Not Just WHAT: Also HOW

Perhaps you’ve had this experience:

Yoga Class at a Gym Category:Gyms_and_Health_Clubs
Image via Wikipedia

A news report on the radio or TV catches your ear.  An item shows up on Twitter, or in your Facebook feed.  An article in a magazine jumps out at you.

“New research shows [Insert one of your favorite activities here] can lead to [your worst nightmare/direst consequence imaginable]. . .”

Coffee.  Sugar.  Alcohol.  Mobile phone use.  Sitting.

In the face of such frequent and contradictory reports, it is tempting to stick your head in the sand and just shrug your shoulders as you continue to do what you like.  On the other hand, human nature can rear its dogmatic head, and you might be tempted to make a rule that supports your own behavior.  [You know you’ve made a rule if you think your way is what is best for everyone. The rule also probably includes the word “always” or “never.”]  Examples abound:  from advocates of particular dietary practices, exercise disciplines, spiritual beliefs, political ideologies.

Is it just human nature?  Is it an ego out-of-awareness that insists it is right, and everyone else is wrong?  Modern media revels in the opportunity for “Point/Counterpoint” argument, trash-talking, and polarization.  While it might make for “TV worth watching,”  it seems that in most cases, you are better served by having a more nuanced viewpoint.  Warning:  you will get a lot of flack for answering “It depends.”  You can’t just spout bumper-sticker aphorisms, and you have to stay actively engaged with your own thinking process, to develop a sense of fine-tuning in your beliefs and corresponding actions.  Alas, it is inconvenient, and any opportunities of offering a 30-second sound bite can be kissed goodbye.

So now, a new book and accompanying article in the New York Times has come onto the radar. It is potentially as important as the early research on the effects of cigarette smoking.  A lot of people will be upset.  The subject?  YOGA.

In the article, How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body, renowned Yoga teacher Glenn Black takes a courageous (and some might say heretical) viewpoint about the yoga-is-for-everyone mindset.  Quoting from the article:

Black has come to believe that “the vast majority of people” should give up yoga altogether. It’s simply too likely to cause harm.

Not just students but celebrated teachers too, Black said, injure themselves in droves because most have underlying physical weaknesses or problems that make serious injury all but inevitable. . . “Yoga is for people in good physical condition. Or it can be used therapeutically. It’s controversial to say, but it really shouldn’t be used for a general class.”

The entire article is worth a read.  Black’s viewpoint, and that of a new book The Science of Yoga: The Risks and The Rewards, is a highly nuanced and sensible one.  As a Feldenkrais teacher who works with a lot of yoga enthusiasts, I’m often asked “What do you think of yoga?” or “Is yoga GOOD?”  I often wonder if their underlying question is, “Should I be doing yoga?”  I’m delighted to say “It depends.”  It’s not just the WHAT (Yoga).  It’s also the HOW — how it is taught, how you approach it, how you monitor yourself. . .

Moshe Feldenkrais was famous for saying, “If you don’t know what you’re doing, then you can’t do what you want [to do].”  Ah, there’s the rub. With yoga, it is important to know what you are doing.  Many people begin a yoga class without having the slightest inkling what their physical limitations are, with the belief that yoga will “fix them.”  The temptation to stretch just a little bit farther, or to conquer that challenging pose TODAY, is a siren song that can lead to serious injury. Of course, many people enjoy and benefit from their yoga practice. Surely, the difference lies in the experience and intentions of the individual in any given moment.

I’m not bashing yoga. You can get hurt doing ANYTHING — yoga, crossing the street, cooking, ballet, playing the violin. . . you can even put yourself in pain during a Feldenkrais class, if you aren’t paying careful attention to yourself!  The bottom line is, people are not going to stop yoga (just as some people have not stopped smoking), no matter what “the evidence” might say.  People will indeed continue yoga, as they will continue to study ballet, climb sheer rock faces, drive fast, eat sweet foods, clean their houses.  Of course, the analogy breaks down a bit with the examples of smoking, driving, and shooting, as other people can potentially be harmed by your actions.  But that’s another debate.

