Infrequent visitors to the yoga blogosphere may not be aware of the recent kerfuffle surrounding a NY Times article about how yoga will hurt you, but there also has been some mainstream media coverage on the safety of yoga.
While the article seems to have broken a few glass jaws in the broader yoga community, practitioners with a therapeutic orientation have been sounding alarms about questionable practice for years and getting nothing but flak in return. Those with the courage to take a stand and level public criticism of overly aggressive and guitar-hero-like approaches are usually written off as haters who are just jealous of the cool kids with their feet on their heads.
I'm not going to address the article directly. This has been done well enough already by voices more qualified than mine (I recommend watching Leslie Kaminoff's three-part video response.) But I am interested in people questioning what they are doing and whether or not it is safe, even if it is a byproduct of a sensationalistic and irresponsible ploy to sell books.
Unfortunately, the subsequent conversation has largely been dominated by a reach for easy answers that avoid deeper issues. More often than not, injuries in yoga are being attributed to a lack of proper alignment or understanding of anatomy. It is said either that practitioners are not doing the poses in a technically correct way or that their teachers are not educated enough about anatomy to instruct students how to do the poses in a technically correct way.
When it comes to alignment, I find it curious to notice teachers who are are usually quite rigid in their instruction are now bending over backwards to explain how they respond to the needs of students. Specifically, I was reading an excerpt from a new book, written by a senior teacher in a classical tradition, who was considering the instruction to "straighten your leg."
Without referring to any particular poses, the author asserts that the instruction is a "very coarse truth [that] new students need to hear" and that the way to accommodate different capabilities is to offer different "levels of truth" in the form of more detailed directives (i.e. lift the quadriceps, resist with the calf muscle, root the three corners of the feet, etc.) The suggestion is that different students need different details as they develop the fully realized truth behind "straighten your leg."
The problem is that finding different ways of articulating the same arbitrary configuration is not an example of how to adapt to the needs of students and certainly will not make the practice any safer for the large majority of people who benefit from bending their knees. The concept of "technically correct" is open to interpretation and much of what is considered proper alignment in the classical forms is contraindicated for huge portions of the population. Thus, it is possible to have perfect alignment and still hurt yourself.
For those who are inclined to rely on science, I have written a full length article for Yoga Therapy Today magazine entitled: Does Studying Anatomy Make Yoga Safer? In the piece, I ask several prominent anatomy for yoga teachers to weigh in on the role of studying anatomy and science in making yoga safe. What I think most people might find surprising is that even the experts in the field do not agree that anatomy is the key to ensuring safety in yoga.
As Neil Pearson, clinical assistant professor at the University of British Columbia and the chair of the Pain Science Division of the Canadian Physiotherapy Association, put it: “In the end, it is not Western scientific knowledge of the human body that will make Yoga safer. Changing the students approach to the discipline of yoga and the practice of asana will create the greatest shift.”
Instead of looking to alignment and anatomy as a panacea for what ails the yoga profession, perhaps we would do better to foster a different mentality around the physical work of yoga practice that minimizes any potential risks and encourages smarter choices.
Most of the professionals I have spoken to agree that the key to safe yoga boils down to the sensitivity and adaptability of the instructor, his or her capacity for dialogue with and responsiveness to a student, and the humble confidence of knowing what you know and what you don’t know.