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 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.