Thursday, May 22, 2014

How Fear Can Wreck Your Fun

(January 2012) The NY Times recently published an article, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body,” which has resulted in a great deal of discussion and controversy. Is yoga dangerous? Well, all activity is potentially dangerous. Life is inherently unsafe. People used to understand that. Forgive me for being skeptical about the modern obsession with safety, which I suspect has more to do with protecting revenue than protecting the public.

As a teacher I do endeavor to make yoga as safe as possible for my students. I practice and teach according to the principles of Krishnamacharya, that the postures exist for the breath and the breath guides the movement. Yoga is adapted to the individual. Each person must listen to their own body and breath. I tell my students that yoga done correctly feels GOOD; if a posture hurts, don’t do it. A big part of my job is teaching them how to listen to their body, both to experience ecstasy and also to avoid injury.

This is NOT what is taught in gymnastics-oriented “yoga” classes where students are encouraged to push their physical limits and forced into inappropriate postures. It could be argued that such a practice is not, in fact, yoga. Historically yoga is a spiritual discipline of which asana is just one part. And for me personally, yoga is a devotional practice. But I am reluctant to impose my own definition on everybody else, considering that approximately 20 million Americans are doing “yoga” just for exercise.

I started doing yoga at age 13 and I am now 48, and yes, in my youth I did go for the more difficult poses like handstand and dropping back into backbend, which were very doable at age 15 but which now I only attempt at the beach or on very soft grass. Has 35 years of serious yoga practice – including headstand and shoulder stand, in that order, as part of my daily routine – wrecked my body? On the contrary, my body is in awesome shape! Thanks mostly to yoga I am flexible and strong, ripped, even, and weigh the same as I did in high school, and I have not incurred any injuries.

I do have a “wonky” knee which can no longer slip easily into full lotus; I have to be careful with it to avoid pain. I don’t know whether this was caused by the many hours spent sitting in lotus over the years. My father also has bad knees, had one replaced recently, and has never done yoga at all, so it might be genetic. I can tell you, though, if this minor occasional knee pain was in fact caused by sitting in lotus all those years, it was well worth it, as I will explain later.

Now as to the question of “danger,” if I seem blasé, it is because compared to all the dangerous activities in my life, yoga is the least of these. I rode my first pony at about age 3. In adolescence my friends and I would gallop our horses across dunes and down the beach, jumping over anything in our path – lawn chairs, driftwood – in our bikinis, the sun on our brown bodies (without sunscreen), laughing, the wind in our hair; we didn’t wear helmets. At times the horses would decide they’d had enough, and bolt for home. Then, you could either hold on for dear life or, depending on how much bucking was involved, pick a relatively soft spot to bail off before being bucked off at high speeds. No big deal; you learn how to fall. In the course of my equine activities I have been bitten, kicked, stepped on, bucked off and even had my horse fall on top of me and knock me out cold, none of which ever resulted in an ER visit and only made me realize how amazingly sturdy our bodies really are.

My other dangerous childhood activities included ballet, which as we know is harmful to the feet and ankles, but we do it for the sheer joy of dance, and gymnastics, with uneven bars and balance beam. If you think postures are dangerous on the floor, try doing them on a 4-inch wide beam several feet off the ground. As a child I also spent plenty of time roller-skating on cement, and ice-skating, and had my share of falls. My parents taught me to swim in the ocean at 18 months and I’ve been swimming and surfing, sometimes in big waves or sharky waters, ever since. As a teenager I had a dirt bike that I consistently crashed. Also in my teens on more than one occasion I hiked off-trail across a mountainside on loose shale in my flip-flops with a thousand-foot drop below. In hindsight that probably was not safe. Nor was racing my horse against cars. But anyway, the point is, yoga pales in comparison with the other dangerous stuff I have been doing.

But, just how dangerous IS yoga, in its popular form? According to the Consumer Products Safety Commission, the number of yoga injuries treated in ER or doctor’s offices was about 5500 in 2007, at which time there were an estimated 15.8 million practitioners, or 0.035 percent of participants. By contrast, weight training injuries were at 0.12-0.15 percent, and golf injuries were 0.39 percent. Note, these are all well below 1% of participants. No doubt the numbers are much higher for activities such as football, soccer, skateboarding, skiing, etc. Running or even walking can result in injuries. Like I said, activity is inherently dangerous.

