Yoga: The Benefits and Abuse

The popularity of yoga has increased dramatically – from about 4 million Americans participating in 2001 to an estimate of 20 million Americans in 2011.

Unfortunately, the real meaning of yoga has become lost on some of those Americans. To some, it is a fad – to sound cool and hip by calling themselves “yogis.” To others, it is a challenge – to be able to hold bragging rights for certain poses. It has become more about ego, when ego is supposed to be left at the door.

Nearly every client of mine has told me they want to do yoga. When I ask what it is about yoga they are interested in, the response varies:

  • To become flexible
  • To reduce stress
  • To increase core strength
  • Because everyone else is doing it

It is important to know why you want to do yoga. The primary reasons I hear involve stretching and mindfulness. These are fabulous reasons but in our society of “get results as fast as possible” people think that just by doing yoga they will automatically become more flexible and less stressed, like it is a magic pill that they can take once or twice a week. Simply doing yoga poses without thinking about them does not produce results.

Understand the difference between “yoga” and what the fitness industry refers to as yoga exercise (or hatha yoga).

The word yoga originated from the ancient Sanskrit language spoken by the religious elite of India. Yoga literally means “union,” or integration of mind and body disciplines. According to Patanjali’s philosophical analyses contained in the “Yoga Sutra,” yoga historically refers to the complex system of physical and spiritual disciplines that are fundamental to Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu religious practice throughout Asia.

Leading a “yogic lifestyle” is different from participating in hatha yoga classes offered in studios or fitness centers. Those who live yogic lifestyles are those who generally embark upon daily dietary, meditation, and spiritual centering and regular hatha yoga exercise. The sole practice of routine hatha yoga poses that may or may not include dietary or other lifestyle changes is not the same. It is important to note this because some research outcomes are based on following the yogic lifestyle, not the practice of yoga exercises alone.

The idea and challenge of hatha yoga is to become skilled at handling increasingly greater amounts of resistance (complexity and degree of difficulty) in the various postures and breathing patterns while maintaining a steady and comfortable equilibrium of mind and body.

But sometimes people go too far.

In the article “All Bent Out of Shape, The Problem with Yoga” by Wiliam J. Broad in The New York Times Magazine January 8, 2012, he interviews Glenn Black – a yoga teacher of nearly 40 years. He studied in Pune, India at the institute founded by the legendary B.K S. Iyengar; has devoted clientele that include celebrities and prominent gurus; and has taught at Sankalpah Yoga in Manhattan and currently at Omega Institute, a New Age emporium, in upstate New York.

Glenn Black is the man who will tell you why you shouldn’t do yoga and how “the vast majority of people” should give up yoga altogether because of the harm it is likely to cause not only to students, but to instructors as well.

He goes on to say that many injuries occur because of underlying physical weaknesses and that yoga should be for people who are in good physical condition or therapeutically, not for a general class.

Yoga instructors have torn Achilles tendons by aggressively forcing themselves into downward dog (inverted V position) and have had to get hip replacements because of degenerated hip sockets that caused them zero movement in joints.

While yoga does have the ability to calm, cure, energize, and strengthen (there is truth in the lowering of blood pressure, creation of chemicals that act as antidepressants, and improvement in sex life), the community rarely discusses the risks involved. My mother’s chiropractor said the top reason people come to see him is because of yoga injuries and there have been many injuries, sometimes paralyzing, that have come with people abusing yoga poses. Click here to read the rest of the NYTimes article with a rundown of what has happened to certain people.

While the article may state the dangers of yoga, you must use common sense. If something hurts, stop doing it. If you physically cannot twist your torso any further, do not do it. The same goes for any other physical activity you participate in. If you absolutely cannot lift that weight, do not do it. If you are running and feel like you are going to vomit, stop running.

We constantly push ourselves to go farther and farther to get results faster and faster. Pushing yourself too far leads to injuries – mentally and physically. If you threw up the last time you went for a run, you may be hesitant to run again soon after. If your legs were so sore that you physically could not get yourself up and down stairs, then you may develop negative feelings towards the workout that caused that. Alternative example: If you threw up after drinking too much Jaeger/Tequila/SoCo, you may be hesitant to drink that again. (You know that’s happened to you, don’t lie.)

Practice yoga for the reasons it was meant to be practiced. Let it heighten awareness between your mind and body. Concentrate on each of the poses you do, as to let your mind be free. The awareness, the stillness, and the breathing are forms of meditation. Use them the way they were designed to be used.

I incorporate yoga poses into all of my personal training sessions. But I carefully choose the poses based on the specific needs of my clients. I’ve been practicing yoga for the last three years and I consider it my place for peace to reduce anxiety. Set your intentions on how you want to use it. There is a reason it is called a practice. Let your body slowly move into it.

Stay tuned for a series of posts coming on the most common styles of yoga practiced in the United States and Europe.

Do you practice yoga? How often, where (at home or in studio), and what kind?

  • Yes I practice yoga! It’s been on and off for about a year and a half but it wasn’t until recently that I started taking it seriously. Now I find myself doing it almost daily and it really does make a difference both physically and mentally.

    • Hi Amanda! It is fabulous that you have kept up your daily yoga practice. That is something I would love to implement in my life as well. After every workout I do, I incorporate some type of yoga stretch.

  • Pam Kaminsky

    I love yoga. I don’t do it every day, but when I am either feel some extra stress or just need to focus more. I practice at home. I tried in a class once and it just didn’t have the same effect, for me, as when I’m at my house. It also helps me a lot with my figure skating. Balance and flexibility are very important.

    • Hi Pam! It must absolutely help you with figure skating! I often use it for the same reasons – when I feel stressed or anxious – to bring me back down to earth and remember to just breathe….

  • I’ve done yoga in spurts; took an Ashtanga yoga class once (loved it), took a hatha yoga class in college (it was okay!), went on a day retreat for yoga (very cool!) and partook in yoga off and on. I have a hard time creating habits, and struggle with immediate satisfaction tendencies and yoga isn’t like other activities where I felt like I was getting something out of it RIGHT THEN. This may also have something to do with the pace, and I may need a more athletic version of it to help me focus – if something moves too slow, my mind wanders. I don’t know how to remedy this.

    I am looking to get more into yoga, while changing up my diet. My focus on yoga is partly pragmatism, I already know the asanas and so I won’t have a hard time picking it back up – so technically I won’t need a class. My other focus is on the spiritual – meditation is reallllly boring. I’d rather not do it. Yoga will give me an opportunity to accomplish several interwoven tasks at once; working out and meditating- which is great for me.

    My goal isn’t to be super intense or flexible or anything; I just want to bring my life into alignment. If that makes sense.

    • Hi Tatiana! That does make sense – and yoga can be used to bring alignment to your life. Maybe you need a power yoga class to keep your mind focused on your body movements, as it sounds your mind starts to wander…
      Meditation is also a practice. Use it to clear your mind. It’s hard – but start with 60 seconds a day and try to think about nothing. Eventually you can build your time. 🙂

  • thank you for the interesting facts Diana
    its my first visit here and am looking forward to connecting with yout
    keep it up 🙂

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