I was lying in a savasana at the end of a self-created yoga flow, when I had this idea float through my mind that the reason that yoga asana practice can be particularly dangerous is that yoga is marketed as healthful. As with many other beginner yoga practitioners, I am very attracted to and actively practicing towards more advanced poses such as crow, wheel and handstand.
There is so much to be gained from working toward these challenging and beautiful poses: strength, flexibility, mental fortitude and concentration. However, no other practice with such an emphasis on extreme flexibility describes such physical achievements as healthful. We all know that ballet dancers and gymnasts are prone to injury and tend to have short careers, so we should be very careful when pursuing yoga poses that push our bodies toward acrobatics. In recent years, many prominent yogis famous for Instaworthy extreme yoga poses have disclosed serious yoga injuries associated with hyper-mobility. Jill Miller details her total hip replacement here and Laura Burkhart describes her own injuries and lists many other prominent yoga influencers with injuries in this article (which includes wonderful tips on how to avoid yoga injury). I think that if we do not pursue such so-called “advanced” yoga poses with the right intentions, they cease to be yoga at all. As Glenn Black is quoted as saying in this NY Times feature titled “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” (please ignore the terrible photo shoot that accompanies this piece): “Asana is not a panacea or a cure-all. In fact, if you do it with ego or obsession, you’ll end up causing problems.”
A common definition of “yoga” is “union”; yoga is a practice of connecting mind, body and spirit. In the West, yoga has gained popularity as a fitness tool, a way to workout, lose weight and look good. We need to be aware that contemporary wellness culture has conflated a person’s outward appearance with their physical, spiritual, and mental well-being, exploiting our anxieties about physical appearance to market us goods and services. (See “The False Promises of Wellness Culture” for a recent history of wellness culture.) There is currently a movement among social-justice conscious yoga teachers to bring yoga back to its roots of mindfulness, meditation, and inclusivity (yoga is for everyone!) and remind us that yoga is not just about bendy poses. (The Yoga is Dead podcast lists some great resources here.) However, asana (physical practice) remains the easiest entry point to yoga for most people because physical practice is the easiest way for most people to get into a meditative state — ask any runner, long-distance hiker or rock climber.
It is absolutely beneficial to your health to improve mobility and core strength, and learning how your body moves and how you can control it brings so much confidence and joy. What we should and do learn from yoga asana practice is to listen to our bodies, trust our bodies and love our bodies. If you use a yoga asana practice to check in with your body head to toe every day (it can be as simple as a 5 minute savasana!), you become familiar with your body and notice when things feel out of sorts or simply wrong. In my yoga teacher training, our instructor emphasized that any yoga pose will look different in each body, and how to tell whether you are in a pose or not should be based on what you feel (e.g. a stretch in your hamstring) and not what you look like (e.g. whether you are touching your toes). If you come from an athletic background, you are probably already familiar with what “good” pain feels like (e.g. tightness that can be softened by a warm-up, soreness from hard work) and how that is different from “bad” pain indicating over-use or injury. If you are coming to yoga from a mostly sedentary lifestyle, then it may take a while to develop this self-knowledge. This self-awareness is especially important right now when a lot of us are doing yoga at home by ourselves without an experienced instructor or even someone else to spot us.
I have a friend who quit yoga because too much Downward Dog caused/exacerbated carpal tunnel. The truth is many yoga poses are hard! Even ones as basic as Downward Dog. The strength needed to do them correctly cannot be developed by going to a conventional vinyasa flow class at your local studio once a week, or even 3 or 5 times a week. As with any other physically challenging sport, you must train strategically. Personally, I have found Karin Dimitrovova’s Core Play extremely helpful to my practice (not affiliated, I don’t get any benefit from linking her here). I was able to build up the wrist, shoulder and core strength necessary for Downward Dog to become a restful position. Google around and you can find a lot of great advice and drills for yoga strength and mobility training on the Internet. For example, this article has great advice and exercises to help with properly grounding down through the hands to avoid carpal tunnel. Of course, evaluate everything with your own judgment!
Yoga Sutra 2.46 states “sthira sukham asanam” — asana should be steady and comfortable. The original purpose of asana was to prepare the body for meditation. Listen to your body, take care of it and learn to trust it. With love, discipline and patience, you will be able to reach your asana goals. Remember, the benefits of yoga come from how you feel, not how you look.