Is yoga all it is cracked up to be?

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This video is talking about an article in the NY Times publised on 8th Jan 2012 called How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body which is based on a forth coming book The Science of Yoga: the risks and rewards  by William J Broad.  The American yoga teacher, Glenn Black is referred to.  Mr Black says yoga can cause injury and even goes so far as to say that it isn’t for everybody.  The article linked to above is long, but if interested in yoga, then it is worth a read.  I am going to talk about yoga from my perspective as a trainer who knows the current state of people’s bodies and who also knows the level of flexibility required for even basic yoga moves. 1  As far as my practice is concerned, there are 3 big problems with yoga:  stretching that is not designed for the western lifestyle – ie those of us who sit in chairs;  weak abs and competitiveness or the western mind set of no pain, no gain.

Yoga is an ancient Indian practice.  Certainly up until recent times, Indians did not sit on chairs: Indians either squatted on their haunches or sat cross legged on the floor.  Particularly, sitting in a deep squat – from the earliest years – opens out the hips and requires good flexibility.  Young children of any country do this effortlessly, of course.  Their back is completely straight.

If this deep squat position is kept up, the hips will remain flexible and the back straight.  Of course, in the western world, we all sit on chairs and so the stiffening up begins.

We see to the left what typically happens to the skeleton when we sit on chairs.  The spinal curves increase, the shoulders round and the head pokes forwards.  There is more information about the muscles involved in the page How to exercise, in section 10, ‘How to get a tight bottom’.  Briefly, the hip flexor group of muscles, these are the muscles that lift the knees, get short and this pulls the low  back into a curve.  The upper back loses the ability to at least straighten up – to do yoga safely, it actually needs to be able to bend backwards.  The rolled forwards shoulders will make such positions as the wheel, pictured below, very difficult to achieve and places great strain on them since they cannot open up properly.  The list goes on.

So we can see the wheel pictured to the right.   The man has sufficient flexibility to get up there, but his low back is taking more of the bend than is ideal.  To improve, his best course of action is to work separately on upper back and shoulder flexibility, and this would happen away from the yoga session.  Unfortunately what usually happens is people go to yoga classes and strain away, week after week, forcing their body into a position it cannot properly get into.  In this case, the low back will be forced to bend more and more since the upper back and shoulders lack the necessary flexibility.

Here we have a classic yoga pose, the seated forward fold which requires the opposite spinal flexibility to the wheel pictured above.  In Astanga yoga, a sequence of wheels is followed by a seated forward fold.  The issues come here if the hamstrings are very tight.  The hamstrings, the muscles running down the back of the thigh, run from the bottom of the pelvis to behind the knee.  If they are tight, the pelvis cannot tip forwards, it is anchored.  So when attempting this move, it is not unusual for the hips to roll backwards instead of forwards and this places an huge strain on the low back.  If the lumbar discs do not get damaged, then the supporting ligaments can get stretched.  Ligaments are non-stretchy tissues that support joints.  A stretched ligament remains stretched and the joint is now unstable.  This is not a good scenario for long term back health.  Also in attempting to get further into this position, hamstrings can tear.  Usually these are micro-tears, felt the next day as stiffness in the muscle.  However, these micro-tears weaken the muscle and as they heal, will shorten the muscle if not tended to.

So a real problem with yoga is it stretches the hamstrings – and if done with care, it does this effectively. However, it is all well and good to lengthen the hamstrings, but where yoga fails again is it does very little to strengthen them, whilst it does much to strengthen the hip flexors.  The best muscles are long and strong, not long and weak.  Long, weak hamstrings ultimately lead to knee instability.  Not only does yoga lengthen the hamstrings and strengthen the hip flexors, it does not stretch the hip flexors well.  To perform the above wheel well, the longer the hip flexors, the better the pose will be.  However due to the strength of the hip flexors, rather than them stretching, the lower back just bends more.  And this is the case in all the back bend postures.  The one posture that stretches the hip flexors the best is generally called warrior 1, pictured right.  If this pose is done with attention, it is very good for us chair sitters.  However, it is all to easy to let the bottom stick out and the rear hip trail, which once again merely causes the low back to curve in as we strive to deepen the pose.

Another problem with yoga concerns the ab strengthening poses.  Boat pose, pictured to the left, is the classic ab strengthener.  To perform yoga poses – virtually all of them bar the relaxing poses – requires an active inner unit.  This gives the back some protection and the body will respond by going deeper into the poses without effort.  Click on the link for more about this.  However, I continually find that people who eat wheat regularly and who drink unfiltered tap water have an inactive inner unit.  So to deepen any pose, they force it more and their back has no protection.  When it comes to boat pose, the muscles holding the body in this position will be the dominant outer abdominal muscles and the hip flexor group – already short, tight and over-strong.  As a trainer, this causes me to despair.

There are, of course, good aspects to yoga.  A wise teacher should stop over stretching and choose the moves that best suit our western life-style – where I suspect Glenn Black’s practice is going.  If breathing is taught well, this is of huge benefit to us all.  The relaxation part of yoga is very needed;  it is so rare for us to stop – except to stare mindlessly at the telly.

