Niroga Response to "How Yoga can Wreck Your Body"

("How Yoga can Wreck Your Body" Article by William Broad; New York Times, january 5, 2012)

by Bidyut K. Bose, PhD; Niroga Institute
Published in Yoga Therapy Today, Spring 2012 issue

The word "wreck" conjures up images of chaos, mayhem and destruction, an attention-grabber in itself but especially when coupled with the word "yoga", a practice that is very popular worldwide. In discussing the risks and rewards of yoga, the article begins and ends with quotes by Glenn Black, a body worker and yoga teacher in New York, who says he studied with a legendary physical therapist, but acknowledges that he has "no formal training for determining which [yoga] poses are good for a student and which may be problematic," but he does have "a ton of experience."

Safety in a yoga class obviously depends on who is doing what, when and how. The practice of yoga consists of three essential components - the physical poses, breathing techniques and mindfulness. Yoga poses done after adequately preparing our bodies through dynamic movements, along with an awareness of our own strength and flexibility, greatly reduces the probability of injury. Additionally, there are specific instructions for breathing while holding a pose as well as transitioning from pose to pose. And finally, practicing mindfully, aware of what we are doing as we are doing it, provides yet another layer of protection. Skilled yoga teachers and yoga therapists are specifically trained to adapt yoga poses to the capabilities of each student. For example, Karl, a 94-year old long-time student in our Seniors Yoga class, remarked a few years ago, "I am 88 and I began coming six years ago. It makes me feel wonderful, and I wish I had begun this practice 40 years ago." Judy, a cancer survivor, has been attending our yoga class at Alta Bates Comprehensive Cancer Center for years, and said, "This yoga class is one of the most healing experiences I've had after all the toxicity of treatment – surgery and chemotherapy. It is very important to me."

Realizing the tremendous healing potential of yoga, some of the best medical schools and Centers of Integrative Medicine around the world, are seriously studying the benefits of yoga. Thousands of respected medical professionals are practicing yoga themselves, and recommending yoga to their patients, for prevention and intervention. And that is just in health care. Yoga is also being applied in other major domains of social function, such as education and public safety. Yoga is being practiced in many schools and alternative schools, in Juvenile Halls and Prisons around the country. A youth detained in Alameda County Juvenile Hall, where we have been conducting a daily yoga program for years, said, "Wow, if everyone did yoga, there would not be so much violence in the world!" The reason for the wide dissemination of yoga is simple: yoga is a powerful practice whose benefits for physical health and emotional well-being far outweigh its risks.

Even though Broad's article smacks of bias and sensationalism, and Black's claims appear provocative and exaggerated, the article does point to a significant challenge in the field of yoga. There is great inconsistency in the quality of education and training of yoga teachers and yoga therapists. There is wide disparity in the structure and duration of training programs, their quality of training content/curricula, and the range of faculty experience, and yoga-teachers-to-be often don't know how to go about deciding from the many options. And with thousands of new yoga teachers unleashed on an unsuspecting public annually, yoga students are often confused at best, and oblivious at worst.

There is something terribly wrong if a practice that is supposed to heal is causing harm to those who attempt it, rendering it worse than useless. There is something terribly wrong if yoga teachers and yoga therapists are not adequately trained to suggest appropriate modifications, adapted to the capabilities of every student. There is something terribly wrong if a practice that is universally applicable, can only be practiced by the super-fit, and not by those that may need it the most. The solution is not to make the practice even more socially elite and culturally incongruent than it is, but to dissolve these barriers through proper training of yoga teachers and yoga therapists, by master teachers who have diligently acquired the requisite knowledge, skills and experience, so that the legacy of this ancient healing art can be transmitted from teacher to student, and practiced for generations to come.

Bidyut K. Bose, PhD
Founder and Executive Director, Niroga Institute
Steering Committee Member, Yoga Service Council
Member of the Board of Directors, International Association of Yoga Therapists