The Great Yoga Debate

The Yoga world has been in uproar this month after an article written by author William J. Broad appeared in the New York Times entitled “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body”.  Well, with a title like that, it is unsurprising controversy was sparked!  In short order, yoga teachers all over the country joined both sides of the debate and the yoga world was atwitter with speculation as to whether the tales of extreme injury attributed to yoga were indeed a valid cautionary tale or pure scaremongering.

The Great Divide

Those who agreed with the article swiftly reassured their students that they were mindful of the risks and taught accordingly, with caution and respect for the body’s limitations.  Those who did not agree took pains to explain why they felt the warnings were overly dramatic, but all it seems were aware of ‘the elephant in the room’ that the article had exposed.

The big problem with yoga the way we do it in the west, as I see it, is that it is disconnected from its spiritual roots.  We’ve cherry picked the bits of it that we want, the bit that westerners can get their heads round – the physical practice.  And being westerners, we want to be good at it, better, in fact than other people, so we turn it into sport and we push it to extremes.  We watch our neighbor in asana class and judge ourselves and them.  We hold competitions to see who is ‘best’ at asana.  And almost instantly, what was at the outset a complete and balanced system morphs into a monster.

Yoga at its inception was a code for life, one that recognized all humans as inherently divine, giving practitioners the tools to re-awaken that awareness with every thought and deed.

It is this disconnect from all the other areas of a yoga practice (7, according to Patanjali), that has produced the polarized opinions of people all over the globe.  Those who have not suffered physical injury from an over zealous physical yoga practice may well be defensive if that is their experience, but it is the job of the yoga teacher to see not only their own tendencies, but the tendencies of their students, to be beacons of awareness.

In Response

The Huffington Post subsequently published a response that addressed Glenn Black’s controversial comments in greater detail, explaining a little more of his perspective and not insignificant experience in the world of yoga injuries.

To my mind, what he has done is just highlight the risks of a preoccupation with a physical yoga practice.  No, the injuries mentioned in the article won’t happen to everyone, but we would all do well to examine our manor of and motives for practicing.  If we try to live by the inner and outer practices detailed by Patanjali (yamas and niyamas) we start to see how easy it is to deceive ourselves, how complex life truly is. We have a choice in everything we do, everything we think, everything we say and it is that that creates our reality.

Asana’s only purpose from a yogic perspective is to lead an individual to the deeper practices; to pranayama and an awareness of the subtle body, then to meditation and the knowledge that we are all timeless, formless, perfect souls having a physical experience. The reality is though, people become aware on their own timetable – sometimes before a life altering injury, sometimes after.

Bringing Yoga Home

For me, the longer I have a physical practice, the more I am convinced that intention, presence and breath are really all that is important.  Yes, it feels good to stretch, to feel the life force coursing through the body and I have a great love and respect for alignment in the body, but I have come to the realization that for me, there is no need for deep backbends and no need to hold headstand for 15 minutes.  I fully believe I am a better practitioner when I am aware of my impact on the world around me, when I practice self-study or act non-violently to my fellow men.  Simple breath awareness is more important for my sense of connection to my human family and all the kingdoms of life that inhabit this planet that we share, and these are the codes I live and teach by.

Vanessa Francis

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