Thursday, February 23, 2012

Yoga benefits trump risk

Or, as a fellow athlete & blogger recently wrote: Yoga got punched in the face!

Yoga painful and dangerous? Maybe if you're doing this:

Or this:

Then you might feel like this:

But in my yoga classes, this is the feeling I'm going for:

Here is a reprint of a column I wrote for my local newspaper on the subject:

Yoga is under attack. A recent New York Times article vilifies the practice and suggests that it can wreck your body. Eating scrapple, drinking soda and smoking can wreck your body. So can wearing high heels or leaping off the couch to high five your friends when the Ravens score a touchdown. But yoga?

When I think of yoga, I envision a practice that focuses on the breath and is peaceful, soothing and kind to the body. The alternate popular view of yoga is one that has people standing on their heads, contorting their spines, and grimacing in pain. In the later scenario, you could indeed wreck your body.

According to Glenn Black, a yoga teacher of nearly four decades who leads a master class in Manhattan, yoga should not be used by the general public and is only for people in good physical condition. I disagree.

When done correctly and carefully, without ego and with respect to the body’s limitations, yoga has the ability to calm the mind, energize the body, strengthen the muscles, lower blood pressure, reduce stress, increase flexibility, and generally improve the well-being of one’s mind, body and spirit.

Yet, the article goes on to suggest that “the vast majority of people should give up yoga” because it is too likely to cause harm. Given that rationale, perhaps we should all give up our stressful jobs and our dangerous vehicles as well?

In my class, I remind students that quieting the mind and focusing on the breath are the most important elements of yoga. I do not allow headstands or encourage students to push beyond their limits. Yoga is a non-competitive sport and everyone’s practice should vary to meet their individual needs. There should never be pain and there is no such thing as “one size fits all” when it comes to a yoga practice.

As more people participate in yoga, more yoga-related injuries are certain to occur, but so too will incidences of healing and improved health. However, while the article leads readers to believe there has been a meteoric rise in the number of yoga injuries, a survey by the Consumer Product Safety Commission showed that in 2001, when 4 million Americans were reportedly practicing yoga, only 20 cases of emergency-room admissions related to yoga were reported. That, to me, is certainly not cause to roll up my mat and assume a yoga-related injury is inevitable. Most of the injuries described in the article were the result of irresponsible and extreme practices, such as sitting for hours a day in a kneeling position or doing a back bend while balancing on your head.

The benefits of yoga far outweigh any risks. If you currently practice yoga, I urge you to continue in a focused, purposeful manner that honors your body. If you do not practice but have considered it, I encourage you to give it a try. There are a variety of yoga disciplines so it is important to find both a teacher and a class that meets your needs and leaves you feeling balanced and rejuvenated after you practice.


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