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The “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” article in the New York Times recently has gained quite a reputation in the Yoga community. The article adapted from “The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards,” by William J. Broad is a bit of a scare tactic article, but brings very important information to light. Thank you to William for bringing this awareness of yoga to the public eye and for creating space to talk about Yoga’s risks and benefits. With articles like this we can begin to develop a safer and more effective landscape in a fast growing popular industry.
If we want to see yoga continue to grow and spread to help heal people’s bodies and minds (and not just be a fitness fad) then we do need to scrutinize what’s happening in the industry and talk about the risks of unqualified teachers and uneducated students. After all, Yoga is a 5000 + year old time tested practice that’s healed more people around the globe than it’s injured, but we need to educate everyone in the market as to how to practice safely and with intelligence.
Personally, I am a professional yoga teacher and I work at one of the leading providers of Yoga in in the industry, YogaWorks. I feel this article needs some clarification as some of my clients are now concerned for their practice.
I’m going to respond to parts of the 5 page article that I find require some attention and clarification so that my clients can continue to feel safe and trust me and educate themselves!
Please feel free to comment on this as well. Great discussion creates a great education!
NYT: “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body”
Nicole: Let’s change the title to: “Educate yourself about yoga and its risks so you can have a lifetime of healthy practice!”
NYT: Black walked around the room, joking and talking. “Is this yoga?” he asked as we sweated through a pose that seemed to demand superhuman endurance. “It is if you’re paying attention.” Throughout the class, he urged us to pay attention to the thresholds of pain. “I make it as hard as possible,” he told the group. “It’s up to you to make it easy on yourself.” The emphasis on holding only a few simple poses, the absence of common inversions like headstands and shoulder stands. He gave me the kind of answer you’d expect from any yoga teacher: that awareness is more important than rushing through a series of postures just to say you’d done them…Black recently took that message to a conference at the Omega Institute, his feelings on the subject deepened by his recent operation. But his warnings seemed to fall on deaf ears. “I was a little more emphatic than usual,” he recalled. “My message was that ‘Asana is not a panacea or a cure-all. In fact, if you do it with ego or obsession, you’ll end up causing problems.’ A lot of people don’t like to hear that.”
Nicole: I agree that the most important aspect of yoga is about being mindful, aware, finding concentration and using the breath. I always say, “If you have lost your breath you have lost your Yoga.” If the breath is gone, you are pushing too far and too hard. Check your Ego at the door. Awareness is most important. At YogaWorks, we place emphasis on slowing down and holding poses statically, so we can maintain this sense of concentration and focus on alignment. We are start at the foundation of a pose and work our way up the body. If you move too fast, it is challenging to align the body, access the subtle actions, incorporate the guidance of the teacher and have the time to adjust and breathe. This is risky. The steadiness and ease that Black mentions comes into play when you have a bit more time. So why rush? People want to “work out”. But what is absent in this mindset is understanding that you don’t have to move fast in order to create heat in the body. We understand if we deepen our breath, we generate sweat and heat from the inside. I can guarantee Black’s students are sweating when they are holding his poses for a long length of time. At YogaWorks, we still flow, if you like that practice, but we don’t feel the need to rush anything so you can understand the messages and sensations the body is sending you.
As Black mentions if you practice from obsession and ego, you aren’t being aware. It’s like anything – if you go too far, too quick, too fast – then there is no balance. Moderation is key to any practice and art form. Asana is designed to quiet the mind. When we gain awareness of the body we eventually come to place of quieting the mind and accessing meditation, peace and stillness.
NYT: Not just students but celebrated teachers too, Black said, injure themselves in droves because most have underlying physical weaknesses or problems that make serious injury all but inevitable. Instead of doing yoga, “they need to be doing a specific range of motions for articulation, for organ condition,” he said, to strengthen weak parts of the body. “Yoga is for people in good physical condition. Or it can be used therapeutically. It’s controversial to say, but it really shouldn’t be used for a general class.”
Nicole: Interesting comment above. I’d like to expound on what Black is saying. I agree that Yoga is difficult in large classes because everyone has such different bodies. If you are in a large class with all these body types and injuries, is there really enough time for a teacher to understand all the injuries and body types in one class and generalize?
It’s important for students to educate themselves on how to be safe and take personal responsibility of their own health and wellness. I know YogaWorks offers fantastic and well educated teachers; intelligent sequencing; the risks of poses; various modifications and adjustments to prevent injury; various levels of postures within each class for a variety of student bodies; props and different levels of classes based on experience too.
