How Yoga Hasn’t Wrecked My Body (Yet)

Like many yoga practitioners, I read with great interest the recent New York Times article, How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body by William Broad — See New York Times article.

The article seemed to me like an important caveat, especially considering the large number of people in the US currently practicing yoga (20 million and counting, according to some estimates). It also made intuitive sense for a couple of reasons. First, many people I know personally have been injured doing yoga. Second, any exercise program has the potential to cause harm as well as good (a friend of mine recently had an almost-fatal heart attack during a kick-boxing class). And finally, although everybody knows that conventional medications and medical treatment can cause side-effects and problems – somehow anything deemed “alternative” seems to get a free ride when it comes to considering the down side.

Whenever I offer cautions about some Eastern technique, herb or nutritional supplement, I get stares from friends and patients as if to say, “How can you criticize them? They’re like motherhood and apple pie.” But we know that even motherhood can be risky to your health (such as sleep deprivation, worries about the kids, aggravation from ungrateful children etc) and apple pie can make you fat. I am not suggesting that people refrain from these activities – though they are both best enjoyed in moderation – but simply that many things that we do in life, including highly worthwhile things, are inherently risky. How then do we moderate the risk?

Sun Salutation

Some years ago, I had a chronic illness (thankfully long since cured), which made me irritable. One day I suggested to my assistant that maybe yoga would help. She seized upon the suggestion with disturbing alacrity – in fact, I had never seen her show that level of enthusiasm for any other chore I had asked of her. The next thing I knew Lakshmi, a tall, good-looking woman in a white jump suit arrived at my door, and my regular yoga classes had begun.

Many different forms of yoga are currently available. My teacher practices simple hatha yoga (the Shivananda routine, if that means anything to you), which was familiar to me as I had learned the same type of yoga 30 years earlier in South Africa. It is a balanced routine with breathing, stretching, an aerobic component (the sun salutation) and elements of meditation (mindfulness) and contemplation (one or two generic prayers that refer to peace and personal responsibility, and could offend nobody but the most hardened atheist). In this form of yoga, one moves slowly from one posture (asana) to another, and you don’t turn the ambient heat up high, which is part of the popular Bikram yoga.

Lady-walkingAs I have thought about all the different elements in my yoga routine, they all seem to offer some value of one type or another. For example, bending the spine in different ways keeps it flexible. Often when I see an elderly person teetering across the street, spine stiffened in a fixed position position – which makes it harder to stay balanced or turn suddenly – I wonder how that person might have walked differently had they practiced yoga for many years. It seems obvious that flexibility must protect the back from injury.

If there is something I’m doing in yoga that feels uncomfortable, or if some part of my body strongly resists a movement, I just don’t do it. That’s a basic rule in any exercise routine geared at keeping a person fit and healthy – not to push yourself too far. Likewise, we learn not to force open or closed a piece of equipment so as not to break it. It’s just common sense. For competitive athletes practicing under the vigilant eye of a trained coach, the rules may be different. Most yoga practitioners do not fall into that category. Yet, the competitiveness of our society encroaches upon the yoga studio, to judge by people looking around to see whether they are stretching as far as their neighbors. Clearly these are pathways to injury, and it’s not surprising that some people have wrecked their bodies due to overzealously practicing their yoga routine.

My advice is that we consider yoga part of a healthy lifestyle. We need to breathe, stretch, be mindful of our bodies, reflect, meditate and, perhaps, pray. Check your machismo at the door, stop looking at who’s doing the plow better than you are, be aware of your body, and enjoy this ancient practice. It has worked for me for the past ten or more years since Lakshmi first walked through my door and thankfully I haven’t wrecked my body yet.

Wishing you Light and Transcendence,

Norman

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6 Comments

  1. Hello!

    It is true that TM or any type of Yoga is undoubtedly good for the physiology and psychology, we cannot neglect the materialistic world. Even though spirituality is a very essential ingredient for human life, no one can deny that the materialistic world which comprises of the plethora of life, restaurants,hospitals,and everything is also equally important.

    The only thing is that too much of wealth and academic education cannot simply support human well being. Spirituality is the great nourishment that waters the roots of the materialistic universe.

    Everyone requires some wealth just to support their life, but money is not everything. Money is a means to lead a comfortable life and it is not an end in itself.

    But, modern people are running mad after money and they forget about their physical and mental health. This is the root cause of the major problems in life nowadays.

    Hope that you can understand my ideas, Dr Norman.

    Jai Gurudev.

    - by C.Rajeev in January, 2012
  2. Hello Doctor!

    I humbly suggest the world famous book “Man’s Eternal Quest” written by Swami Paramahansa yogananda, as the best book for Meditators of all sects.

    It is a widely read book among all foreigners as well as Indians.

    Thanks.

    - by C.Rajeev in February, 2012
  3. Hi Dr Norman,

    I have a few suggestions for the rich and educated people of the world:

    There are millions of under educated,under developed people in the world: They do not have enough money to take care of their health and meet their immediate needs.

    So, it will be better if the educated and rich people come forward to assist such unfortunate people, at least in a micro level.

    There is a famous saying: “If you help thy friend’s boat reach the shore, your’s will also reach the shore”.

    I appreciate Mr Bill Gates, Founder of Microsoft Corporation, for having donated half of his wealth to charity. I wish that many rich people follow his example.

    Charity is also a noble act just like Meditation.

    Jai Gurudev.

    - by C.Rajeev in February, 2012
  4. Hello Dr.,

    According to the Laws of Physics, for every action, there is always an equal and opposite reaction.

    This is also the main basic principle of the Yoga of Action…Whatever action we do in this life or previous lives, there is a consequence…This is called the “Karma Yoga” in the famous Hindu treatise, “The Bhagawad Gita,

    - by C.Rajeev in March, 2012
  5. Hello!

    I want to share one of my personal experiences.

    In my place, there is frequent electricity failure, and I thought at first, that it is very unfortunate.

    Later, it came to me as a blessing in disguise.

    During the power cut, I was completely cut off from watching TV or surfing the Net or even listening to radio.

    This naturally made my mind to turn inward. I was able to understand that in the absence of external stimuli, the mind takes its natural transition inward.

    May be this is the actual reason why our ancient Saints easily followed Yoga, without any disturbances.

    Okay.

    - by C.Rajeev in March, 2012
  6. I was someone who stopped doing hatha yoga because I would often injure myself. I discovered a muscle re-education program called Somatics that taught me to always be aware of my breathing while stretching. Anytime you stretch to the extent that your breathing cannot be full and regular, you have entered the injury zone. You muscles will contract to protect against injury. I suggest keeping your primary focus on breathing, If breathing is unrestricted, the muscles can relax and stretch to their maximum

    - by Wes Busch in May, 2012