Time Magazine: "When Yoga Hurts" by Pamela Paul

Yoga has hit the national media once again in an article in Time Magazine. Ms. Paul's article makes some extremely good points. In a nutshell:

  • 13,000 Americans were treated in an emergency room or a doctor's office for yoga-related injuries, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

  • People are taking classes that are not appropriate for them and are getting injured.

  • Yoga is being viewed as another form of fitness and is inadequate to the task.

  • Many yoga teachers are inadequately trained.

There are, however, some serious flaws in the underlying assumptions of the article that are indicative of the common approach of the media and the public to yoga.

Not All Yoga Is Created Equal

There exists a pervasive idea that all yoga is for anyone and everyone and that, if your mind is open and your spirit free, you too will be able to put your feet on your head. If, for some reason you injure yourself, then that's your fault at some level. Somewhere deep inside your ego is too attached to the material world and that's why you hurt your back. People often take classes that are absolutely inappropriate for their skill or fitness level.

Unfortunately, Ms. Paul makes a mistake commonly made in the media and by people who do not know about yoga. They approach it as if all yoga is the same. I am of the opinion that, without question, there is a form of yoga suitable for everyone. Someone once said to me they realized that asking a person what kind of yoga they do is like asking what kind of instrument they play. There are many, many varieties of instrument, just as there are styles of yoga practice. Iyengar, Integral and Ashtanga are three completely different types of yoga, each with their own pros and cons, each with their own expression of the physical practice. A person who is unfit and infirm is going to have a miserable time in an Ashtanga Primary Series class, whereas an athlete my find themselves frustrated and bored by an Integral class. Even within a given tradition, the style of class depends greatly on the teacher.

The Open-Level Disaster

People attempting to take inappropriate classes is a constant problem. Sometime the instructor has no control over this and just has to make do. I still teach a few gym classes here and there and, in that environment, you have to be ready to roll with what you're given. New York Sports Clubs, one of the companies I work for, made a noble effort to educate the members by changing the way in which they name the classes. When I first started to work for them, several years ago, they had classes named according to intensity -- active yoga, yoga, gentle yoga, breath yoga for Kundalini classes, etc -- which was perfectly serviceable way of operating. But if you're an Ashtanga person, you're going to be teaching pretty much the same sequence in every class and, as an Iyengar person, I'm not going to be building a class around Sun Salutaions every time, even in an "active" class. People would get thrown off by the different styles. So they changed the schedule to reflect what styles the instructors were teaching. Half the time the members have no idea what the different styles mean, but at least it's a start.

In the gym I'm used to teaching mixed-level groups. I can assess pretty quickly whether or not what I had planned is going to work with the bulk of the room and can modify accordingly. Also I'm blessed with a large core group of dedicated regulars who bring the overall level of the class up and I never do anything too crazy with them. When you get to the yoga studios, however, the game changes. I often find that people aren't as willing to work hard, but they do want more than just the standard syllabus of things you get to do in the gym classes. In light of this, I think the whole concept of an open-level class is a huge, huge mistake, and potentially very dangerous.

Would You Walk In Off The Street And Demand To Take An Advanced Karate Class?

You will often get people who take a few weeks of basic classes and then hop straight into open level classes where they are introduced to advanced poses way before they are ready. I recently took an open class at one of the big, long-established New York studios. I chatted with a very enthusiastic fellow who was about to take the same class who had only been doing yoga for a couple of months, so I knew for a fact that there were some newbies in the room. The teacher taught some very challenging transitions that even I was having trouble with (I've been doing yoga for 15 years) so I can't imagine what kind of an experience my green friend was having. I also dread to think what state his body is going to be in in a few years time if he keeps it up.

