Posted: January 11, 2012

I recently read an article in the New York Times by William J. Broad called How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body. Contentious? Probably more than a little. Upsetting to those who practice? Absolutely. Being a dabbler in yoga myself I had to say my hackles went up at this one. Still, the article made some valid points.

Broad’s article features a renowned instructor named Glen Black who teaches only a few simple poses and almost no inversions (head stands, shoulder stands). “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…injure themselves in droves because most have underlying physical weaknesses or problems that make serious injury all but inevitable.”

Although his viewpoint is extreme, I can’t completely disagree with what he’s saying.

According to the New York Times, “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 — [this] 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.” The demographic of people doing yoga has also shifted. Indian practitioners of yoga grew up sitting cross-legged and squatting, and continue to sit in these positions their entire adult life. According to Broad, “Yoga poses, or asanas, were an outgrowth of these postures.” Americans who sit sedentary in chairs all day staring at computer screens or fuming in traffic lack the natural flexibility that yoga demands. Even those of us who stay fit and take regular exercise are not necessarily equipped for the demands of some poses.

Furthermore, “a growing body of medical evidence supports Black’s contention that, for many people, a number of commonly taught yoga poses are inherently risky. The first reports of yoga injuries appeared decades ago, published in some of the world’s most respected journals — among them, Neurology, The British Medical Journal and The Journal of the American Medical Association. The problems ranged from relatively mild injuries to permanent disabilities.”

I believe the reason we are seriously injuring ourselves in Yoga at such an alarming rate is that many of us are out of touch with our bodies. But we don’t have to be.

The Alexander Technique teaches you how to do whatever it is you do with more freedom and less tension. It teaches you to become aware of yourself in a new way, as well as how to pay attention to your body’s (sometime subtle) warning system. Most of us walk around unconscious of how we move through our daily lives. Even worse, if we are consistently in pain we adapt by divorcing ourselves from our pain (and in doing so, divorcing ourselves from our bodies). We learn to put all our attention on the goal (“I’m going to get this project done tonight no matter what it takes!”) and ignore how we get there. In doing all of this, we develop harmful postural or movement patterns that throw the body out of balance and weaken the structure as a whole. This is what creates those “underlying physical weaknesses” that Black mentioned. When the system is compromised, it only takes one wrong step and a little twist to cause a serious injury.

“Awareness is more important than rushing through a series of postures just to say you’d done them,” says Glenn Black.

Yoga is a five-thousand-year old form. It has been proven to improve strength and flexibility. It can lower blood pressure, lower cortisol levels and fight fatigue. Can it be dangerous? It can. But by applying the principles of the Alexander Technique to your practice and arming yourself with a heightened sense of awareness, freedom, and better overall coordination, yoga or any strenuous activity can remain safe and fulfilling.

The article quoted above is adapted from a new book coming out next month called The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards, by William J. Broad.

I’d love to hear your thoughts….

Posted: September 13, 2011

Every weekend I teach acting classes to kids and teens in Century City.

As my group of teenagers entered the studio at the beginning of class last weekend, I noticed Markus drop his pen. With a big heave, a crunched neck and hunched shoulders, he bent over to retrieve his lost article off the carpet. At that moment, just for a flash, I saw fourteen-year-old Markus as the sixty-year-old man he might one day become. He came up in much the same awkward and compressed way, knuckled his back for a moment, and sauntered over to his seat.

“Guys,” I asked, cautious curiosity bubbling into my voice. “Where do you bend from?”

“What, Miss Jenn?” asked Alissa.

“Where do you bend from?” I repeated. The room grew silent, perplexed expressions on all the kids faces.

“Stand up, guys.” I grabbed the marker from the whiteboard and dropped it on the floor. “If you were to pick up this marker, how would you do it? What joints do you use? Point to the places you would bend from.”

The students paused for a moment and then eleven of my twelve students pointed to the middle of their backs, on or a little below the waist line.

“Okay, I said.” I’m going to pick up this marker. I’m going to do it by bending from the back of my waist like you guys are telling me to. Ready?” I curled over, my spine compressing uncomfortably, and reached out my right hand to grab the marker. My neck remained crunched up until I regained my height. “What did you notice about that move?”

“You didn’t look very comfortable.” said Irene.

“You looked like an old lady!” said Jeremy. Everyone laughed. They already consider me to be an old lady.

“I did.” I replied and dropped the marker again. “I’m going to do it again, but I’m not going to bend over at my waist. Do you know why?”

The class shook their heads.

“Because I don’t have a joint at my waist. I have some flexibility in my spine,” I wiggle around and do a funny dance, which proves this as well as how uncool of a grown-up I am. “But there isn’t a joint there. Where are the joints I can bend from to pick up something off the floor?”

“You’re hip joints,” says Irene.

“Yup. Where are they?” I ask.

She points to the top of her hips right below her waist.

“Not quite,” I say. Lift your knee up and see where you leg creases.

Half the students decide to try this for themselves.

“Oh, much lower than I thought.” admits Irene.

“Where are the other joints?”

“Knees,” says Jeremy.

“Yup.” Where else?”

“There’s more?” asks Kayden from the back. He’s clearly ready to start talking about something more interesting.

“How about your ankles?” I offer. Everyone looks down perplexed at their ankles.

“For bending?” says Kennedy a little skeptically.

“Well, try bending your knees without flexing at your ankles.”

They actually do, to my amusement.

“So what if I bend down to pick up this marker using my hips, knees, and ankles and leave my back alone?” I ask. I allow my neck to be free and easy and my head automatically begins to feel lighter. As my spine lengthens, rather than compresses, I float down on my joints, pick up the marker, and smoothly come back up.

“That looked easy.” said Irene.

“It was. And it didn’t crunch my neck or my back in the least. Want to try it?”

They do, giggling at the strangeness of consciously observing themselves practice such a simple activity.

“This looks a lot like the way my two-year-old sister picks up stuff,” comments Michelle.

“Wow. My back feels better doing it that way,” comments Markus. “Weird.”

It never ceases to amaze me how unconscious we are about the way we are constructed. Simply having a kinesthetic understanding of our bodies has a profound effect on the way we move through our lives.

I like to use the analogy of owning a car. Say you buy a new car, put only premium gas in it, regularly have it maintenanced, and protect it from freezing temperatures and harsh weather. It should last you for years, right? But say you also drive it hard. Hit speed bumps and potholes carelessly and are rough on the steering and breaks. I would hazard that this new car will wear down much faster than it should, despite the fact that you take “proper care” of your vehicle. It is the same with your body. You can exercise regularly, get enough sleep, and avoid fried foods, but if you are reckless with the way you “drive” you’re bound to have a breakdown sooner or later.

Compressing, twisting, or wrenching to complete simple daily activities such as grabbing a bag from the back seat of the car or stretching up to retrieve something off the top shelf might seem unavoidable. But next time you find you are compressing, twisting, or wrenching, ask yourself, “How can I be easier with myself right now? What tension can I let go of? What joints am I employing, or could be employing for this task?

Jennifer Schulz is an AmSAT certified Alexander Technique teacher. She maintains a private practice in Los Angeles, CA

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