Yoga: a Wrecking Ball or a Panacea?

A reaction to the recent New York Times Article

Ever since reading the widely forwarded recent article published in the New York Times, How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body by William J. Broad, I’ve been pondering the relevance of such a statement. Yoga, after all, is my safe harbor – the lighthouse that signals home no matter how harsh the storm.

Snowstorm Creative Commons License photo credit: Atli Harðarson

Whether it’s due to the daily stressors in my world or the abject suffering and injustices around our globe, I seek out my mat, my meditation seat, and the spiritual texts because they give me space to transform the threatening darkness into light, to shift the agitation to stillness. Over and over again, my yoga practice provides insight, shelter, healing.

It’s difficult to frame the question can yoga wreck the body in a yes/no construct. The answer is anything but simplistic; it’s dialectical. I say that a lot since my work as a trauma counselor has exposed me to Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). When working with DBT, we understand as a central premise that two opposing realities can coexist. With that acknowledgement, our goal then becomes cultivating skills that enhance our capability to balance efforts to change with accepting realities as they are while increasing internal and external safety.

Balance. Acceptance. Safety.

Sounds an awful lot like yoga, doesn’t it?

Creative Commons License photo credit: Arenamontanus

So while reading the article, I found myself reacting strongly (and a bit defensively) and questioning as I often do these days, “how is this dialectical”.

At first glance, from the headline to the accompanying goofy graphic, the piece shouts hyperbole. That it is adapted from Broad’s book, “The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards”,  to be released by Simon & Schuster next month further raises the question of whether this is simply a sensationalist marketing ploy  rather than an objective exploration of the physical risks of practicing yoga asana.Yet, at the same time, one can’t deny the article addresses the important issue of physical safety and eventually highlights the responsibility of yogis to practice self awareness and honor their boundaries.

Two opposing realities: the delivery of the message is distracting and exaggerated, and the topic is relevant, particularly today in our Western society where yoga asana is increasingly embraced with a fitness mentality rather than one of mindful holistic contemplation.

For clarity’s sake, however, it should be addressed that Broad is illuminating injury from yoga asana. Despite the media’s rather frustrating tendency to generalize yoga asana as the yoga in its entirety, asana (translated from Sanskrit as “a steady, comfortable posture”) is just one of the eight limbs of yoga as defined by Patanjali in the ancient text, The Yoga Sutras. In his article, Broad continuously refers to the physical practice of poses, omitting the eight-limbed structural framework and rich philosophy behind it. Call me a “semantics stickler”, but I think the distinction is important to consider.

Keeping both this distinction and dialectics in mind, back to the main question: can yoga (asana) wreck the body?

Creative Commons License photo credit: dollen

Of course it can.

And it can heal the body.

Anything in life can hurt and heal, even the things we most take for granted. Sunlight provides Vitamin D but burns if we get too much. Breathing gives us oxygen but if incorrectly controlled can stress the respiratory and nervous systems. Good sleep stimulates our immune systems and aids the healing of tissues in our bodies, but poor sleep places us at greater risk for illness.

Yoga asana is no different. Our practice has the potential to increase flexibility and strength, concentration and awareness, as well as reduce stress and depression; and it also comes with the same inherent risk as anything else.

It’s dialectical.

Broad’s article may have created ripples, and some cases fear (read the comments in article), throughout the yogasphere; however, for me it only serves as a reminder that “yoga is the quest for truth”, and the truth is intricate, multi-dimensional, and always paradoxical.

As a yoga practitioner, I prefer to embrace and hone the healing qualities my practice brings to my life. As a yoga teacher, if I remain committed to the ancient practice of ahimsa, “nonviolence”, the physical risks will inherently be honored and acknowledged in my teaching. For as Judith Lasater says,

“if one can perfect the practice of ahimsa, one need learn no other practice of yoga, for all other practices are subsumed in it…practicing breathing or postures without ahimsa negates the benefits these practices offer”.

What do you think: can yoga wreck your body? Or do you agree it’s all dialectical?



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- who has written 6 posts on Yoga Modern.

Lara Veon is a regular contributor to Yoga Modern. She also works as a body-centered psychotherapist and consults for Mindful Practices, a school wellness organization bringing yoga and wellness programs to schools and educators throughout the country. Her home is Chicago, IL where you can find her loving, laughing, and most likely standing on her head.

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