I hope the new book will say that yoga is an interesting and potentially satisfying pursuit. I hope it will say that there are substantial risks, and that prospective students need to begin with both eyes open and feet on the ground, before attempting that headstand. As with living in general, your presence and attention are required.  You can’t expect to “phone it in,” and nobody is exempt from the laws of physics.  I hope the book will say, “You have to pay attention.”

I’d love to see our culture and our education system support the idea that it is beneficial to learn to respect yourself, and the physical sensations your body send to tell you “THIS is enough.” If we can learn to appreciate the long-term process of learning and improvement over a lifetime, rather than the fastest result possible — well, we might just then be on to something.

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7 thoughts on “Not Just WHAT: Also HOW

  1. Love this article, Marybeth — and thanks for the links. I am a yoga lover and I have, indeed, been injured in class (my own doing and at times by the hands of “teachers”). All yoga teachers are not created equal and the Yoga Culture in the US is not facilitating a healthy and balanced practice. Feldenkrais is a mind-body modality that has helped me nurture awareness, thus developing a respect and gentle stewardship of my body (and mind!) no matter what my physical pursuits. See you in class next week at the Jung: game on!

  2. Mary Beth, Glenn Black certainly is not “renowned” in the sense of prestigious or exemplary after the NYT article has made him notorious.–He’s now the poster boy for uncritical acceptance of 3 different modalities without careful consideraion & evidence. First a compulsive yoga practice in which he claims to have ignored /not sought help for discomfort until it was overwhelming 2) complete following of a celebrity bodytuning guru who promotes himself as an intutive healer 3) complete acceptance of orthopedic medical science to the extent that he discounts a long painful rehabilitation and accepts a surgery without such a great success rate(there are several other surgical alternative for stenosis.
    Ime “renowned” is often an advertising term applied to performers(circus, dance, music) who are not particularly “esteemed” or well-known to the audience being solicited or in their field. I’m wondering if this guy was a well-respected yoga teacher and if you had ever heard of him before the article. I’ve read many yoga publications visited many websites, taken workshops & classes with many teachers from different schools and traditions who namecheck their teachers and their teachers’ teachers without ever hearing about him. I’m afraid googling him now would mean a laborious slog through the current hullaballo 😉

    1. Thanks for this contribution. The points you raise are exactly what makes the practice of ANY activity, done mindlessly, a dangerous one. Compulsion, acceptance of authority without questioning, and the lack of knowledge of alternative paths to improvement, are not exclusive to yoga culture. They can be found throughout the exercise biz, in all kind of sports, and even in the arts. Add in competition and ego, and you’ve got a perfect storm for people getting hurt. I hope that the new book will address these issues.
      The NYT article will be a conversation starter, that’s for sure.

  3. Nice article, I love your introduction! 🙂 And how you debunk the New York Times article 🙂

    I also need to remind that 99% of all books are written to make money – that’s the SOLE AND ONLY purpose. Sorry for this not-so-romantic reminder. I know this since I’m on the amazon writers forums and I read the blogs of best selling writers.

    That yoga (just like any other sport or activity) carries some risks, and does not lead to the promised “enlightenment” (though not mentioned in the article?) is discussed since decades, from the medical community as well as yoga practitioners alike. So that’s nothing new.

    The most remarkable thing here is only the marketing of Black and Broad, and how they managed to get attention with this old topic, and rake in the cash big time. On this, they did a remarkable job!! And can celebrate our stupid endtimes, where only money counts. Thumbs up! 🙂

    1. Alfons, thank you for taking the time to comment on my post.
      While I don’t share your rather cynical view that “only money counts,” I would say that media, readership, and book sales are driven by sensationalism and the ability to write a polarizing headline or title. The goal of this post, and of the SomaQuest blog in general, is to encourage people to consider an alternative, more nuanced and differentiated approach in their thinking about many issues in our culture.

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