An article by the New York Times has created a storm in a herbal teacup this week regarding yoga and how it can "damage" your body. Sounds ridiculous but yoga can damage your body if it is practiced in a competitive way, (and this includes even being competitive with yourself) without listening to the body, without a qualified yogi, and this seems to be the message at the heart of the article.
However, what the article did not do was look at the many forms of yoga that do not "damage" your body. Yoga is a lifestyle. It's a way of life, a path that has been trodden many times before by many who have gone on to reach an enlightened state. There are four different paths of yoga; Karma yoga, Bhakti yoga, Raja yoga and Jnana yoga. Each path aims to reach this enlightened state of being and each path is suited to a different temperament or approach to life. Swami Sivananda recognised that every Yogi has and can identify with each of these elements - intelligence, the heart, the body and the mind. He advocated that everyone practiced certain techniques from each path and this was known as the Yoga of Synthesis. It is essential to remember this when teaching and practicing yoga. Asanas fit into the path of Raja yoga, they are essentially exercises and stretches which enable our bodies to perform at their optimum, each person is different and as such has a different optimum.
Asanas are not a set of exercises to use as a competitive sport, they must be treated with respect and the rules of yoga must be adhered to when practising them. The first rule that you learn as a yogi is to practice ahimsa which translates as non violence to every living being. This includes non-violence towards our bodies. Yoga does not advocate a violent practice of asanas, it does not put focus onto competition or on getting better in a pose, it promotes the exact opposite, yoga suggests that we relax into a posture, allowing our muscles to relax and eventually to lengthen, relieving tension and stress that we carry in our bodies daily. Practiced in this way asanas can only lead to positive change.
Yoga focuses our minds on the present, on our breath, have you ever observed your own breathing? Yoga helps us to do that. It helps us on the mat and off the mat. The techniques that we learn translate into everyday life, focusing the mind on one task instead of wandering off on a tangent at every given opportunity. Yoga teaches us how to breathe again. Which part of the respiration cycle do you think is most important? The inhale? The exhale? Neither, they are both as important but we tend to put much less emphasis on the exhale. In fact, if you exhale in a stressful situation you can physically relax and slow your own heartbeat, triggering a relax throughout your whole body, try it next time and see. My point being, that is yoga at work and is not at all damaging.
As yoga becomes more and more fashionable different forms of yoga start to appear. More and more people are taking it up and talking about yoga. You can choose from Ashtanga, Bikram, Vinyasa, these forms of yoga are all based on Hatha postures but sometimes you find yourself moving quickly from one pose to another, or holding postures in an overly heated room. Before you take up one form of yoga or another, be mindful to ask yourself what it is you want from the class? For example do you want to learn how to relax, or maybe to breathe more freely, or to de-stress, or do you want a physical exercise class? As long as you are mindful you are on the right track. And more importantly make sure you find a teacher who has your best interests at heart, who teaches from an (non-violent) ahimsa foundation. Failure to do that could result in injury as sited in New York Times article.