The yoga championships came to town yesterday.
I will leave the evaluation of the evolution of these competitions to the yoga historians, although I don’t have to be Georg Feuerstein or Mark Singleton to have some pretty serious doubts that they are a “longstanding tradition in India that spans thousands of years” – to quote their promotional materials. They also explain that while “the majority of points earned are for physical ability, there are points awarded to reflect the character (emotional, mental and spiritual) of the competitor as a whole.” I wish that I could have gone just to determine how one is judged on their spiritual character, but I was at the studio teaching my Saturday morning class.
This yoga circus comes fast on the heels a recent New York Times article entitled “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” by William J. Broad. This expose on the dangers of yoga suggests that most of us would be wise to quit yoga before we succumb to a debilitating injury or a stroke.
While the subject matter was thought-provoking, I believed the tone of it was needlessly alarmist. As a yoga teacher, though, I felt a little too biased towards the benefits of the practice to comment neutrally on such a piece. Luckily for me, my students felt no such restrictions. “Did you see the New York Times article?” one asked me. “What utter bullshit. I have no idea what they’re talking about. I don’t even know what those poses were they were supposedly doing.”
She made a good point. The illustrations accompanying the article were photographs of dancers demonstrating ill-conceived versions of shoulderstand and plow, both poses that have a high risk of injury if performed carelessly. Considering that the article essentially painted these poses as a stroke waiting to happen, it seems unconscionable that they endangered these poor dancers careers by asking them to hold the poses for the camera, and hold them so very wrongly.
I teach shoulderstand infrequently, but when I do I teach it carefully, step by step, and with I hope adequate explanation of its risks and benefits. In one such class, I had a student bent on insubordination. Any time I mentioned something I didn’t want the class to do, she seemed to choose to do just that. As we performed various stages of shoulderstand at the wall, I asked that once students were in any version of the pose, not to turn their heads to the side, but stay centered. (If you’ll notice, that is exactly what the poor, put upon NYT models are doing. Ouch.) Immediately, this woman popped up into shoulderstand, turned her head strongly, and smiled at me. I made a beeline to stand at her side and ask her to bring her head back to neutral. She just gave a little giggle. In a voice I had never before and have never since used in my teaching career, I said: “I need you to come out of this pose. NOW.”
When we step onto the yoga mat, we are truly captains of our own ship. It’s not generally a contact sport like football, where someone is going to tackle us and throw our bodies somewhere we didn’t choose to go. Our practice reflects our own habits, our predilections and prejudices, our decisions. Of course you can hurt yourself in yoga practice. It would be silly and naïve to assert otherwise. But might this be evidence not of the pitfalls of any particular physical practice, but a tendency inherent to human beings? Any discipline can either refine and restrain our more unfortunate and reckless habits, or reinforce them in a ritualized ego stroke. Yoga is not immune.
The article takes as its primary subject the schools of yoga that are extremely physically vigorous - the power flow and the hot yoga you are likely to find down the street at the Yoga Championships. This is a very visible aspect of the yoga population. But my instinct tells me that, just as in religion or politics, a vocal minority can often drown out a quiet majority.
I believe yoga culture is already changing in America, with very little fanfare. People, some injured, some not, are emigrating from gym workouts and vigorous flow classes to more inclusive, less dogmatic studios. They are curious about the origins of yoga, and what it really means to their lives, mentally and emotionally as well as physically.
On the day of the championships, I taught Eagle Pose in class. I noticed as I wandered the room that many of the students had their eyes closed, and almost all of the rest had a very soft look about the eyes. I mused aloud about how surprising that seemed, since we generally refer to “Eagle Eyes” as the sharp gaze of a predator.
Responses flowed out of the students:
“Maybe the efficiency of the predator’s gaze comes more from his ability to relax within himself.”
“Maybe his prey is within, not without.”
“The eagle is wrapped within himself, he’s resting.”
A conversation like this doesn’t make as sensational an article as a yoga induced emergency room visit, but I believe they are happening, noticed or not, at little studios across the country. Students and teachers, one by one, deciding for themselves that the risks of practicing yoga are far outweighed by the risks of not practicing at all.