Can Yoga Wreck Your Body? Response to a Student Question

I look forward to answering your questions in this blog.  Please feel free to leave a comment or e-mail your questions to tracy@wholelifeyoga.com.

A student asks:   Do you have a response to the New York Times article  article called “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body?”   As a yoga teacher, how can I be safe in my own teaching and practice?  A link to the article is below.

How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body

Thanks for the question.  I’ve been forwarded this article several times in the past 24 hours.  Let me start with a qualification to my response:  I teach in a lineage, viniyoga, that is known for its conservative approach, and even within that lineage, I am known as a conservative teacher.  I have long been concerned about the injury rate and what I consider negligent practices in many public yoga classes. So I can’t really disagree with much of the article.

However, the article also makes me sad, because it lumps all asana practices together into one bucket.  Although I do believe most lineages have similar philosophical teachings, our physical practices differ considerably.  So to say the injury rate is the same among all is a gross oversimplification—and just plain incorrect.  When I read the specific practices the article cited as being unsafe, I kept saying to myself “But I would never teach that.” 

Many public yoga classes do, however.  For example, the head of my lineage has specifically asked that we never teach headstand in group asana classes, due to the unacceptable level of risk.  Therefore I do not, nor do I allow headstand to be taught at my studio, unless it is part of my yoga teacher training program.  However, I’ve had many students tell me they were taught headstand in beginner classes at other venues.

I believe this is a mistake.  Many, most even, of the benefits of yoga can be achieved in simpler, safer poses than the ones seen on the cover of Yoga Journal.

All that said, I find it interesting that the teacher in the article claiming to be a proponent of safer yoga said to his class, “I make it as hard as possible. It’s up to you to make it easy on yourself.”  This is, in a word, wrong.

I firmly believe it is up to us as teachers to teach a class that isn’t as hard as possible.  But to teach our students how to be mindful and aware of how their body is served when it’s not working “as hard as possible.” Our work is to teach our classes in a way that is accessible and safe.

Now no physical practice, including yoga, will ever be 100% risk free.  Neither is walking down the street.  We can never guarantee a student won’t suffer an injury in a yoga class.  But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do everything in our power to keep our classes safe.

Which comes back to your question.  What can we do as teachers?

First, get training.  Then get more training.  Study a lineage, like viniyoga, that focuses on understanding the physical issues of a student and adapts the practice of yoga to that student.  This involves not only teaching mindfulness in practice, but also using physical adaptation of postures and specific sequencing principles that maximize the benefits of yoga while minimizing its risks. Shy away from teachers and yoga styles that believe “one form fits all” regardless of the physical structure of the student.

Second, understand the level of your students and teach to that level.  Not your own level.  Not what your students wish was their level. Not even what your students think is their level.  You will lose some students this way.  But you will gain others.

Just yesterday I had two new students in my class.  They didn’t know each other, and they had different yoga experiences in the past.  Both of them came up to me after class and thanked me for making my “all levels” class accessible to them.  They told me they had been frightened to take a yoga class again, after having been asked to do things beyond their level in other “all levels” yoga classes in other venues.

“All levels” classes should be accessible to all levels.  Not taught to experienced students with the assumption that beginners and students with injuries will know when something is unsafe for them and choose not to do it.  And beginner’s classes should be beginner’s level.  Period.

Finally, if you don’t know how to keep a student safe in your class, don’t teach to that student.  There are cases in which a given class is not appropriate for a student.  We can’t be shy about letting him or her know that.  The more training and experience you have, the more you will be able to accommodate a wide variety of students.  But even with the highest level of training, group yoga classes aren’t appropriate for everyone.  Know when to say “no.”

I hope that helps!

Tracy Weber

More information about Whole Life Yoga’s teacher training program can be found at our web site:  Yoga Teacher Training at Whole Life Yoga.

This entry was posted in Asana, Student Questions, Teacher Training, Teaching Yoga, Viniyoga, Yoga Books. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Can Yoga Wreck Your Body? Response to a Student Question

  1. melanie says:

    extremely well said – thank you for your thoughtful response to the NYT article. I shared a link to this on facebook – perhaps you could post a link to this on the WLY facebook page.

  2. Emily Boardway says:

    Thank you for this eloquent response, Tracy. I thought of you as soon as I read the NYT article. As one of your former (and ongoing) teacher training students, I am so grateful you spotlight the importance of adapting the practice to the practitioner. After all, isn’t that ultimate flexibility?

    I am confident your Whole Life’s Teacher Training program has helped me prevent my own potential injuries while practicing yoga. I’m lucky I learned how to listen to my body and respect my limitations.

    Again, thank you. Thank you for sharing your wise voice for others to benefit from.

    • Whole Life Yoga says:

      Thank you Emily. So very nice to hear from you! And I’m so VERY glad you feel like the training helped you in that way.

  3. I took my training with you, Tracy, specifically because after my first training and in the beginning of my teaching I realized that I didn’t have enough tools to keep my students safe. It constantly saddens me to see the more/bigger/better/fancier approach to asana being promoted and makes my personal practice all the more precious and useful to me as it is a refuge, based on Viniyoga. All practitioners, whether students or teachers (who should never cease being students), would benefit from more emphasis on the intention of a pose and variations and modifications which make that intention available to them, rather than the aesthetic aim that is predominant in our western yoga culture.

  4. Ann Naumann says:

    Thanks for posting a response to this article Tracy! I feel fortunate to have found a yoga lineage and studio that practices yoga that doesn’t expect me to push beyond my own boundaries while at the same time encouraging me to develop and grow. I feel sad for people who think yoga is all about aspiring to something they cannot safely do.

  5. kim says:

    Thanks for an excellent response. But I think we can go even further — it is the teacher’s responsibility to teach with awareness and safety in mind — but it is the practitioner’s responsibility to practice responsibly and with loving kindness towards him or herself. THAT is, in fact, one of the main POINTS of yoga.

    As a yoga teacher trained in several modalities, and specializing in restorative yoga, it pains me every time I hear someone mention “hot yoga” in particular. What good can come from artificially loosening ones joints so that you can do more, go further – for the moment? What happens to the body after you cool down? What happens to the joints years later?

    People who are not ready, and who do not truly observe or understand yoga teachings, commit the first yoga sin – doing harm to oneself. True yoginis know better…or at least know to look at themselves and their motivations… Of course, there is the rub – it is the difference between those who are studying yoga and those who are getting a work-out. Yoga was never intended to be practiced in that way. Like you, this article saddens me. Yoga never intends harm. It is self ego which causes harm, not yoga.

    Unfortunately, however, in a place and time where it is all but impossible for people to separate their competitive/goal and ego driven westerm culture from their individual identity of Self — their own True Nature, it is likely that they will continue to harm themselves.

    Sad thing is that they will then wrongly and unfairly blame yoga (or their teachers) for their problem.

    In typical fashion…

    • Whole Life Yoga says:

      Agreed. I plan to write a future blog article about how students can learn to listen to their own bodies. For that awareness is also key.

  6. Bravo! I received this article from several sources as well and plan to post your answer on my Yoga Empowered Facebook Page along for more clarification.
    Suz

  7. Adria says:

    Tracy… As soon as I heard about that article (on local TV news, already prone to hyperbole, I think), I thought of you and of your studio… and I felt grateful and reassured to know that the yoga I practice, when I do practice, is safe for each person because it is shaped differently for each person. Thank you. :) <

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