The most important parts of any exercise or yoga practice are the processes of goal setting and removing yourself from your own paradigm into a strategy-based one. There’s no denying the explosion of fitness and yoga multimedia in our lives, which leads to quick results being advertised to us from several directions. To have a truly transformative experience with exercise or yoga, one must think of it as a process of dismantling assumptions about quick results.
The assumptions and cultural beliefs that are attached to yoga are treacherous. A common belief about yoga is that it’s good for every type of body and reaps massive rewards, such as loose muscles, fluid movement, and reduced stress in daily life. However, all exercise has an inherent risk and yoga is no different, despite what everyone seems to be telling you.
What’s so bad about yoga?
Convincing the general public that they need to invest time into mitigating the risk of yoga injury is a difficult task. Thankfully, this has already been done by William J. Broad, a senior science editor at the New York Times and longtime yoga student.
In his highly acclaimed and criticized book, The Science of Yoga: the Risks and Rewards, Broad echoes the concerns I also share about modern yoga classes. Additionally, the book also praises the scientific benefits of yoga practice.
William J. Broad started practicing yoga in 1970. In his book, he tells the story of how he discovered the benefits of yoga practice but also became aware of its risks through significant injury. Because of this, his curiosity compelled him to widen his perspective on the practice of yoga in modernity.
One of Broad’s main points in The Science of Yoga is that there are many healing presumptions when it comes to yoga. He emphasizes that one cannot heal the body and mind by walking into a yoga studio a handful of times because yoga is not suitable for the vast majority of people.
His research and experience give us several reasons to avoid assumptions that yoga practice is an automatic healer. He takes the reader in a more cautious direction for considering mindful practice: listen to the body and its protective mechanisms while remembering to question its limitations.
In his book, Broad describes many of his injuries that resulted from yoga practice, including:
Extreme positions in the neck causing restrictions in blood flow, similar to a stroke
Overstretched muscles and torn cartilage
Lower back muscle injuries
Cervical disc injuries
Thoracic outlet syndrome (nerve compression from the neck into the arms)
Various types of shoulder injuries
Although both of the following are unpopular opinions, they are based on scientific data and need to be said: yoga can expose followers to injuries and stretching to gain more motion in a pose is overrated (1). In my experience as a MAT™ practitioner, I have helped several clients with rehabilitation from yoga injuries.
Movement and the body’s protective practices
The omnipresent nervous system has a big job to do: it’s essentially an alarm system. The system is sensitive to anything that could cause danger to the body – everything from food to exercise. For example, with muscle tightness comes a limited range of motion around the associated joints, and maybe other joints nearby. This tightness is a message in the form of a sensation. This sensation is familiar to many – and unfortunately, it’s normal for many as well. That sensation is your alarm system doing it’s job, this is like a ‘check engine’ light for fatigue, achy joints,and/ or pain. There can be numerous reasons behind the sensation. It is both an opportunity to learn about your body and check-in about a warning sign for injury.
Movement Pathway is a concept that I use to help my clients who are recovering from yoga injuries. We use them to create a pain-free yoga and exercise experience. Movement Pathways are exercises that serve as positive communication to the nervous system, a gentle reminder that the alarm system can go idle and that healthy movement is being engaged. They are a combination of gentle stretches, isometric contractions, and repetitive fluid motions. This is one way to prevent injury and set up your yoga experience for success.
Solutions: more strategy to get the stretch?
There is a big gap in our understanding of the importance of yoga. Before leaping into yoga practice, you need to ask yourself a few questions. Just because there is a studio on every corner doesn’t mean it’s the perfect place to find your best physical self.
Is your attempt at yoga a spiritual manifestation (the historical continuation of yoga practice) or intended to create a well-rounded wellness habit? In both cases, I have found that Yogis are focused on opening, stretching into positions, and placing themselves in a mindset that concentrates on those two things. Sadly, this can lead down a road of competitive, ego-driven poses and straight to injury.
If you are dedicating yourself to spiritual manifestation and deep yoga poses, you can either embrace injury as part of the process (which is not recommended, of course) or you can strategize with strength training, just like any athlete. A shift to strength in poses and finding the right amount of muscular tension can be the new (and safe) sweet spot for Yogis.
If you do yoga for your health and to create a well-rounded practice, it is important to consider the following questions:
-What do you want to preserve concerning your physical health?
-What do you want to avoid on your wellness path?
-What do you want to achieve? Can you picture yourself achieving it?
If you have a spiritual practice of yoga, it is important to consider this set of questions:
-Am I giving my power away to my teacher and not listening to my own nervous system’s messages?
-Am I perpetuating my egoic patterns in the name of a spiritual practice?
Your strategy may be that you need both gentle movements to warm-up (Movement Pathways) and strength training. You can learn to own your movement and listen to your nervous system with the addition of strategic warm-ups. However, the answers may point you in the direction of avoiding yoga altogether.
Finding the right strategy is an individualistic exercise and the answers will apply only to you. They will be based on your previous injuries, joint wear and tear, and your exercise/athletic history.
One of the many benefits of yoga practice is the ability to gain physical awareness of the body and movement. Learning to recognize pain, discomfort, and tightness is equally – if not more -important than recognizing movement fluidness, confidence in trying new poses, and connecting breath to movement.