How NOT to Wreck Your Body Doing Yoga
By Brahmi, Director, TriYoga Boston
There has been much discussion in the yoga world and beyond about William Broad’s recent book The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards and the NY Times article entitled “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” that helped put the book on the best seller list as soon as it was released.
While there is much to argue about with NY Times article, I am finding Broad’s book to be thoroughly researched, and think it’s a must read for both aspiring and serious yogis. Broad claims that doctors have long warned about serious yoga injuries, including permanent nerve damage and strokes. In the book Broad takes a broad look at the origins of yoga and the science behind all the different claims made about it, with an aim toward separating fact from fiction. While the book itself is a more balanced view of yoga, the NY Times article sensationalized the risks. I had no choice but to take notice as my students started asking me to about the safety of our practice. One woman who had bought an Amazon voucher said she held off using it because she was afraid of hurting herself.
As way of background, I am the Director of TriYoga Boston, a non-profit center which focuses on the healing and transformative powers of yoga. I have been practicing yoga for 36 years, and my practice has helped me heal a bad back, wrist problems, recover from knee and shoulder surgery, and taught me how to improve every aspect of my life through my conscious choices. Last year I left a fairly high profile career in high tech to devote myself full time to a large non-profit center and focus on therapeutic benefits of yoga. Yoga Therapy is an emerging area and Broad accurately portrays both good and the quackery. But there is also a growing body of scientific evidence regarding its therapeutic benefits. Broad discusses this as well. Our center is interested in furthering the knowledge and practice of therapeutic yoga, as we believe in the therapeutic value of the TriYoga method.
I discovered TriYoga in 1993, after 17 years of practicing other forms of yoga and knew I had found my path. The source of the TriYoga method is Founder Yogini Kaliji’s experiences with Kriyavati (spontaneous posture flows guided completely by kundalini energy). I found that the energy that guides Kaliji’s flowing yoga has opened my own pathways to inner knowledge and healing. When I started TriYoga I had been in wrist braces for 7 years, had zero arm strength and chronic back pain. TriYoga strengthened my body, healed my wrists, and taught me this body that had been a source of chronic pain most of my adult life could become a vessel for transformation. Yoga did the opposite of wrecking my body. It healed body, mind and spirit.
As yoga has gained in popularity, there is no question that there has been a rise in yoga injuries, especially in large classes where fairly advanced postures are being attempted by inexperienced students. TriYoga emphasizes an inward focus on the breath, and honoring the unique needs of each body. It is a systematized approach. There are practice manuals for Basics, Level 1- Earth; Level 2 – Water; and Level 3 – Fire. Each level has 5 primary series, and each primary series has 3 condensed versions to systematically learn all the postures for that series. That’s 65 series for Basics through Level 3. For more variation there is a Flow Manual that teachers can go to for multi-level classes and workshops, and Yoga for Everyone, which includes Chair Yoga, Yoga for Seniors, Pre-Natal Yoga, Kids Yoga, and other specialty classes. There is also a comprehensive Prana Vidya manual that has 7 levels of systematized Pranayama and concentration practices. Each level progressively develops strength, flexibility, and knowledge of correct alignment. Props including blocks, straps, pillows, and bolsters are used at every level. The emphasis is always on remaining comfortable and focused on the steady even flow of breath throughout the practice. The practice relaxes the body and quiets the mind.
The most serious injuries cited by Broad include permanent nerve damage from Forward Bends and Natural Seat (Vajrasana) and strokes caused by compression of the neck in Plow, Shoulder Stand, Headstand, Cobra, and Spinal Twists and Wheel. Side Warrior (Side Angle Pose) and Triangle were also cited as dangerous postures resulting in neck injuries. The Columbia College of Physicians published a survey of more than 1300 respondents who practiced yoga asking about personal experience as well as observations of serious injuries due to yoga. The largest number of injuries (231) was due to lower back, then shoulder injuries (219), knee (174) and neck (110). Four cases of strokes were reported. (See below for detailed explanations of how TriYoga avoids injury in each of these postures).
In all cases, the injury was caused by compression of the joints, which occurred when the forcing the posture by either holding it too long, or staying in it when the body was uncomfortable. In TriYoga, we have a Meta alignment cue – true for every asana – and that is to expand in all directions. The objective is to create space within the body, removing the obstacles to the flow of subtle, healing energy. When we create space, we put no pressure or compression on any of the joints. There are no injuries. Here is what Kaliji has to say about injuries in yoga:
“Yoga asana is defined as relaxed, one is able to meditate, transcends pair of opposites….
This is opposite of pushing, holding longer due to ego, not focused on alignment, rushing through the levels, attempting more than one can do…
none of this is YOGA.
One can go to a yoga class and walk out with a strain muscle or injury;
however, it wasn’t YOGA that caused it. It is the other reasons listed ~ such as pushing, not following their body wisdom…etc.
therefore, injuries are not in TriYoga or Yoga ~ but rather due to the person’s lack of applying yoga principles.” Yogini Kaliji
When a posture is practiced in alignment, with focus on the breath, it becomes comfortable, effortless. However, as Kaliji says, “effort” is the first part of the word “effortless”. We first need to put a great deal of effort into learning proper alignment. Often this requires unlearning old patterns – samskaras, which is even harder. It takes focus, discipline and daily practice.
Focus on a steady even flow of breath, witnessing the body, and practicing Ahimsa – non-harming – ensures a safe practice. If the breath becomes uneven and short it is an indication of struggling and a sure sign it is time to release! Sustaining an asana in incorrect alignment without the requisite strength, flexibility or experience to do it correctly, can cause of injury.
A posture held in correct alignment becomes effortless, and makes the body becomes a vessel for the unimpeded flow of subtle energy. The systematized method of TriYoga enables anyone at any level to experience the full benefits of opening the subtle energy pathways. The energy has the power to heal. Many have experienced the healing power of yoga. We now look to science to determine how it works, and Broad to explain it to us.
The most dangerous postures identified by William Broad and The Columbia College of Physicians survey:
Side Warrior (Side Angle Pose)