I get this question quite often from both clients and friends, and while it may be formulated as a question, it usually isn’t really a question. Most of them mean something like “I know I should do yoga, right? Yoga will help me”.
This attitude should come as no surprise, given that yoga has grown drastically in popularity in the recent past. According to the 2012 statistics from Namasta, there are over 15 million practitioners in the US, and the industry sees about a 20% year over year increase. Over the last 5 years, there has been an 87% increase in the amount of money spent on yoga products. There has been a huge influx of yogis on social media, posting photos and videos of themselves in poses most people can’t even think of getting into. We’ve been cultured to believe that yoga is the panacea of all our ills – whether they’re caused by sitting at a desk for hours a day or too much running.
But is it? As someone who takes a fairly moderate approach to many things in life, I generally advise people (and often need to remind myself) that if something promises the world, or seems too ‘perfect’ it is probably too good to be true? We’ve come to believe that yoga can heal – and while I’d definitely argue that it can, I’d also argue that it isn’t all its cracked up to be, that not all yoga is for everyone, and that you need to approach it with some knowledge, care, and self-awareness.
Yoga Can Be Good
So you’re probably thinking that I’m mostly here to hate on yoga. Which is not the case – yoga, in many ways, completely changed my life. I’m a yoga teacher. I spend a good amount of time with my clients teaching them how to stretch and do certain yoga poses. So we’ll start with the good stuff. Most of this is probably stuff you’ve already heard about yoga, but its worth mentioning anyway:
- Yoga will likely help improve your flexibility. Probably one of the more obvious attributes of practicing.
- Yoga will help you to be more aware of your body. Buyer beware! This can sometimes get pretty annoying, especially if you’re an over-analyzer like me.
- Yoga can help you prevent injuries from doing….well, all the other stuff you do.
- Yoga can help you relax. The focus on breath in yoga is really good for us. Taking time to breathe and be present is pretty awesome, and something most of us need quite badly.
- Yoga can be an excellent workout, depending on the style of yoga you choose to practice.
- Yoga is awesomely adaptable. Whether you’re someone who can sit comfortably with both feet behind their head or can’t touch their toes, its ok – there’s yoga that you can do and that you can benefit from.
The list can go on and on – if you don’t believe me, head over to see what your pal Google has to say when you search for “benefits of yoga” or “why should I do yoga”. From hotter sex to better sleep to increased happiness and injury prevention, the list goes on and on.
Yoga Can Be Bad
Now that you know that yoga is totally awesome, we’re going to shine a little bit of light on the not so good stuff. There’s a lot of talk about how yoga can help prevent injuries, but not a lot of talk about how you can get injured doing yoga. And believe me, you can! I spent several years doing bodywork in a yoga studio, and lots of people get injured doing yoga.
Something that often gives me pause is that because yoga has exploded in popularity pretty recently, we don’t have a lot of long term data or studies showing what happens to people who do a lot of yoga for a long time. While it has been fairly well documented that stretching (within guidelines) is pretty good for you, what about repeatedly performing backbends, standing on your head or shoulders, or moving your neck in certain ways? A 2012 New York Times article addressed a number of ways yoga can be totally horrible for your body. Its a good read – take a few minutes to sift through it when you have a moment, but I’ll sum it up in a (majorly) oversimplified way: not all yoga is good for everyone. Further, what might feel great for you today might not feel great tomorrow, or next week. In order to benefit from yoga, we must move carefully, mindfully, and without ego. Oh yes, all those cliches that you didn’t want – you just wanted the workout, right?
What You Should Do
Whether you’re brand new to yoga or a seasoned practitioner, it is hugely important to move move carefully, mindfully, and without ego. If a teacher is leading the class through a sequence that includes a pose or two that say, hurts your lower back when you perform it, maybe you shouldn’t be doing that pose. If you’re doing something and it hurts, stop doing it! Seems basic, right? But most of us will just keep performing the pose that hurts or doesn’t feel right without question. Either perform a different pose, a less intense version of the same pose, or skip it altogether. Ask the teacher for help with your technique on that pose and for modifications.
Don’t be afraid to move slow. Lots of people love power yoga, lots of vinyasa, classes that move and make you sweat. Don’t get me wrong – I love these classes too. Vinyasa flow is my preferred flavor of yoga, but especially when you’re first learning, moving quickly through a lot of poses can mean you’re doing a lot of stuff wrong. Which can lead to injury. I’ve been to more “All Levels Yoga” classes than I can count, and very very few work through the technique of the vinyasa – a series of movements that brings you firmly into the camp of those likely to incur a shoulder injury if you’re doing it wrong and often enough. We’re so hard-wired in our culture to need to do MORE and FASTER that slower, stretchier yoga is often shunned for the more ‘workouty’ types, but there’s a lot of benefit to be had in classes that do fewer poses, longer holds, and offer a lot of cues for technique.
We see so many uber-stretchy yogis online doing crazy poses, and we aspire to them. We want to do forearm stand and bring our foot to the back of our head in one-legged king pigeon. Leave your ego at the door: just because someone else is doing something doesn’t make it right for your body. I once watched my neck-injured mother in law craning her neck at a horrific angle in an attempt to bind in extended side angle pose– a pose which wasn’t accessible for her body at that time. The vision of it makes me cringe even now, but I remember looking around and seeing every other person in the class performing the bound version of the pose, even those for whom it looked extremely difficult and/or just plain wrong. When the teacher guides a class through a sequence, they likely offer several stages of poses. Take the easier one if you need to, even if the people next to you are going further. Don’t do handstands and weird binds and backbends and hand balancing because you see people on Instagram doing them.
Do your homework. Not all yoga teachers are equal (and are often a dime a dozen, so if you strike out, keep looking!). I’ll be frank: the basic requirements for certification by the Yoga Alliance (the certifying body for yoga instructors in the US) is only 200 hours, which breaks down to roughly three weeks of full time training. This doesn’t mean that if a teacher has only completed that level of training they’re not good or knowledgeable, my point is just that the bar is fairly low, and not everyone has additional training or outside knowledge of the body, injuries, and more. Ask around. Try a lot of different teachers. Ask the teachers a lot of questions. You may find twenty mediocre but totally acceptable teachers before you find a great one. You’ll know when you find the great ones. They’ll offer you movement cues and modifications you haven’t heard before. They’ll work into harder poses logically, opening and strengthening areas of the body in ways that make sense.