Yoga will wreck you, roundup

[Update: I am updating this post as I come across new fave responses.]

I’d be amiss in my duties as yoga blogger if I didn’t weigh in again on the recent NY Times article How yoga can wreck your body. The article, an excerpt from Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and NYT science writer William J. Broad‘s upcoming book, The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards, has received a lot of coverage from the interwebs, yogic and otherwise, because it says that “the yoga community long remained silent about [yoga’s] potential to inflict blinding pain…a growing body of medical evidence supports [the] contention that, for many people, a number of commonly taught yoga poses are inherently risky. ”

I wrote a response (“whatevs”) a few days ago. Also, dudes looking for pictures of girls in yoga pants–the most frequent visitors to this site–likely don’t care if said girls need spinal surgery when they’re 50. Still, in the interest of jumping on the bandwagon, I am doing a round up of my fave responses. Continue reading

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YOGA WILL KILL YOU

Happy new year yoga lovers. I would like to ring in 2012 with this expose on yoga asana from the NYT: How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body. The article talks about 28 year olds having strokes, emergency room visits, spinal surgery and vertebrae getting fused. It says “…surveys by the Consumer Product Safety Commission showed that the number of emergency-room admissions related to yoga, after years of slow increases, was rising quickly. They went from 13 in 2000 to 20 in 2001. Then they more than doubled to 46 in 2002.”

Savage Chickens - Fantastic!

I’m all, “That sucks, but I’ll take my chances.” Odds of trauma seem small; evidence in article is anecdotal. I’ll continue to study with the best teachers I can find; focus on my alignment; avoid shoulderstand until I figure out what I’m doing; and close my eyes and try to refocus during class when my ego goes into overdrive (“I will get this backbend, damn that twinge that is probably nothing at all”).

If yoga does kill me, whatevs. I will die doing something I love.

8 tips for beginning yogis

I taught my third group yoga class last week, and boy do I have a lot to learn about teaching. At one point a dude in class asked loudly, in frustration, “What leg should I use?” A few minutes later he said again, “I don’t understand what to do!” I guess I wasn’t providing clear enough instructions. At the same time, an older, overweight woman who was taking yoga for the first time started to walk around fanning herself and saying, “Wooh, I need to rest.”

The rest of the class proceeded without interruption, but I realized how much I take for granted as a seasoned yoga class goer, how much I better I could communicate as a teacher, and how strange the yoga world must seem to an outsider. This is the advice I’d give to a yoga newbie:

1) Find a basics or beginners class. Even if you are an athletic person, and can do demanding things with your body, you don’t know the alignment, or the sequence, or the poses. Find a class for beginners. You’ll benefit so much more, because the teacher will slow the sequence down, explain things more, and create an environment in which you’re less likely to injure yourself. You’d be cocky to go to an advanced level flute class having never played the instrument before even if you were already a maestro on the piano. You’d probably pick up the flute quickly, if you tried, but you still need to learn the basics: how to purse your lips, regulate your breath, and the physical configuration of the notes on the flute itself. Yoga asanas need time and space for learning. Basics doesn’t have to mean “easy” though. Basics classes can be physically challenging, and can even be more so than an “advanced” class–because when you hold poses for a while and with proper alignment, you are using muscles you normally don’t use. This is hard. Which brings me to my next point.

Continue reading

It’s vata season but my dosha has nothing to say

Lord of Ayurveda,Dhanvantari

Read your yoga emails! They will remind you that fall is vata season (in NYC at least). Some of these emails may advise you to drink warm milk. Motherly advice, no? This is an Ayurvedic thing. I learned about Ayurveda two months ago in yoga school but promptly forgot about it. My forgetfulness likely relates to my inability to believe. Or it could be vata imbalance. I come from a family of Indian-born and Western trained doctors. They are into holistic medicine, are all familiar with Ayurveda, but, I can’t imagine my dad, despite being 100% on board with the mind-body-environment connection thing, prescribing a course of treatment based on the doshas. But now that the seasons change, I am thinking about Ayurveda again.

