On a recent trip to visit my sister in the northern suburbs of San Francisco, arguably an area with the largest concentration of yoga practitioners in the United States (if not the world), I was invited to join a Mysore class at a local studio. The class began at 7 in the morning, but as we sleepily trickled in, it was clear that the teacher had been practicing in the studio for some time. The heat radiating from her handstands was palpable. Her tremendous focus and lightness made some of us stood in awe of what is possible.
After class, my sister asked the teacher if she was coming for her usual appointment later in the afternoon. An acupuncturist specializing in pain management, my sister has been treating the svelte yogini for her lower back pains and foot injuries stemming from years of jump-backs. It turns out that there is a price to pay for having such an outwardly fluid practice.
As yoga explodes in popularity, the likelihood of injury stemming from an improper practice is also on the rise. The New York Times recently published an article: “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” where it notes that the number of Americans practicing yoga in 2001 was about 4 million. As of 2011, the number has grown to about 20 million. This trend is not unique to the United States. As more stressed-out professionals in major global cities seek refuge in the benefits of yoga, the lack of proper training, coupled with corporate greed of large-scale studios, are paving the way for debilitating injuries for students who still buy the “no pain, no gain” philosophy.
Any experienced yoga teachers will tell you that yoga asanas, or poses, are but a small component of what yoga is about. There are so many subtle, yet crucial practices that we tend to overlook, such as yamas and niyamas (ethical living guidelines), mantras (chats and uplifting sounds) and pranayamas (breathing techniques to promote energy flow). Traditionally, an asana practice is done alongside, not instead of, these other techniques. However, our modern age places great importance on a beautiful body, so we gravitate toward the teachings that give us what we want and not necessarily what we need. Most of us manically hold on to the showy stuff and throw the rest in the trash.
If you were an inquisitive child, you likely know that it is much easier to take objects apart than to put them back together. If you take the time to apply this lesson to your yoga practice, to be aware that contorting yourself into increasingly precarious positions might lead to the hospital and not nirvana, yoga can indeed be a lifelong friend. Otherwise, you risk discovering the ego through a serious injury.
Take the time to arrive to class early. Settle down to observe your physical and mental state. Mindfully approach your practice with precision and compassion, for it is easy to disconnect from a greater purpose when one is crammed into a busy class. Be not afraid to ask the teacher how to approach a challenging pose. Gage the quality of the instructor by the answers given and do not be afraid to find a different teacher. So many ancient texts say that one needs to be devoted to a guru in order to practice yoga, but few know that the best guru resides within your heart. Trying to balance external suggestions with internal caution will get you to understand the beauty of yoga much faster than trying to chase that gorgeous back bend. Make this quest to find equilibrium in mind, body and spirit a part of your practice.