acceptable food, lifestyle and yogic practices.
    Instead of disowning the western yoga practitioners, like most of my peers, I have been doing the uphill task of making the western teachers aware of the above mentioned requirements.
    I hope Black’s words inspire the seriously inclined to reconsider their association with yoga and if they still pursue, let them be true to the discipline.
    By the way, to give an idea of how wrong the understanding of yoga can be to some teachers – Sarah Muller ( the one who counters Black’s article in NYT)wrote quoting Wikipedia as an authentic source
    that Bhagwad Geeta mentions -yoga is the offering of the incoming breath to the outgoing and the similar for reverse.
    Wikipedia is an open source for people to write an edit – how can that be an authentic source? The word that Sarah refers to, is not yoga, but yagnya, which is normally the offering of herbal oblations into the sacred fire, but Lord Krishna in Bhagwad Geeta says that even the offering of the incoming breath to the outgoing and the outgoing breath to the incoming is a yagnya.
    In Bhagwad Geeta 48th verse of the 2nd chapter -Yoga is defined ’samatwam yog uchayte’ the state of equanimity. In the 6th chapter 17th verse, Lord Krishna says that ‘ yukta aahaarviharasya, yukta cheshtasya karmasu, yukta swapna v bodhasya yogo bhawati dukhaa’- yoga is only possible for those whose eating living, working recreation resting, sleeping and staying awake is disciplined and appropriate to the individual.
    With this explanation, let the yoga inclined think, if this is what they seek and if yeas, then do it in that spirit.

    Pulak Ranjan Shukla | January 16th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  4. Thanks for putting all of the “controversy” into perspective. There shouldn’t be any fear in anatomy or in taking an honest look at what we are asking our students to do with their body in class.

    Jackie | January 16th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  5. At 50, I am a newly qualified yoga teacher whose casual practice extends back 35 years, with a more focused practice stretching back 10 years. I had never experienced back pain until these last 2 months, when pain due to muscle spasms has been constant. My lower back and hips have locked up entirely, and I am unable to practice what I previously considered to be basic asana (including all forward bends and inversions).

    I am now investigating how best to proceed – but I am fairly sure there are some asana I will not attempt again, and certain my practice will increasingly focus on pranayama and meditation.

    Elly | January 16th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  6. so happy you wrote this!

    adays | January 18th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  7. Thank you both for mindful yoga articles. I have been teaching yoga in Aspen and Marin Co. and back to Aspen for 40 years to students who are often extremely competitive, athletic and on the high end of the “fitness” curve. For the most part, most of them have come to class years back or recently from a “modern” yoga background all ready for more hardcore yoga “exercise”. It has been a challenge to tame the beast but with few exception after deep explanation, encouragement and guidance to practice mindfully, non-aggressively, in stillness and safety even the athletic super-stars find a yogic expression that balances and enhances their active lives. They have learned to surrender the hard approach and expand in the spaciousness of the soft approach. I am pleased to have students who have read the Times article report that they are grateful that they have learned to practice in a mindful, non-aggressive, personalized way and that they appreciate the benefits and blessings it has brought into their lives.

    anne byard | January 18th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  8. Both great articles. I did yoga for about 10 years when I started having physical issues. I can not say it was yoga but it did go away only after I stopped.

    I sill yoga, approximately 20 -30 min, everyday and then do active things throughout the day. When I first started my high stress job, I had no way of keeping the stress down. Now, I take the experience of those years doing yoga alot to help me destress.

    Robert | January 18th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  9. PS: “still do yoga” meant when I started again, slowly. I think what anne byard said is to the point.

    Robert | January 18th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  10. this is a great article, so glad to read something based on real knowledge of the body we’re working with, and not merely physical ideals not tweaked to the individual -

    thank you! ;-)

    Adan Lerma | March 24th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  11. Thanks for your comment Adan. :)

    Jill Miller | March 26th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  12. Great article. I actually read several responses to the original before I read the original. I was expecting something far more scathing than I found. Thats not to say that the writer wasn’t biased- it seemed clear that his own personal injuries have led to looking for evidence to back up his conclusions. However, these are questions that need to be asked without influence. Who wants a life altering injury due to a practice that’s supposed to heal, build up, and enlighten? How many times have I pushed myself for pure ego? My intentions seem to directly correlate with what I receive. Yoga should make me honest and aware. This should be applied to the daily practice. I have injured myself picking up a pencil- stuff happens, injury can happen anytime, anywhere. However, we are literally shifting our bones here and that would imply that we need to be careful- just because something is old doesn’t mean it’s right.

    Alex | April 4th, 2012 | Comment Permalink
  13. I remember when this article came out. Social networking between yoga teachers exploded. It was a really awesome week. While I don’t agree with a lot of the points Broad was trying to make, I was glad he stirred things up. Everyone became self-conscious about the yoga they teach and that made a lot of people react negatively. It’s not always fun to take a critical look at what we do. It feels as though if we do something from the bottom of hearts, it must be good right? Not always. Beginners at any trade can do something from the bottom of their hearts and they will of course be doing a lot of it incorrectly. And so they continue learning from the bottom of their hearts. And they improve. The art and science of practicing and teaching yoga will constantly evolve as we learn more. Teachers of yoga should rejoice when old ways get called into question. Questions are like portals into new realms of knowledge and skill. While Broad’s critiques weren’t all factually accurate, they raised a lot of industry transformative questions.

    laurelyoga | April 22nd, 2012 | Comment Permalink

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