Yoga need not wreck your body

An incendiary New York Times magazine excerpt doesn't tell the whole story

Topics: Yoga,

Yoga need not wreck your body (Credit: iStockphoto/hundreddays)

If your social media streams look anything like mine, they’ve been dominated for days by “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body,” a New York Times Magazine excerpt of a book by William J. Broad that is, as of this writing, still sitting atop the paper’s most-emailed list. Alongside the link is usually a half-facetious comment, something like, “I always knew that couch potato-dom was the superior strategy.”

I haven’t yet read Broad’s book, “The Science of Yoga” (subtitle: “The Risks and the Rewards”), but word in the yoga press is that it’s actually far more nuanced than the alarmist framing of the magazine article. But that story, with its terrifying stories of strokes and spinal surgeries, will have the biggest audience, so it’s worth spending a moment on what, to my mind, it left out.

Generally speaking, Broad never makes clear if his reporting suggests that yoga is inherently damaging to the body — any body — or whether repeated stress and poor teaching raise the risk of injury, one present in any physical activity. After all, yoga wrecks your body — compared to what? Not doing anything active, which it’s fairly clear is bad for you? It’s true that yoga gets a special break as a panacea, and Broad cites his “belief, naïve in retrospect, that yoga was a source only of healing and never harm.” But we take for granted that runners will strain their knees or dancers warp their feet. I suppose “anything done often or in extreme fashion can seriously strain the body,” is less sexy than what ended up on the page.

And extreme is what seems to be really at play here — many of the examples of injury are of teachers with rigorous practice, and one is of a man who would “sit upright on his heels in a kneeling position known as vajrasana for hours a day, chanting for world peace.” I’d be willing to bet that hours of kneeling chanting does not fit the experience of the typical Times most-emailer, or the average sedentary American looking for excuses not to get up and move.

The biggest elisions were implied but never emphasized: the importance of good teaching and the wild divergence of practices under the umbrella of American yoga. Based on having practiced with (at least) dozens of different yoga teachers over the years around New York and occasionally globally, I’d argue those are the most important factors of all.



The worst teachers preen in the front of the room and pretend they’re alone. Slightly below them in my estimation are the ones who expect all bodies to be created the same. The ones who shouted at me to simply shove down my heels during downward dog in defiance of tight calves and hamstrings never got the chance to do so again. It took me longer to realize that the teachers who enthusiastically encouraged me to move deeper into existing flexibility – say, a deep lower-back arch theoretically ideal for upward facing dog, a hip turnout that made baddha kanasa effortless – were hurtling me toward injury. The ones who urged modifications to not exacerbate imbalances, or to change emphasis to strength over flexibility, were offering a more sensible path.

In other words, all bodies aren’t shaped the same way, nor do we use them uniformly, so why would we expect the same remedies and actions to work on all of them?

That’s one reason I’m deeply skeptical of practices like Bikram, which are the same sequence over and over again. It doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that many of the reformers and thoughtful people quoted in Broad’s piece are trained in Iyengar, a more deliberate and almost physical therapy-like practice which often uses props to support the body. It also happens to be one in which you’d be lucky to break a sweat, which isn’t particularly appealing to Type A practitioners that fill urban studios. Meanwhile, the most substantive mention of Bikram, which does appeal to that demographic, is noting a report “that health professionals found that the penetrating heat of Bikram yoga, for example, could raise the risk of overstretching, muscle damage and torn cartilage.” I tend to agree with the critics in Broad’s article who seem to find ego and obsession to be at least as damaging as overzealous neck pivots.

My preferred studio has more vinyasa flow in the mix, but is heavily influenced by Iyengar and outside studies of anatomy. The first thing studio co-director Stephanie Creaturo says when you walk in the door of her class is “Don’t do anything that hurts.” (You can read her thoughtful response to the piece here.) Practicing in an environment of careful attention to each student’s boundaries, structure and function is a luxury, but my experience is that, where available, it makes a crucial difference in whether your body gets “wrecked” or not. Broad does say that the yoga boom has meant that “there is now an abundance of studios where many teachers lack the deeper training necessary to recognize when students are headed toward injury.” That would seem to be the most profound starting point for change, even if it’s less exciting than dropping dead in downward dog.

Irin Carmon

Irin Carmon is a staff writer for Salon. Follow her on Twitter at @irincarmon or email her at icarmon@salon.com.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>