But, ultimately we can only control some things. The other part of the equation is the ego as Black discusses and our human competitive nature – are the students listening or blasting out?
As teachers of Yoga, we cannot assume all the risk. We can’t be sure if students are being truthful and vocalizing their injuries to the teachers or their pain levels, etc. This is why it’s very important to start to provide the education necessary to empower the students of yoga to learn and understand their own bodies. Students need to understand what a good, safe effective teacher is and understand more about trainings out there.
We take risks with anything that we do on a daily basis. For instance, we get in our cars every day. We understand the nature of what we are getting ourselves into and we pay close attention. We know that if we are texting and driving we are putting ourselves at risk. Recently, automakers and governing bodies began to campaign to encouraging people not to text and passed laws to enforce them. We believe this article is amazing because it is sending out the same red flag to the industry and now we have an opening and opportunity to begin to educate of the students and bring awareness to quality control of teacher trainings.
NYT: Black seemingly reconciles the dangers of yoga with his own teaching of it by working hard at knowing when a student “shouldn’t do something — the shoulder stand, the headstand or putting any weight on the cervical vertebrae.” Though he studied with Shmuel Tatz, a legendary Manhattan-based physical therapist who devised a method of massage and alignment for actors and dancers, he acknowledges that he has no formal training for determining which poses are good for a student and which may be problematic. What he does have, he says, is “a ton of experience.”
Nicole: There are several things that can be addressed that Black discusses that we wholeheartedly agree with. Teachers need a lot of experience. Also, the student needs to stick with a teacher and a method so they can go deep and their teacher can begin to understand their body. To become a master at anything you need this dedication and practice.
The Yoga practice was designed to be a one on one practice, like any private lesson. A student worked with one, maybe two teachers your whole life. In Western society, we like it fast and furious. We jump around. We like variety. There are fads. Just like there are a million flavors of pasta sauce on the shelves, there are an infinite amount of types of yoga. The creativity in the industry is exciting and amazing, but what happens when the student doesn’t know how to tell the difference? What happens when the student doesn’t know what level they are? What happens when the student jumps from class to class and teacher to teacher?
YogaWorks has worked very hard to build a methodology around safe, effective, foundational sequencing for the lifestyle of the average practitioner. Every teacher that comes through here understands the same method and speaks the same language. They learn this method and then they have to keep educating themselves ongoingly – with credits and certifications. It’s like going to Harvard and getting a business degree. We don’t just offer classes for anyone to teach. Our teachers need to go through the highest levels of certifications and work with a mentor closely and assist classes. They have to continue to work within our system for a long time.
It’s important for students to start to educate themselves on the backgrounds of their teachers. Do your research. Just like you would want to know the credentials of a Harvard professor, you want to know what the background of your teachers and the trainings they come from.
NYT: According to Black, a number of factors have converged to heighten the risk of practicing yoga. The biggest is the demographic shift in those who study it. Indian practitioners of yoga typically squatted and sat cross-legged in daily life, and yoga poses, or asanas, were an outgrowth of these postures. Now urbanites who sit in chairs all day walk into a studio a couple of times a week and strain to twist themselves into ever-more-difficult postures despite their lack of flexibility and other physical problems. Many come to yoga as a gentle alternative to vigorous sports or for rehabilitation for injuries. But yoga’s exploding popularity — the number of Americans doing yoga has risen from about 4 million in 2001 to what some estimate to be as many as 20 million in 2011 — means that there is now an abundance of studios where many teachers lack the deeper training necessary to recognize when students are headed toward injury. “Today many schools of yoga are just about pushing people,” Black said. “You can’t believe what’s going on — teachers jumping on people, pushing and pulling and saying, ‘You should be able to do this by now.’ It has to do with their egos.”
Nicole: On the flip side of the coin, because we sit all day and our posture is poor and our hips are tight, we can find a tremendous amount of relief through a simple yoga practice that heals all the imbalances that occurs from this lifestyle.
Proven benefits include building strength, gaining flexibility, releasing tension, accessing better balance, improving endurance, preventing injury, and recovery. Yoga is also highly adaptable and customizable to people’s needs: a restorative and resting practice, a fast-pasted energy and endurance method, or something in between.