Taking a class appropriate for your level is something the studios, the teachers and the students all need to be aware of. It has to be part of the culture. Even when the studio does offer classes of different levels, the idea has to be supported by the owners. Many students will be chomping at the bit to race ahead and take a higher level class. I once stood waiting to go into a classroom to sub a class and could not help but listen to a conversation from a woman who had just come back from Los Angeles with a group of her friends. She had taken a class at Yoga Works (this was before they were bought out and turned into a chain). She was telling her friends what an amazing class it was. It was so amazing, she said, that she couldn't even finish it. To me this is a terrible, terrible attitude that is widespread in the yoga community and really needs to be addressed. She probably should not have been in that class. It certainly did not do her any good to be sitting it out. And what did her presence there do to the way the class was taught? I teach in one studio where there are levels -- I teach what is a level 3 for this particular studio -- but the studio attitude is to let pretty much anyone take any level class. They'll discourage the student, but they won't turn them away. It's a lunchtime class, so the numbers are never very big and it's easier to look after the stragglers, but sometimes I get people who should still be in level 1. This happened the other day. The student who came to try the class out was older and very, very stiff. Any class moving at a fast pace would be completely inappropriate for her. She need to be taking time to do the poses properly and to hold them for a respectable period to give her body the chance to open up. There were some things I just could not teach in that situation, so the six other people in the room got less out of the class. Luckily the one Iyengar studio I teach at allows us to turn away people who are not ready for the higher levels.

Yoga And Fitness

I take objection to the assumption that many people in the fitness and scientific community have that yoga cannot keep you fit. I was practicing at home one afternoon, drenched in sweat, practicing transitions from Shirshasana 2 into Crow Pose with the radio on when I heard a supposed health and fitness expert claim that yoga was only good for stretching and not much else! To quote Ms. Paul:

The truth is, yoga, regardless of the form, doesn't offer a comprehensive way to get fit. According to a study by the American Council on Exercise, a national nonprofit organization that certifies fitness instructors and promotes physical fitness, dedicated yoga practitioners show no improvement in cardiovascular health. It's not the best way to lose weight either. A typical 50-min. class of hatha yoga, one of the most popular styles of yoga in the U.S., burns off fewer calories than are in three Oreos--about the same as a slow, 50-min. walk. Even power yoga burns fewer calories than a comparable session of calisthenics. And while yoga has been shown to alleviate stress and osteoarthritis, it doesn't develop the muscle-bearing strength needed to help with osteoporosis.

I definitely agree that one or two 50-min. classes a week will not do much for you. First off: a 50-min. yoga class is only half a class. You barely get warmed up and it's time to do Shavasana. I find in my shorter gym classes there is only time to work on one thing well -- standing poses, twists, abdominals, etc. I also agree that, at the beginning when you are learning the basic poses and directions, and classes are moving at a slower pace, then it is not going to be the most complete form of exercise.

The problem yoga has in this area is that it works on the body according to a different paradigm, one not compatible with current thinking in western science. There was a study recently on the physiological benefits of Iyengar Yoga: "Physiological Responses To Iyengar Yoga Performed By Trained Practitioners" by Sally E. Blank at Washington State University Spokane. Go here to see a great summary of the study at AshtangaNews.com. The truth is that a serious Iyengar yoga practice (and I would have to believe the same of a serious Ashtanga or other practice) can and does make you fit, even though you are not working according to the standard western rules. If only Ms. Paul, and other writers like her, would look at the many serious medical studies that are increasingly being undertaken that take into consideration the longer-reaching effects of a yoga practice on such things as heart disease and eating disorders. Both of these conditions have been shown to positively benefit from a regular yoga practice.

At the very least, the media and the fitness establishment should be looking at the improved quality of life that consistent yoga practitioners enjoy with a less dismissive attitude. To this I can only offer myself as anecdotal proof. Aside from all the brisk walking every day I get from living in New York City, the only exercise I get is from a balanced Iyengar practice. By western standards, then, my cardiovascular health should be pretty bad. I know, however, that a can run to catch a bus, or to get to a class on time when the trains are not running properly, without losing my breath. I know I can go swimming two or three times in the summer and not disgrace myself. I can see the way my muscle mass redistributes itself when I'm focusing more on standing poses, or more on inversions. I'm not attacking studies such as the WSUS study at all. Such investigations are looking for specific effects. But because the immediate physiological effects of a yoga session do not meet the criteria of the American College of Sports Medicine, then fitness advocates and healthcare practitioners who are uneducated on the subject belittle a topic they know nothing about.

