Thursday, January 5, 2012

How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body -

On a cold Saturday in early 2009, Glenn Black, a yoga teacher of nearly four decades, whose devoted clientele includes a number of celebrities and prominent gurus, was giving a master class at Sankalpah Yoga in Manhattan. Black is, in many ways, a classic yogi: he studied in Pune, India, at the institute founded by the legendary B. K. S. Iyengar, and spent years in solitude and meditation. He now lives in Rhinebeck, N.Y., and often teaches at the nearby Omega Institute, a New Age emporium spread over nearly 200 acres of woods and gardens. He is known for his rigor and his down-to-earth style. But this was not why I sought him out: Black, I'd been told, was the person to speak with if you wanted to know not about the virtues of yoga but rather about the damage it could do. Many of his regular clients came to him for bodywork or rehabilitation following yoga injuries. This was the situation I found myself in. In my 30s, I had somehow managed to rupture a disk in my lower back and found I could prevent bouts of pain with a selection of yoga postures and abdominal exercises. Then, in 2007, while doing the extended-side-angle pose, a posture hailed as a cure for many diseases, my back gave way. With it went my belief, naïve in retrospect, that yoga was a source only of healing and never harm.

At Sankalpah Yoga, the room was packed; roughly half the students were said to be teachers themselves. Black walked around the room, joking and talking. "Is this yoga?" he asked as we sweated through a pose that seemed to demand superhuman endurance. "It is if you're paying attention." His approach was almost free-form: he made us hold poses for a long time but taught no inversions and few classical postures. Throughout the class, he urged us to pay attention to the thresholds of pain. "I make it as hard as possible," he told the group. "It's up to you to make it easy on yourself." He drove his point home with a cautionary tale. In India, he recalled, a yogi came to study at Iyengar's school and threw himself into a spinal twist. Black said he watched in disbelief as three of the man's ribs gave way — pop, pop, pop.

After class, I asked Black about his approach to teaching yoga — the emphasis on holding only a few simple poses, the absence of common inversions like headstands and shoulder stands. He gave me the kind of answer you'd expect from any yoga teacher: that awareness is more important than rushing through a series of postures just to say you'd done them. But then he said something more radical. 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. Instead of doing yoga, "they need to be doing a specific range of motions for articulation, for organ condition," he said, to strengthen weak parts of the body. "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."

Black seemingly reconciles the dangers of yoga with his own teaching of it by working hard at knowing when a student "shouldn't do something — the shoulder stand, the headstand or putting any weight on the cervical vertebrae." Though he studied with Shmuel Tatz, a legendary Manhattan-based physical therapist who devised a method of massage and alignment for actors and dancers, he acknowledges that he has no formal training for determining which poses are good for a student and which may be problematic. What he does have, he says, is "a ton of experience."

"To come to New York and do a class with people who have many problems and say, 'O.K., we're going to do this sequence of poses today' — it just doesn't work."

According to Black, a number of factors have converged to heighten the risk of practicing yoga. The biggest is the demographic shift in those who study it. Indian practitioners of yoga typically squatted and sat cross-legged in daily life, and yoga poses, or asanas, were an outgrowth of these postures. Now urbanites who sit in chairs all day walk into a studio a couple of times a week and strain to twist themselves into ever-more-difficult postures despite their lack of flexibility and other physical problems. Many come to yoga as a gentle alternative to vigorous sports or for rehabilitation for injuries. But yoga's exploding popularity — the number of Americans doing yoga has risen from about 4 million in 2001 to what some estimate to be as many as 20 million in 2011 — means that there is now an abundance of studios where many teachers lack the deeper training necessary to recognize when students are headed toward injury. "Today many schools of yoga are just about pushing people," Black said. "You can't believe what's going on — teachers jumping on people, pushing and pulling and saying, 'You should be able to do this by now.' It has to do with their egos."

When yoga teachers come to him for bodywork after suffering major traumas, Black tells them, "Don't do yoga."

"They look at me like I'm crazy," he goes on to say. "And I know if they continue, they won't be able to take it." I asked him about the worst injuries he'd seen. He spoke of well-known yoga teachers doing such basic poses as downward-facing dog, in which the body forms an inverted V, so strenuously that they tore Achilles tendons. "It's ego," he said. "The whole point of yoga is to get rid of ego." He said he had seen some "pretty gruesome hips." "One of the biggest teachers in America had zero movement in her hip joints," Black told me. "The sockets had become so degenerated that she had to have hip replacements." I asked if she still taught. "Oh, yeah," Black replied. "There are other yoga teachers that have such bad backs they have to lie down to teach. I'd be so embarrassed."

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