Ayurveda is a system of Indian medicine, one of the oldest in the world, which aims to integrate and balance the body, mind, and spirit to lead to health and happiness. (Check out this primer from the NIH.) Ayurveda is considered a sister science to yoga.

According to Ayurveda, everyone and everything is made up of the five elements (ether, air, fire, water, earth). In people, these elements combine in varying degrees to form three doshas or constitutions (vata, pitta, and kapha).

  • Vata is made up of ether (the subtle energy that connects all things) and air. Like the wind, vata types are dry, cool, lively and unpredictable.
  • Pitta is fire and water. Pittas make great leaders and act with determination.
  • Kapha is water and earth. Kaphas tend to be stable and loyal.

Our doshas change all the time because of the seasons, the weather, our age, and other circumstances. If our doshas are in balance, awesome, but if we have an excess or deficit, depending on which dosha is affected, we will have acne or the runs or whathaveyou. (Read this and this for more on the doshas.) Two basic principles govern the doshas: Like increases like, and opposites balance each other (from this). Foods, weather, and situations with similar traits as the dosha will increase it; things with the opposite characteristics decrease the dosha.

In my experience, this is how Ayurveda is applied to everyday life: 1) Take a dosha quiz. Based on whether you are constipated or athletic or have big eyes, you can tell which dosha or two is dominant. 2) Once you’ve got your dosha and know what’s in or out of balance, you can figure out what to eat and which yoga poses to do.

Here’s a quiz from the Chopra Institute. I am tri-doshic, and my pitta is out of balance.

I love the Ayurvedic view that health is an active state of being that we can manage with appropriate behavior, with simple changes to diet, exercise and mantra, all tailored to the individual. (Modern medicine purports to do some of these things, but doesn’t.) However….I’ll admit that this dosha system….sounds….a bit… primitive. AH! And some of the dietary advice….sounds….arbitrary. AH! (For example, from the Ayurvedic Institute in NM: these Ayurvedic food guidelines say that vatas should avoid turnips but favor rutabagas, while kaphas are good with goat cheese but bad with yogurt.)

Anyway, according to the sages, late fall and winter are more vatic with windy days, cool temperatures, and dry air. Therefore, the advice says that, if you’re feeling flighty and anxious, or have insomnia, dry skin, or constipation, your vata needs some reining in. You should: stick to a daily routine; go to bed early; eat warm, moist foods at regular times; give yourself warm oil massages (awesome!); and do moderate, consistent and calming exercise to ground vata’s airy nature. There’s more advice on fall/vata issues here and here.

This is sensible advice for the fall. However, in general, two things bother me: 1) the dietary prescriptions. I love ALL food at ALL times. 2) the doshas. It seems implausible that the physical, mental and emotional varieties of 6 billion humans can be lumped into three boxes.

But what do I know. And, the doshas are FUN. Who doesn’t love an online quiz.

Yogis Occupy Wall Street

People participate in a session of yoga, led by yoga instructor Seane Corne, in collaboration with the "Occupy Wall Street" protests in Zuccotti Park in New York, on Monday, October 10, 2011. (AP Photo/Andrew Burton)Last week Deepak Chopra stopped by the Occupy Wall Street protests to lead a guided call-and- response meditation. Today, in an action organized by yoga teacher Seane Corn, nearly two hundred people showed up in lower Manhattan to “demonstrate yoga in action.” The purpose? “Yoga is about finding your voice and taking a stand. At Off the Mat, Into the World we believe in expanding our yoga beyond the studio and out into the world. Join Seane Corn and yogis from around the globe this Monday, October 10th, for a practice of solidarity, community, and change on Wall Street.”

I wasn’t there, but apparently at one point they did tree pose. Here are more pictures.

