A few days ago, I read the New York Times article on yoga titled “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body“. I would like to share my thoughts upon reading the article.
I am reminded of the wisdom – when we receive twenty compliments and one negative remark, the mind usually holds on to the one negative remark. To put the article in perspective, I feel we should acknowledge the 5,000+ year history of yoga, its extraordinary contribution to humanity and the experience of millions of people who have benefited from yoga.
Like all powerful tools and techniques, Yoga practices should be used in the way it was intended in order to reap true benefits. A kitchen knife is a very useful tool, but it can cause harm when used without care or lack of awareness. The concluding sentence of the NYtimes article captures this sentiment very well: “If you do it (asanas) with ego or obsession, you’ll end up causing problems.”
Over the last few decades, especially in the west, the focus has been exclusively on asanas (postures). It is a common mistake to use the word “yoga” to mean “yoga asanas”. However, the practice of asanas is only a tiny fraction of yoga practice. Only 3 of the 196 aphorisms of the classic yoga text “Yoga Sutras” authored by Maharishi Patanjali deal with asanas. I believe the NYtimes article will be a reminder for all yoga practitioners that obsession with asanas is not a good thing. There is much more to yoga. The classic yoga literature is filled with insightful wisdom about the mind, offers numerous meditation techniques, describes the subtle chakras in the system, reveals astounding secrets of the breath & much, much more. The effectiveness of yoga (not just asanas) has also been recognized in healing & therapy. One of the definitive books on yoga therapy, titled Yoga as Medicine, has been authored by Timothy McCall, M.D., who is quoted in the above NYtimes article. It would be a tragedy if we lose the wisdom of yoga (don’t worry – it won’t happen!).
Even in the 3 sutras where Patanjali talks about asanas, he does not mention flexibility or contortion-ism. He defines asana as simply a stable and comfortable body position (Sutra II-46: “Sthira sukham asanam”). Further, Patanjali suggests releasing the struggle or excess effort and allow the body to relax in the pose and enjoy the bliss (Sutra II-47: “Prayatna shaitilya ananta samapattibhyam”).
The holistic practice of yoga as taught by Patanjali includes 8 limbs (aspects) of which asanas is just one of them. The primary concern is not the body at all. For example, Patanjali gives 5 sutras on pranayama (loosely translated as breath-work), perhaps suggesting that breath-work is more important than asanas! The 8 limbs also includes the living of values such as non-violence, truthfulness, non-stealing, cleanliness, contentment, self-awareness, etc. Note that ruthless determination to push the body into a new pose is a form of violence and therefore goes against the principles of yoga. The goal of the 8 limbs of yoga is to bring harmony to the body, breath, mind, etc in order that we may live as good human beings and express our full potential. Specifically, Patanjali mentions in his sutra (II-28) that the practice of this holistic yoga removes the impurities, elevates one’s awareness, and sharpens our discrimination (more on this sutra is here).
Many of the most highly revered yogis are not exactly famous for agile and flexible bodies. For example, Paramahamsa Yogananda, the celebrated author of “Autobiography of a Yogi” dedicated his life to yoga; his teachings of kriya yoga (that have come down from a long list of eminent yogis) have touched millions of lives.
Patanjali describes yoga practice as an expression of Seva (service). (Sutra I-14: “Satu Dhirgha Kala Nairantarya Satkara Sevito Drdha Bhumih”). Our Yoga practice is a way to serve the cells of the body, serve the inner faculties (mind, intellect etc) and most importantly, to serve the divinity that resides within each one of us.
It is true that much of what happens in the name of yoga today (especially in the west) can be described as a relentless pursuit to perfect more postures and contort the body in weird ways! The seva bhaav (spirit of serving) seems to be forgotten. However, I wonder if the culprit is yoga? Or is it how we (ab)use the teachings of yoga and suffer the unpleasant consequences?
Most of the asanas are inspired from nature. Some asanas are named after animals; for example, the cat stretch is said to have been inspired by observing the movements of a cat to bring vitality to the spine. No animal overdoes a stretch; there is no competition, and it is just an expression of pure joy! The animals seem to be much more in tune with the body’s innate intelligence. We humans seem to have lost this connection, thanks to stress and sedentary habits. One of the goal of yoga asanas is to learn to listen to the body more keenly and be in tune with our innate body’s intelligence.
It is no coincidence that eminent yogis who have practiced Hatha Yoga live a long and healthy lives, actively practicing and teaching till the very end. Yogacharya T. Krishnamacharya lived over 100 years; his students Indra Devi (lived till 102) and Pattabhi Jois (lived to 94) were active till their last days.
Yogacharya B.K.S. Iyengar, who is 93 now, is still passionately teaching yoga. Watch this inspiring video interview of him with Prannoy Roy. I especially like the dialogue at time 1:57 to 2:20 – where Prannoy Roy says that Iyengar looks more healthy and vibrant at 90 years old than anyone else in the room (the people in the audience were mainly University students).
To summarize, I’d say that we can use the NYtimes article to remind ourselves of the true aims of yoga. Yoga offers deeper & much more meaningful practices than just asanas. Yes, yoga can be harmful when it is used in ways not intended, or when we practice it with lack of awareness. However, as they say, “don’t throw the baby with the bathwater“. Even if the baby is 5,000 years old!
“Like a flower bud, human life has the potential to blossom fully.
Blossoming of human potential to fullness is yoga.”
~ Sri Sri Ravi Shankar