(As another anecdotal aside, I have a regular student who injured her knee walking around town one day. Her doctor told her that she should stop doing yoga altogether. Now, if she were doing a fast-moving power yoga class or something with a lot of Virasana or Padmasana in it I might have agreed inasmuch as she should stop attending that class. However, she comes regularly to me in a class filled with people who have non-yoga related knee, back and shoulder issues. We spend our entire time working on poses that help and support these issues.)

(Lack Of) Education

Part of the problem is that increasingly, the people teaching yoga don't know enough about it. Yoga was traditionally taught one-on-one by a yogi over a period of years, but today instructors can lead a class after just a weekend course. Though the Yoga Alliance, formed in 1999 and now based in Clinton, Md., has set a minimum standard of 200 hours of training for certification, only 16,168 of the estimated 70,000 instructors in the U.S. have been certified.

I could not agree more with Ms. Paul here. There was an article some months back with Beth Shaw of YogaFit in Yogi Times Business Magazine where Ms. Shaw, if memory serves me, commented on how much resistance the yoga world had to her company initially. She said she thought yogis were supposed to be unconditionally accepting. I think the exact opposite is the case. According to Patañjali, yogis are supposed to be discerning (the yoga concept of viveka). This means when something is a bad idea we're supposed to acknowledge that fact and have nothing to do with it. A program designed to certify group fitness instructors to teach yoga in a weekend is a terrible idea. Not that there's anything wrong with group fitness instructors. Many of them work very hard to be good at what they do, and they have their own set of standards to deal with. I also think there is nothing wrong with equating yoga with health and fitness. Much of the modern renaissance of yoga and its dispersal in the West came as a result of pioneers in India in the past hundred years or so who decided to reclaim their cultural heritage and adapt it to be universally helpful. But sports fitness is one thing and yoga is another. They operate on very different principles and trying to shoehorn one into the other is, to my mind, not the best idea.

Minimum Standards

I think that Yoga Alliance has not lived up to its promise. It has, from its inception, been a controversial institution. How can one set of standards encompass such a diverse body of knowledge? The argument that won me over at the beginning was better that yoga be represented by a body from within the community than by a body imposed on it by the government, as was the case in the UK, or worse, by the insurance industry. The trap we have fallen into now is that Yoga Alliance 200-hour and 500-hour certifications have somehow become the de facto standard. The truth is that Yoga Alliance is a registry and not a certifying body. The guidelines that they offer have become a minimum standard -- in the worst sense -- to the teacher-training industry, and a standard that is minimally policed by Yoga Alliance, if at all. In the few years that the organization has been around it has turned into a bureaucratic, revenue-generating clunker. (I wanted to say "juggernaut," but it might take a couple more years for it to truly reach that status.)

The truth is, the standards they offer are, if not largely meaningless, then given unwarranted weight. In the 15 years I have been studying yoga I have probably had some 5,000 hours of serious training, either contact hours or self-study hours. But only 200 of those were with a Yoga Alliance-accredited school. There are teachers out there who hold 500-hour certificates with little further training who, in the eyes of many, are more qualified than I am. I have friends who have even more serious training than I who have no certification at all, and no way of getting it. They cannot be grandfathered in because their work has been too eclectic or does not fit into the Yoga Alliance cookie-cutter standard. Are they to take a 500-hour training, waste 3 months of their lives or more and several thousand dollars to be lectured by people they could, themselves, be teaching? I think not.

Sorry for the prolonged rant. There were just these few things I needed to get off my chest. (Although, truthfully, you might be getting an earful about a few more in the coming weeks. There have been several things that have been getting on my nerves recently.)

These are my opinions. What are yours?