The message in support of “solidarity, community and change” could apply to attendance at Tea Party Rally as well. But one message of the Wall Street protests is that the greedy 1% elite is not like the 99% rest of us. Which doesn’t sound like solidarity to me. But on her FB page Seane Corn clarifies that “I am not for the 99% and against the 1%. I am for the 100% getting our shit together and remembering we are ONE.”  Yoga? check.

Deepak Chopra at Zuccotti Park

I’m into the Occupy Wall Street protests. (My own economic complaints have to do with rising income inequality and piss poor corporate governance – though on the latter a University of Chicago prof disagrees.)

But, back to yoga, Deepak Chopra stopped by the square yesterday to lead a guided meditation. Even if you hate the protests, you may be able to get behind Chopra’s message (“Ask yourself, how can I be the change that I want to see in the world? How can I make that happen from a place of love, compassion, and equanimity? Simple anger will only perpetuate what already is out there.”):

Yoga sexy time

Have better sex through yoga! Apparently, the Journal of Sexual Medicine published a study saying that yoga can enhance one’s sex life. According to blistree.com: “In the study, women aged 22-55 completed a 12-week program in which they did an hour of yoga every day. The results indicated that women reported improvements in desire, orgasm and arousal with almost 20% improvement in sexual function. The results for men are similar. Sixty-five males aged 24-60 participated in the study and showed a significant increase in sexual benefits of yoga including improvements in desire, satisfaction, confidence and performance.”

This is the fifth image result in google when I typed "yoga sexy" with safe search ON!

This would be great PR for yoga. However, although I didn’t read the study, I’m not convinced. The study sounds like it was not rigorous enough–neither randomized nor controlled, and therefore not persuasive.

I have my own theories on and experience with yoga’s sex benefits, which I will share with you over a glass of wine someday.

Jivamukti Yoga Center (NYC)

As a New Yorker, many of my yoga teachers have been Jivamukti-influenced. Sharon Gannon and David Life (SG&DL) founded their Jivamukti style of yoga in the mid-eighties, when NYC was a (more of a) cesspool and yoga not yet part of the P90X extreme fitness DVD set. SG&DL took the physical practice of Pattabhi Jois (Ashtanga guru extraordinaire), added some philosophy, music, chanting, and animal rights, and broke free of the strict Ashtanga series while keeping the practice physically vigorous. eh viola! Jivamukti yoga was born. Jivamukti was the most glamorous yoga show in town, developed by and for Westerners. The combination of physical and philosophical practice struck a chord, and Jivamukti did gangbusters. SG&DL mentored the students. Their students become teachers. The new teachers opened up studios. So on and so forth. By the late 90s, it became known that celebrities were doing it. Russell Simmons. Christy Turlington. Sting. [Here’s a Barnard religion paper on the history of Jivamukti yoga, worth a scan.]

I had no idea this was going on at the time. In 2000, my friends took me to my first class at Bhava Yoga Center on the Lower East Side, a Jivamukti-joint. A little later, I became a regular at Area Yoga in Brooklyn (when it was still on Smith Street), which then had many Jivamukti-trained teachers. For a while I lived near the Jivamukti studio itself and went everyday. Now, 10-years later, I have just completed my 200-hour teacher training at Laughing Lotus in NYC, founded by Jasmine Tarkeshi and Dana Flynn, both of whom studied at Jivamukti. The Jivamukti influence is everywhere I am drawn. The teachers go past asana and attempt to weave in the ancient teachings. They play music and we sing, which makes me happy.

Short story long, it’s hard for me to review Jivamukti Yoga Center with objectivity, as I owe so much to the founders and their teachings. That said, I am totally okay with sharing my biased opinions.

Jivamukti Yoga Center in Union Square has two big, beautiful studios; a gorgeous retail store; a fantastic vegan cafe; and some of the most well trained yoga teachers around. You may see Russell Simmons in class. The studio is expensive ($20 for a drop in class, plus $2 for a mat). The singing is uplifting. The teachers are serious. The teachings are political. The vinyasa is comprehensive, well-sequenced, and challenging. The dharma talks can be inspirational, or they can be annoying. I remember a teacher, after the Japan earthquake and in the middle of the nuclear powerplant disaster, saying something like, “Sending money won’t help. Too little too late. They should have planned better.” No comment on the truth of statement, but it felt unsympathetic and made me sad.

