Can yoga do more harm than good?
That's the question raised in a recent New York Times article provocatively titled "How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.'' The writer, William J. Broad, details yoga injuries from the mild to extreme, and argues that if you don't practice correctly, you can do yourself significant harm.
I didn't read the article at first, assuming it was just another inflammatory story meant to spark a reaction. Eventually, though, I was encouraged to read it and found I actually agreed with a lot of it.
Yoga originally was intended to be a holistic spiritual practice. But in the context of American culture, it often is just another ego-driven activity. A teacher might constantly say, "listen to your body," "just do what you can," "don't do anything that hurts."
But those instructions don't mean much to students who lack awareness of their own bodies. Additionally, the competitive desire to perform in a group setting often trumps common sense, leading people to push themselves well past their limitations.
But I believe well-trained yoga teachers — with a background and understanding of anatomy and physiology — can help students avoid the pitfalls Broad describes in his article.
How do you know if you are in the hands of a teacher who will guide you safely and responsibly? Ask questions about her training. Observe her technique in class.
A good teacher doesn't stay on her mat and simply demonstrate. Rather, she must closely observe students, promoting proper body alignment using modifications and props where needed. Often a quiet word or a gentle touch from an experienced teacher is all that's needed to transform a pose from harmful to beneficial.
I used my background as an occupational therapist and 1,000-hour certified yoga therapist to develop a training program that gives entry-level teachers the body knowledge they need to understand what they are asking students to do. Each trainee in the 200-hour program teaches a minimum of five hours and receives feedback from teachers and peers.
Broad's article also alluded to teachers who had injured themselves to such a degree that they could barely teach. But I believe a well-trained teacher can use her own injuries to help students.
I originally came to yoga to manage stress, depression and back pain from scoliosis and have found that my body has been my greatest teacher and source of inspiration in teaching others. Exploring and honoring my own pain gives my students permission to do the same, rather than pushing to duplicate some imagined ideal.
Broad says that those with injury or chronic conditions ought not do yoga. I think it's more accurate to say that such people shouldn't force their bodies to adapt to a standard yoga class. Rather, they should seek a practice that is adapted for them.
A good yoga teacher adjusts the class to those who are present, asking students about their needs before beginning, and remaining attentive throughout the practice to how each student is moving.
I have seen some amazing results from correctly applied yoga — often tried as a last resort after medication, surgery or traditional physical therapy has failed. Yoga's unique approach of addressing the whole person often succeeds where other methods fail.
In the rare case where yoga is not helpful, I believe it is best for the teacher and student to simply be honest. The key is to always mindfully — and without ego — do the right thing for the student. Being a yoga teacher involves this sort of connection to your students. What harms you, harms me; what helps you, helps me.
Stacy Renz is the owner of Living Room Yoga in St. Petersburg. She is accepting applications for the Life Balance Yoga Therapy 200-Hour Teacher Training Program, which starts in March. She can be reached at (727) 826-4754 or visit livingroomyoga.biz.