Yoga Strikes Back: 2000 Yogis Respond To The New York Times Story

Injury-prevention tips at the annual Yoga Journal conference

What happens when you gather 2,000 yoga practitioners a week after The New York Times publishes a controversial magazine cover story, How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body?

I came to San Francisco to find out.

At Yoga Journal’s annual yoga conference, between the classes and lectures, demonstrations and concerts, The Article was on everyone’s mind – and every yogi’s Facebook page. Turn on the radio and the local public radio station KQED was airing a forum on the controversy with Yoga Journal editor in chief Kaitlin Quistgard, family physician (and yoga teacher) Baxter Bell, MD, Iyengar yoga teacher Jason Crandell – and Glen Black, the main yoga teacher featured in The Times article.  

Perfect time to pick some brains, and perhaps, glean some tips for avoiding injury. Like many teachers at the conference, Ana Forrest, 55, founder of Forrest Yoga, had “conflicting feelings.” On the one hand, she told me, “It made me sick to have this practice that has saved my life smeared. On the other hand, I felt sorry for Glen Black and his spinal stenosis. But, also, yoga is a tool and like any tool if you use it incorrectly or inappropriately, you can get injured.”

Roger Cole, an Iyengar teacher in San Diego, who is referenced in the article and has since written a letter to the editor disputing some of its facts, put it simply: “Duh, if you push yourself and do stupid things, you’ll hurt yourself.” Both Forrest and Cole commented on the human tendency to believe that more is better, which can lead to pushing yourself too hard or far and setting yourself up for injury.

David Swenson, a renowned Ashtanga yoga teacher based in Austin, Texas, was baffled by all the fuss over The Article. “For every one person who is injured doing yoga, there are 10,000 people whose lives are transformed by the practice,” he said. He compared it to medicine. Just because many people have been hurt by doctors doesn’t mean that medicine is bad, he said. “There are idiots in all fields,” he said. “People can be certified to practice yoga or medicine and still not be skilled at their job.”

Jason Crandell reminded his students in his first class of the conference, “Finding Ease at your Edge,” to resist being competitive with themselves or others. He encouraged them to not follow voices in their heads clamoring, ‘I used to be able to do this’ or ‘That person can do it,’ or ‘If only I could do this, my life would be better.’ It’s common, he said, for thoughts like that to arise when you’re at your edge. The trick is to manage the thoughts so they don’t overpower your practice.

“Injuries happen every day,” acknowledges yoga teacher and activist Seane Corn. “When you’re working with this modality and such a broad population you can’t control the outcome.” She knows. She favored sweaty, high-paced classes that fed her Type A energy until she sustained her own injury. That slowed her down and taught her to strengthen her practice by working on alignment and mindfulness.

For Ashely Miller, 32, of Sausalito, California, yoga has been life altering. Thanks to her practice and a food addiction recovery program, she’s lost 80 pounds, she’s stronger physically and emotionally and she has a much greater sense of wellbeing -- and she’s never been injured. Beth Lang, a 36-year-old third grade teacher in Los Altos, California, used yoga to rehab an injured shoulder. “My practice helped me lessen and manage my symptoms and decrease my suffering.” When she first started practicing yoga she thought it was just for her body but not too far into it, she said she crossed over. She recalls thinking, “Oh my god, I’m reaching toward contentment.”

Do you practice yoga? Thinking of starting? The teachers at the conference had advice for staying safe during your practice. Next: 10 Tips for Safe Yoga

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