Having teachers saying anything like, ‘You should be able to do this by now.’ definitely is not working from within a yogic construct. We agree this has to do with the teacher’s egos. The best practice for a student is to honor their own body and its messages. We as teachers can guide you and offer a little gentle loving push, but as a student you are the master of your body. We can’t feel what you are feeling. Manage your practice and be vocal and expressive about it.
NYT: But a growing body of medical evidence supports Black’s contention that, for many people, a number of commonly taught yoga poses are inherently risky. The first reports of yoga injuries appeared decades ago, published in some of the world’s most respected journals — among them, Neurology, The British Medical Journal and The Journal of the American Medical Association.
Nicole: There is also a growing body of medical evidence that supports the healing and health that people are experiencing beyond even the physical aspects of the practice that no other physical sport and activity is offering. There are few physical practices that offer the whole mind-body benefits out there. There are studies and research out there that support the health benefits equally.
I agree that there are many risks with inversions. At YogaWorks we pay special and close attention to the integrity of these postures. These are advanced level poses and students need to have years of experience building up and opening other parts of the body to even consider these postures.
This brings up again the importance of paying attention to class levels which has not been addressed. Most studios are under the pressure of trying to remain afloat in a very competitive landscape in large cities like LA, SF and NY. Studios are starting to offer “all level” class structures. However, this structure increases the risk factors for both the student and the teacher. For example, let’s liken this to martial arts and karate. Would you pair up with a black belt if you just entered this practice? You could, but would you want to? Students need to start with the basics and foundations and move up from there.
It’s safer and more effective when classes are much more specific to the demographic they are targeting and outline the levels of practitioners through not only years of practice but how often they practice. This allows the teacher to be specific about their education and language.
NYT: In 2009, a New York City team based at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons published an ambitious worldwide survey of yoga teachers, therapists and doctors. The answers to the survey’s central question — What were the most serious yoga-related injuries (disabling and/or of long duration) they had seen? — revealed that the largest number of injuries (231) centered on the lower back. The other main sites were, in declining order of prevalence: the shoulder (219), the knee (174) and the neck (110). Then came stroke. The respondents noted four cases in which yoga’s extreme bending and contortions resulted in some degree of brain damage. The numbers weren’t alarming but the acknowledgment of risk — nearly four decades after Russell first issued his warning — pointed to a decided shift in the perception of the dangers yoga posed.
Nicole: What’s interesting in the above statistics as you will notice is that all of these injuries occur in the most vulnerable parts of the spine. These are the most common injuries in almost any sport. That’s why Yoga places specific intention and awareness to building the muscle around the joints and stabilizing the most vulnerable parts of the body. If the teachers aren’t guiding their students in this direction of stabilization these parts of the body will be the ones affected and injured. So again, it’s very important for teachers to skills to speak intelligently to align, stabilize and elongate the body.
NYT: One of the most vocal reformers is Roger Cole, an Iyengar teacher with degrees in psychology from Stanford and the University of California, San Francisco. Cole has written extensively for Yoga Journal and speaks on yoga safety to the American College of Sports Medicine. In one column, Cole discussed the practice of reducing neck bending in a shoulder stand by lifting the shoulders on a stack of folded blankets and letting the head fall below it. The modification eases the angle between the head and the torso, from 90 degrees to perhaps 110 degrees. Cole ticked off the dangers of doing an unmodified shoulder stand: muscle strains, overstretched ligaments and cervical-disk injuries.
Nicole: Yes… a vote for props! Why is it in today’s society and in yoga rooms around the world, we are seeing the absence of props? Somewhere along the line people decided it was not cool to use them. We hear it all the time. That is the ego. Props are amazing. Like red is the new black – props are the new cool!
Blocks and blankets for instance are props and they are used to support your body while practicing yoga postures and to help modify certain poses as you learn them. Other props that you may find in a studio are straps and bolsters. If a teacher hands you a prop, this does not mean that you are not a good student. For instance, all levels and age ranges of people use props to:
• help them safely into or out of a posture
• protect the body from injury
• provide support during balance postures
• create a method for total relaxation
• improve alignment and create extension in the spine
• offer assistance while injured
• keep your body in balance if one side is less flexible than the other
• release old habits and improve a posture
For example, blocks can be used under the hands in standing poses like triangle pose so that students can place their hand on flat surface if they can’t reach the ground quite yet due to tight hamstrings.
