Thursday, January 19, 2012


The sensationalist article “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” (NY Times magazine, January 8) provoked countless reactions from yogi and yogini —and from the studios and multi-billion fitness industry with the word “yoga” in their branding and labels.
I am a certified hatha yoga teacher and have been a yogini for over two decades, before it became trendy and then mainstream. My hatha yoga practice spanned many different traditions and styles, from “classic hatha” to “vinyasa flow”, “ashtanga” and “kundalini” —quotation marks have a reason, as it will be explained later. I often resorted to yoga for solace, stress release, flexibility or strength training, as a morning prayer or for relief from fibromyalgia symptoms. Sometimes minor injuries resulted from inadequate prior warm-up, but definitely I never suffered major damage from my yoga practice. So I was quite puzzled reading that “some yoga postures threatened to cause strokes even in relatively young, healthy people” or that there are cases in “which yoga’s extreme bending and contortions resulted in some degree of brain damage.”

Is yoga to blame? My answer is no, as I strongly believe that the cause of physical injuries is strictly related is how yoga has been taught and learned in the western world over the last two decades.
Yoga is a 5000 year old discipline, born and practiced (until less than 100 years ago) almost exclusively in India, a country with a culture, geography, climate and lifestyle very different from the western world. Yoga is not only a series of physical exercises, but also a philosophy, spiritual belief system and lifestyle: yoga is overall an integrated discipline and practice where body mind and spirit are interconnected. A rigorous written discussion of yoga can be found in the “Yoga Sutras” a compilation of 194 sutras (aforisms) attributed to Patañjali (2nd century BCE)
What is commonly referred to as yoga in our contemporary vocabulary should instead be called “hatha yoga”, as one of the branches of yoga dealing with the physical body. Hatha yoga was introduced in the 15th century by Yogi Swatmarama in the classic Hindu text “Hatha Yoga Pradipika.” The treatise presents a series of asanas (postures) and pranayama (breathing techniques) which can aid in purifying the body to achieve optimal conditions for meditation. Asana is defined already in the “Yoga Sutra” of Patanjali as “a steady, comfortable posture (sthira sukham asanam)”.
This semantic introduction is not a scholarly diversion, but can help to explain why I believe injuries happen in hatha yoga as practiced here.

The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit yuj (union), and the union in hatha yoga happens at different levels, including the union between breath and movement and the union between the body and the mind, which can be interpreted in our western vocabulary as awareness of movement. Mindfulness is what perhaps differentiates hatha yoga from the majority of physical exercise routines we are accustomed to. And mindfulness is often what is missing from the many styles derived from the original yoga asanas.

Typically hatha yoga instructors, especially in fitness centers, have very little training in yoga philosophy or even in anatomy and physiology. The often twenty-something instructors have flexibility and agility —by birth or obtained through other types of exercise training— and teach twisting and extreme back bending without the proper physiology knowledge, measuring by their own body capabilities. Often no consideration of the individual student's physical background is given and asanas are demonstrated without modifications.  “One size fits all”  does not lead to a safe hatha yoga practice. Every person has a different body and our own body flexibility and strength changes with age, seasons and even time of the day.  For instance, my range of flexibility changes dramatically —low to high— from morning to evening; in my individual yoga routine, I have different sequences for the AM or PM practice. Inversions should not be practiced during the menstrual cycle or with a blood-pressure conditions or glaucoma. And there are many other asanas which should not be practiced in the presence of chronic or acute medical conditions. Warning the student of negative effects was very much emphasized when I attended the teacher training at Integral Yoga Institute, one of the oldest yoga communities in the US.

Temperature is another major influencing factor in many hatha yoga related injuries. Warm-ups and cool down are common in any athletic training: the increase of blood flow to the working muscle results in decreased muscle stiffness, improves elasticity and reducing the risk of strains and the range of motion around a joint is increased. Blood vessels also dilate with increased heat, lowering the resistance to blood flow and stress on the heart. With the rising of blood temperature, the binding of oxygen to hemoglobin weakens and the oxygen is more available to working muscles, improving endurance. Hatha yoga classes are instead taught usually without proper warm-up routines, leading the student to the bending, twisting and jumping of numerous sun salutations routines (a typical class opener) without adequate rising of the natural body heat. We should not forget India’s climate with temperature much higher than ours, making not necessary warm-ups before the asanas practice. ENERGIA, my yoga inspired routine includes 10 minutes of cardiovascular movements, inspired by Kundalini yoga, right after the initial centering sequence .  The Indian lifestyle, where cross-legged sitting positions and squatting was part of daily life (as mentioned in the NY Times article), also promotes a greater natural flexibility. So is the Indian vegetarian diet, much better suited to the asanas and their influence on internal organs.

Another major cause of injuries is the competitiveness of our culture, which is often present in the group practice. Looking at the flexible twisted bodies of the instructor or the other students compel us to go beyond our own body limitations, causing frustration or injuries: we are constantly brainwashed to achieve the look and coolness forced upon us by our consumerist culture, often coming from the fashionable gym du jour with the photos of sexy models performing a dhanurasana wearing a bikini—New Yorkers know what I am talking about :-)

These are my initial reactions and thoughts on such an important topic, more to come soon on dogmatism and hatha yoga celebrities. In the meantime my advice is very much inline with the good old common sense: practice hatha yoga with mindfulness of how you move and breath, without challenging your body but understanding what causes discomfort in asanas; you will progress into flexibility and strength with a regular practice. And, instead of forcing your body to twist like a pretzel, educate your mind on yoga as an integrated discipline, science and lifestyle, much older than the health club schedule.