Put down those mats everyone. Now yoga is bad.
Well, not bad, but maybe not the magic cure it has long been touted as either — at least according to two new articles.
A recent piece in the New York Times magazine outlines the health risks associated with yoga. While completely hyperbolic — one guy’s “yoga” injury comes from sitting on his knees for hours a day — we still learn that yoga can cause some serious problems and should not be the exercise of choice for everybody.
And over at New York Magazine an interview with yoga reformer David Regelin reveals that we have been doing things all wrong. We rush through poses while listening to Bjork, as the strong parts of our bodies get stronger and the weak ones get weaker. Meanwhile, teachers “have had, you know, hip replacements and knee surgery,” he says. “But they’re not going to put that out there. If you’re the fast-food industry, you don’t say, ‘I’m obese, eat my food.’”
In short, the combination of sloppy teaching and the fact that most of us can’t help but push too hard on the mat — you can take the yogi out of the competition, but can’t take the competition out of the yogi — has led to a fair share of damaged muscles and joints. This backlash is hardly surprising in a news culture obsessed with the all that is counterintuitive and shocking. (How broccoli can kill you, tonight at 8!) Honestly, I am surprised it took this long.
But these pieces got me thinking.
As a long-time yogi who has the seen the physical and mental benefits of yoga, I am reluctant to panic about its potential harm, as presented in these pieces. I was, however, prompted to consider yoga’s proposed spiritual, ego-reforming effects and whether the exercise is really so exceptional after all.
I have been doing yoga for six years and the benefits are clear. My “core” is stronger, and if I catch a good teacher on a good day then I leave the studio with a clearer and calmer mind. But it never goes deeper than that. I have heard many, many ruminations on the perils of the ego and how through yoga we can gain access to some source of higher truth or meaning, but I can’t say I have ever really gone there. Sure, it relaxes me, but so does a long run in the park on a nice day.
Yoga is presented to us as part of a system that nurtures understanding and growth. We are supposed to “listen” to and “respect” our bodies, and through this we learn greater truths about tolerance and acceptance. But inside how many of us are really approaching our bodies or other beings in this manner? I’m much more likely to be thinking, “Man, I wish I could stick this handstand for longer than a few seconds.” Or, “Eww, that guy’s B.O. is horrible.” Or, “Ugh, I’m so bloated.”
It’s possible that I am the worst yoga student ever, but a quick glance around the room reveals that not everyone seems to be getting in touch with a universal truth either. Most of them just look like they are working out. And if these articles about the rising number of injuries due to yoga are true, then it seems as though there are more out there who have yet to sufficiently strip themselves of ego on the mat.
Slate recently ran a piece about the similarities between yoga and objectivism, after yoga-wear purveyor Lululemon began quoting Ayn Rand on their shopping bags.
Molly Worthen writes:
Patchouli and oneness with the universe are passé. Yoga is now hyper-modern and individualist, a lifestyle devoted to realizing one’s own potential in the tightest, most space-age fabric possible. To reduce Rand’s philosophy to a mere endorsement of this sort of striving and self-improvement is to totally misunderstand her. But it’s not hard to see that if we take some of her pithy statements out of context, she transforms into a slightly edgier version of your local yoga instructor.
I think Worthen is right, and that that might just be okay. We can let go of this idea that yoga is some magical temple of healing and transformation, and stick with it because it is a good form of exercise with some potential calming side effects. And we can search elsewhere for moral and personal insights. I hear that the Jewish tradition, for one, has a few ideas about these matters.
So What If Yoga Is Just Another Exercise?
Elissa Strauss has written for the Forward over a number of years. She is a regular contributor to CNN, whose work has been published in a number of publications including The New York Times, Glamour, ELLE, and Longreads.