Straps for example are often used in shoulder openers to assist students with tight shoulders, but this is certainly not their only use. Students can create a loop around their arms with the strap to allow proper alignment in handstands, too.
Blankets can also be used for many different purposes but are most often used under the shoulders in shoulder-stand to alleviate any potential risks with the neck by providing space for the cervical spine to be in its natural curve and alignment.
Don’t be afraid to use props or ask a teacher how to modify a pose using props if something doesn’t feel quite right. When your body is in alignment, you can actually get deeper into your practice and will progress in a healthier and more effective way.
For the full version of the New York Times article click HERE.No comments
I launched a discussion last year on Linked In with various Corporate Wellness and Yoga related groups asking people how to tap into the Corporate Wellness space in Los Angeles. Until recently my questions went unanswered. Interestingly enough my discussion is now generating eyeballs and things are getting juicy! I wanted to share some of the insights coming through.
First of all, I see a few things happening in the marketplace resulting in this shift of interest.
On the Yoga side of things…
1) Yoga is a huge business and growing rapidly
2) Teachers are graduating teacher trainings at a rapid rate and can’t find work in studios anymore
3) Studios aren’t paying well so Yogis are turning to Corporations with larger budgets
4) Yoga instructors are getting more business savvy and joining Linked In and other social media platforms to help them grow their business
On the corporate side of things…
1) Employees are generating more demand for wellness since they spend so much time at work
2) In general people are becoming more aware of their health and wellness
3) Health care and sick days are expensive for the employer so it benefits corporations to keep their employees healthy
4) Yoga is now an accepted, respectable and understood practice, which helps the HR department to sell it
According to leading wellness industry consultant and prolific writer John Bates, “most people spend more hours at work than anywhere else in addition to the time they spend commuting each day. In fact, the typical American works approximately 47 hours a week which is at least 164 hours more than the average 20 years ago.”
If we are spending so much time at work, don’t we want to feel good? I ask my friends every so often if their companies would support a wellness program. Usually, I get these answers:
1) I don’t know
2) It’s not my job, maybe…
3) They are too cheap
4) They don’t know what Yoga is
5) I don’t think anyone has much time
Maybe my friends don’t care much about Yoga or maybe they don’t care much about their bodies. Or, if they do care about their bodies and Yoga perhaps they prefer to get the hell out of work and go to the studio for some peace and quiet! But, my friends may not have kids, play dates, partners, and countless other things to rush home to that keep them from exercising.
I’ve decided now when I go to a party I am going to ask my friends for the name and number of their HR Director. You ask, “Why should an HR person care about all this?” and I respond with more of John Bates’ great information!
“Given these statistics (referencing 47 hours a week average time spent at work), it is easy to see why maintaining a healthy work / life balance is becoming increasingly important. Corporate wellness programs are important tools to establish this balance. Programs that emphasize the benefits of corporate wellness can be implemented in a variety of ways.
However, they all share a common goal – to promote the well-being of their employees, employers and organization in general. Many companies are starting to realize the tremendous benefits of corporate wellness.
One of the primary benefits of corporate wellness involves a reduction in the rates of illness and injuries among employees. Unhealthy employees experience a wide range of work-related injuries such as muscle strain, carpal tunnel syndrome, stress fractures or back pain. These individuals are also susceptible to developing complications such as diabetes, heart disease or a stroke. Employees without the opportunity to participate in corporate wellness programs may develop serious illnesses. Consequently, they could find themselves on long-term disability for an extended period of time or be forced to discontinue working entirely.
In addition, …corporate wellness programs also lead to a reduction in employee absenteeism. Employees who are stressed, unhealthy or overworked tend to become sick much more often than healthy employees.
When programs that focus on the benefits of corporate wellness are implemented, this rate can be drastically reduced. For example, Coors Brewing Company experienced a remarkable 18% decrease in employee absenteeism after implementing a corporate wellness program within their workplace.
Another benefit of corporate wellness programming is a reduction in the cost of healthcare. When employees are healthy and less stressed they tend to rely less on costly programs such as disability insurance and sick leave.
Companies will notice a significant decrease in healthcare costs once they incorporate wellness programs into their workplace. For example, after implementing a fitness program in which only 60% of the employees participated, Coca-Cola was able to save $500 per employee every year.
