What SMARTerBodies Thinks About the New York Times Article

There has been so much controversy within the yoga community ever since Glenn Black was quoted in last week’s New York Times article. Many teachers have been outraged and offended by the article’s seemingly new revelation that a physical yoga practice can hurt you. There is a plethora of reactionary blog posts, Facebook messages and tweets that accuse Glenn Black and NYT of producing at the least a sensationalist piece of journalism and at the worst threatening the place of yoga in mainstream America and in the hearts and minds of many followers. We have completely lost patience for many of these responses as they seem to reveal a lack of critical thinking, threatening the integrity of teachers as it seems they did not read the article thoroughly before responding. It’s time to put an end to all the emotional arguing and time to address what was actually being said.

1) What is yoga? When Glenn Black said most people should not do yoga he was speaking specifically about the physical practice of Hatha yoga as it is being taught here in the majority of studios and was speaking against the bastardized version of it here in the west. Let me explain. Hatha yoga is only one part of a spiritual practice that originated in ancient India. There are 7 other limbs of the traditional yoga that are part of that spiritual system. (There’s a good chance that if you ask most yoga practitioners they will not know that either.) What has caught on here in the West is the physical practice that you now see most obviously manifested in crowded gyms and studios being taught by inexperienced teachers. It is that environment that is potentially dangerous since most people won’t get the help or information they need when being run through a series of poses their bodies are most likely not prepared for. Disclaimer: There are some teachers who are teaching real yoga as a form of introspective study, not just stripped down “yoga-cise “. Regardless, the physical aspects can still hurt you.

2) Yoga has indeed become another fitness trend. Many will argue that yoga is not a form of exercise and that it is so much more than that. We agree that physical exercise alone was never the original intention of the yoga system, as explained above. But, nevertheless, Americans have a fast hold on and attachment to working out, burning calories, gaining strength and addressing physical issues through yoga. If this was not true there would not be 100’s of differing incarnations of a yoga practice being taught in gym. So, it’s pointless to deny the existence of this trend and better to start educating yoga teachers with the same anatomical and scientific information that is expected of personal trainers. This kind of scientific education does not have to diminish in any way the spiritual or emotional aspects of the practice that transcend the physical, but it will help many students avoid injury.

3) Some people have angrily asked, “Where are the articles pointing out the dangers of other sports and physical activities?” Of course those articles exist and if they don’t it is because the said activity (like running 100 miles, for instance) is obviously prone to injury and does not need an article written to illustrate that point. It is for this reason that running coaches, scientists, experts, shoe companies and more exist to TEACH runners! The problem is that yoga has been given special treatment as a panacea and that, we feel, is wrong. Any physical practice has its dangers. As for the reactionary articles that ask, “What about the dangers of being sedentary,” the same answer applies. What should be noted, however, is that the New York Times article has absolutely no mention of other activities not being dangerous, nor does it claim that one should be sedentary to be safe, so this is a moot point.

4) The New York Times article was NOT yoga bashing. When Glenn Black said that it isn’t for everyone, he was indicating that a lot of people need to address underlying weaknesses and imbalances that they have before attempting to throw themselves into some of these commonly taught poses, NOT that no one should ever do yoga. Black teaches yoga, so how would a statement like that benefit him in the slightest? The author of the article himself not only practices, but is writing a book about it. We will go further to say that even the gentlest of restorative yoga, taught incorrectly, can be harmful.

5) Where a student’s responsibility begins, a teacher’s does not end. Yes, of courses students should be responsible for the safety of their own bodies and the direction of their own experience. But that does not mean that we, as teachers, get to be irresponsible in a class setting. Need examples? Read our posts about “Bad Yoga.” There are many cues and ideas used in yoga classes that actually can cause injuries. Even though our students are responsible for their safety we would not advocate practices that are potentially dangerous. How do we do that? Step #1- Acknowledge that yoga can be dangerous—That’s our job!

6) Some people are reacting to the fact that something they find sacred is being attacked. It’s ok to find yoga sacred, but that’s not what is being argued here. Anything physical that is athletic in nature (as is the yoga taught in gyms and most studios) can be dangerous in the wrong hands. The sanctity of yoga is not what is up for debate, so no need to defend it. Also, if you are only defending it because you find it sacred, and NOT because you find a logical fallacy in the NY times article, then you have to realize that your students may not feel the same way.

7) Some claim the article will scare potential students away. It does not make sense to advocate that individuals are responsible for their own bodies in a yoga class, but then fear they lack the intellectual discrimination to read an article and decide whether or not to take yoga. The author of the article, William Broad, states that at first, he was naïve about the potential of yoga doing physical harm when first coming to yoga classes and ended up getting hurt. That is most likely why he wrote the article, in order to warn other students with a similar mentality, not to bash yoga. We feel the same way. We want people to be aware of the reality of the physical practice in regards to BOTH the benefits and in respect to its physical demands and risk of injury, as with any other physical practice.

8 As a yoga teacher, it does not behoove you to draw upon your personal experiences while disputing an article that contains facts. Many teachers are talking about about how wondrous, beneficial, transformative, etc. their yoga practice has been for them. No one is disputing that either, and all of those experiences are equally valid. But we can’t expect our students to come to class with same awareness we have had that has led to these awesome experiences. Teachers have to provide critical information that keeps their students safe, keeps the ego in check and allows them to make informed decisions about how to work with their bodies.

9) Only a small percentage of teachers who are “disputing” this article are actually disagreeing with Glenn Black, provided that they actually read EVERYTHING that he said, which they obviously did not. People have argued that it’s not yoga’s fault and it’s all about how you approach the practice that determines whether or not you will get injured. Oddly enough… that is exactly what was said in the article. We urge teachers to use critical thinking when reading things like this to maintain the integrity of yoga in the eyes of the media and the mainstream public.