On the other hand, sitting on your ass is dangerous! I say this humorously but the fact is, there is an epidemic of obesity in the U.S., with about 33% of adults and 17% of children being obese. In association, the incidence of type 2 diabetes is now double what it was 25 years ago and is now striking younger people, as is cardiovascular disease. This is largely due to a lack of physical activity, and therefore it could well be argued that statistically, NOT doing yoga is actually more dangerous than doing yoga, even the poorly taught variety.

But what if, in fact, the classical yoga that I have been doing since childhood really WAS that dangerous - if I had it to do over, would I? Hell yeah, and no regrets. Yoga made big promises and it more than delivered. Being ripped and having great abs and sometimes being carded buying booze at 48 is just a fringe benefit of the practice. All those years doing asana and pranayama and sitting in lotus allowed for meditation, something that is difficult to put into words because of the dualistic nature of language, but which my teacher calls our “natural state.” At first it was only for a moment, brief glimpses of peace and bliss, a fleeting sense of oneness. As the years went by the moments became hours, sitting completely immersed in Bliss, divine Love and Oneness, free from attachment and fear, the chattering of the monkey-mind silenced. Then one day the meditative state suddenly overflowed and became my entire reality, which is way better than anything I could have imagined. Had I been injured in the process it would have been totally worth it.

Of course, this is NOT the type of “yoga” that is resulting in the 0.035 percent of students being injured. Or, is it? I do, after all, include headstand and shoulder stand in my daily practice, which apparently can cause stroke from “arterial dissection,” an extremely rare condition which if a person is predisposed, can also happen from whiplash, head-banging, vigorous coughing or sneezing, orgasm, or even tilting one’s head back for a shampoo at the beauty parlor. I figure if doing headstand was going to kill me, it probably would have by now. It doesn’t feel like my neck is being compressed; it feels like the universe is dangling me by the feet and my head just happens to be touching the ground. It feels good, comfortable, peaceful.

As for my students, I’m not that concerned about yoga wrecking their bodies because most of them have done a bang-up job of it already, thanks to activities like horseback riding, ballet and running, and/or a poor diet, and often with the help of doctors, especially bad drugs and botched surgeries. They come to me to fix the existing wreckage. We rarely do anything that is very exciting or scary. I do have two young, strong, athletic students who practice headstand and backbend, but for the most part we just stretch and move gently, all the while listening to our body and breathing in the Bliss.

So, what is all this fear-mongering about? As we have seen, the incidence of injury from yoga (even badly taught) is statistically quite low, compared to other activities. But if even a few people are injured, then clearly something must be done! More regulation, more stringent certification is needed because, after all, it’s really about protecting the public, isn’t it?!

No, it is not. It is about protecting the income of those who are promoting the regulations. There is indeed an over-abundance of yoga teachers from an economic standpoint. I know this because students used to cheerfully pay me $20 an hour in Berkeley in the 1980s, and now they are telling me $10 is too much and I really ought to charge $7 because it’s cheaper at the gym. The public awareness of yoga injuries (however rare) has suddenly become a big deal because it provides the perfect excuse to enforce new regulations that may or may not make anyone safer but will certainly eliminate a lot of teachers from the field and thereby make others richer.

Those who become certified under the new regulations will not be teachers like myself and my friends, or Glenn Black, those of us who have decades of experience, who specialize in teaching one-on-one, but lack the existing Alliance certification. It will be the people who are already Alliance-certified and/or who can afford to go back to school to get the new certification, who will then be able to charge more due to decreased competition. The government will make money off the licensing fees. And the liability insurance companies will raise their premiums to reflect the newly discovered dangers of yoga, thereby increasing their profits. Everybody wins! Except, of course, for the teachers who will be out of work, and the students who will have to pay more while being subjected to an impersonal, one-size-fits-all approach to yoga under the new rules. Regulation by its very nature seeks to enforce the same standards on everyone, which is exactly the opposite of the individualized approach which is so needed in yoga.

You probably think I am just being cynical, but wait and see.

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