But the downsides to yoga are great.   My final major complaint is competitiveness.  Levels of flexibility are hugely variable.  Inevitably if we choose to try yoga, in the very first class, we will find ourselves beside a skinny young girl who seems to be able to wrap herself up into knots.  When she does her seated forward fold, her chin is resting half way down her shin whilst our hands can barely touch our knees.  As the linked article comments, rule number one about yoga is to leave the ego at the door. If a pose is not improving steadily, just pushing away at it will damage and possibly wreck us.   We all have strengths and weaknesses and our level of flexibility is totally irrelevant to good yoga.  It is our attitude that matters, working with what we have, avoiding the sillier poses, becoming aware of the basic poses that present us with difficulties. To master these, if serious about yoga, high quality focussed stretching and massage between classes is a must.  It would also be very wise to strengthen muscles not worked in yoga, eg the hamstrings, lats and external rotator cuff of the shoulder.   We also need to develop a good core – and this will entail giving up foods that don’t agree with us – usually the ones we love the most – plus retraining the abs to work properly. If we find the slow, meditative part of the class too much, then maybe we are not ready for yoga.  I completely agree with Mr Black – not everybody can do yoga with the principal reason being the mind.

This pose is horrible on the back of the neck. And even more so if done without the support of the arms, which is the next level.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. I do teach a class called Body Balance – sometimes rudely called Yoga-lates since it is a mixture of yoga, pilates and a bit of Tai Chi type movement.  I have taught the class for years, and for the early years did think it was the poor cousin of either class.  Then I attended various yoga classes for quite a while and also went to a few pilates classes.  I now think Body Balance, overall, far superior to either as they are currently taught in a class situation.  The moves are usually sensible and there is much greater emphasis on stretching both hamstrings and the opposing hip flexor group.  We work to music, which has the down side of not being able to hold a position until everybody has got as far into the position as is good for them, however, the music is usually inspiring, so aids the movements.  There is a meditation at the end, and usually we all feel just wonderful at the end of the class.  There are no silly yoga moves, such as head stands and we do not do the more extreme twists.  The class suits the Western body and mind much better.  At some point, I will grumble about Pilates too.  It certainly earns me an income from rehabilitating backs damaged by Pilates classes. []

3 Responses to “Is yoga all it is cracked up to be?”

  1. Ben 2012-02-6

    Respect: or lack thereof..

    Yoga has been practiced for thousands of years and is perhaps the healthiest and most efficient exercise practice known to humanity. Since the dawn of time, human beings have contorted themselves into varying positions while focusing on their breathing patterns, helping to increase their flexibility, blood flow, thought processes, and moods.

    But not all Yogic disciplines, or Yoga practices, are made equal, and the Fitness Industry has seen an explosion in the growth of Yoga/ Pilates and other forms of Yogic exercises due to the increasing popularity of sport/exercise/way of life along with the financial rewards gained by the fitness industry. The danger in all of this growth is the fact that it has become increasingly difficult to separate fact from fiction, resulting in poor technique.

    From the aforementioned article, there are two larger issues which should be touched upon. The first is essentially the premise of what actually is Yoga: Yoga is not a purely physical exercise, and to view it as such is the crux of the problem. Asana is an important component of yoga, one with countless benefits, and in today’s body-image obsessed world, it is THE limb that has opened up the world of yoga to millions. But asana alone is not yoga, and as Glenn Black comments in the piece, “Asana is not a cure-all.” He is absolutely correct, and I support his usage of the word “asana” instead of “yoga.” Asana is posture. Yoga, on the other hand, is a holistic practice rooted in Hindu philosophy that reaches far beyond the 45 minutes spent on a mat. “Yoga is a combination of both physical and spiritual exercises, entails mastery over the body, mind and emotional self, and transcendence of desire.” The goal of yoga is not physical – it is inner peace and ultimately, the attainment of liberation from worldly suffering, or moksha.

    The purpose of asana is to train and discipline the body to be able to sit in meditation for extended periods of time. The mental state in which a person approaches their yoga mat is as important as their physical state. What and how much a person eats and drinks, what she sees and thinks, how one acts in her life outside of the studio – all of these are variables that cannot be ignored in a holistic practice. Even a quick perusal of the famous Yoga Sutras will demonstrate the importance of actions, behaviour, and thoughts outside of the yoga studio. Yoga encompasses concepts such as non-violence, truthfulness, cleanliness (both physical and mental), contentment with oneself, and moderation of diet.

    The second problem, is the surge of yoga teachers who are not qualified to teach and are thus, prone to pushing their students too far, leading to injuries. When beginning to learn yoga, it is clear that you learn the basics before trying anything complicated. One must be particular about there alignment in even the most basics of asanas and careful about how they progress to the more advanced asanas, like headstand.

    While everyone does not have the luxury of having one-on-one sessions to introduce them to yoga, there are wonderful alternatives, notably listening to what is being taught. Importantly, we are all supposedly adults and as such should adhere to the guidance of the instructors. Why are there Students who can barely manage downward dog attempting headstands and wheel pose in class. In a class of 20 or 30, with only one teacher, that surely is a recipe for disaster. To compound the issue, in an effort to not exclude anyone (or perhaps make as much money as possible, depending upon the studio), it appears that the majority of yoga classes are “open to all levels” leaving the decision of which asanas to attempt and how far to push the body up to the students. As a student at Harpers, I know the feeling of practicing next to someone who has been attending class for six, seven, or eight years. It’s incredibly awe-inspiring and intimidating at the same time. It can be hard not to gawk and think to myself, “Yes, I can do that too.” I generally come back to my senses and to my own practice; however, there are occasions where I just get carried away. Too often though other students fail themselves and the instructor.

    Do we really need someone hovering over you saying, “No more! You’re done for the day.” Respect: or lack of it…..

    Reply
    • Clare Harding 2012-02-6

      I completely agree. Yoga should indeed be a spiritual practice with the asanas only a part of the whole. I do think that Glenn Black’s comment that Yoga is not for everyone is right on the money. To embrace Yoga fully requires a huge step away from the stressed out Western mind set and precious few of us have the patience and the humility to do this. It is sad that a great practice should be so degraded in the West. Thank you so much for your comment.

      Reply

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