Increased productivity is another benefit of corporate wellness. Employees who are happy and healthy tend to produce a greater volume of work at a higher quality than unhealthy employees. Employers need to realize that implementing programs that lower fitness and stress levels will increase the overall output of their employees.
Corporate wellness programs also contribute to the enhanced retention of key employees. Companies that implement wellness programs normally experience a much lower rate of employee turnover. Recruiting, marketing and advertising for vacant positions are very costly, not to mention time-consuming. If your employees are happy and healthy and enjoy working at your company, you will be able to focus more time and energy on actually getting the job done.
The bottom line is you should take advantage of the benefits of corporate wellness. Make it a goal to implement a program as soon as possible – don’t wait until most of your employees are stressed, sick or applying to other jobs. You will experience a reduction in employee injuries, illness, absenteeism and healthcare costs, as well as an increase in employee retention and productivity. Assuming responsibility for establishing a healthy, harmonious working environment will allow everyone to enjoy the benefits of corporate wellness.“
There are great websites out there like John’s that provide HR leaders with presentations, information and proposals for download that will help sell these programs to their company! Can it get any easier than that? If the HR Director doesn’t have time to put a presentation together then as Yoga Instructors we can be proactive and create one for them.
For the HR leaders out there, Yoga instructors can be flexible with any working arrangement. Not only are we flexible on the mat, we are in the mind!
Now, I want to share some of the great feedback that I have received on this discussion just to get the wheels turning for both Yogis and HR Directors!
From a member of the Linked In Group who is an ex HR Director:
1. Be very clear about what you can offer and what it can do for individuals and therefore, the company. Find and sell benefits – not just features! Don’t take on more than you can effectively deliver, so find companies with a head count that you can properly manage, evaluate and report back on.
2. Determine what kinds of problems companies need to resolve; some will just want to comply with regulations: some will be running employee engagement programs – some may have issues with absenteeism, sick days, low morale – find the problems that you confidently feel your offering addresses and align with those.
3. Create ways of delivering your work that will be acceptable to the client at an operational level, (e.g. flexible timings, a mix of delivery options) and also find ways of showing results. This is usually very important to organisations – not always of course – some will invest for pure altruism – but most will find your services easier to justify when they can easily justify what they have spent on you.
4. Align yourself with professional bodies in your specialist field to increase your credibility.
5. Budget – well, you’re the one who has to determine how much money you want to make. Once you’re clear about this, you need to calculate how much your programs will cost and then you can more easily identify who can afford your services. The best thing is always to ask – “How much have you in your budget for this” – once you get face-to-face with a potential client. Ideally, you are probably looking at organisations who have a legal duty of care to their staff, and there is no doubt a minimum headcount for that in the U.S. as there is in the U.K. which would at least give you a criteria to search on, when you start to identify your potential clients.
Another great participant in the discussion:
“It really helps having a business background as you can relate to the needs of the business and deliver something that fits in with a busy, buzzy office world.”
A Linked In member offered this:
“I teach regular weekly classes at a health club and a community center. From time to time I mention to my students that I am available to come to their companies or organization for a private class. Even without mentioning it often, I have had students approach me asking for it. Once you develop loyal students who appreciate your teaching style, they will want to share you with others.
I have found teaching in the corporate environment very rewarding. As a former corporate person myself, I can relate to the stress levels. You can see a visible difference in the energy they bring into the room, versus how they leave the practice. Yoga is for everyone, but especially needed in this environment. And, it is a nice way to be well compensated as a teacher. Win-win.”
I love this idea too:
“What I think would be great is some sharing of real-world “case studies” and examples of how the disciplines of yoga have been successfully integrated into a corporate environment, with evidence of the benefits [ideally in terms of increased productivity, improved relationships and collaboration, improved organizational performance, etc.].”
Thank you to everyone for participating in the Linked In group forums. I really find the discussions to be so rewarding, purposeful and enlightening.
On a final personal note, I have an interest in this topic because I started my Yoga practice as a result of being overworked, stressed and in lots of physical pain while in a corporate environment. So, I get it! I really want to help people find the peace, happiness and joy that I did. That is why I got my teaching certifications. I want to give back what I so humbly have received from this amazing Universe!
Thank you to John Bates for your wonderful information! John is a leading wellness industry consultant and prolific writer about all aspects of health and wellness programs. His work can be found on numerous wellness websites including his own: Wellness Proposals, Infinite Wellness Solution’s and Infinite Health Coach.
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