Jivamukti finds a special cause in veganism (no meat, dairy, or eggs). Jivamukti yoga is uncompromising when it comes to politics; for the school, political activism is an outgrowth of spiritual awakening. Intellectually, I agree. But after two years working for the government in DC I find politics dispiriting and don’t want to deal with it at my yoga class.

One of my favorite teachers is Ruth, who is sometimes on the schedule, sometimes not. She has you hold poses forever while she happily chats yoga philosophy. Her classes are packed.

The founders themselves: SG&DL exude happiness and humility. They are excellent teachers. In a workshop with DL did I first understand in my body how to do chaturanga properly.

I have had many great Jivamukti teachers, too many to list, because every Jivamukti teacher is very well-trained and knows their material inside and out. I am grateful that SG&DL did, and continue to do, what they do. I no longer go to the studio regularly, however, because of cost, because I live farther away, because I no longer need to journey to the source to get the nectar.

Why I thought Anusara® yoga was force for evil

I took my first Anusara yoga class recently (see here for my review of the pleasant experience), and despite initial doubts (see below), I decided that Anusara was harmless.

As background, from wikipedia: “Anusara yoga is a modern school of hatha yoga grounded in a Tantric philosophy of intrinsic goodness, that was started by John Friend in 1997…The emphasis of the school is on a set of “Universal Principles of Alignment” which underlie all postures, “heart opening” postures and the spiritual/meditative benefits of hatha yoga.”

Now, as a public service, I will explain why I harbored suspicions about Anusara, in hopes that Yoga Inc can improve its PR strategy with the outside world. To be clear, below are my ex-ante impressions, Anusara as it appeared to an outsider.

1) Yoga styles are proliferating like rabbits. In this mess, does the world need another type of yoga? Yoga is supposed to help simplify, not distract.

2) The motivation for establishing a new style like Anusara is unclear. One suspects the style is formed not because a superior path to enlightenment has been developed, but as a way for a charismatic yoga teacher to cash in on his popularity. For example, see Bikram.

Bikram Choudhury with two students. Btw, Indian people are not born this hairless. I know.

3) Anusara seems to be a cult of John Friend. For example, the Anusara webpage makes clear that John Friend runs the show—links to his blog and twitter feed are at the bottom of every page; his travel schedule is separated from other Anusara events; “About John Friend” is the first link in the “About Anusara” section; and to be certified, and stay certified, you must study with Friend directly. To the casual observer, Anusara=John Friend, not Anusara=enduring body of knowledge.

John Friend

4) Smells like a business, not a school. It takes some chutzpah, and commercial mindedness, to take an ancient discipline, rebrand it, trademark it, and then charge dues to practice it. The words themselves are proprietary, and teachers—who pay annual fees of nearly $100—must annotate the words to signal that “Anusara” is someone else’s intellectual property: Anusara-Inspired™ or Anusara®.

Anusara yoga greeting cards at 10 for $25.

5) The style seems derivative, not revolutionary–more marketing than innovation. Anusara appears to be repackaged Iyengar with some Hinduism on the side.

6) The words are incomprehensible to the layman. For example, from the website: Anusara yoga’s “highest intention…is to align with the Divine… awaken to the truth that this Divine flow is our essential nature.” I think I can spot the Tantric message here—but other stuff is, uh, harder to follow: “Everything manifests as a result of the dance of Divine polarities, the mystical marriage between Shiva and Shakti that is auspicious consciousness vibrating with Freedom and is full of the highest Bliss…”

7) The not-so-flattering profile of John Friend in the New York Times last year (“The Yoga Mogul”) didn’t help. At best Friend comes off as earnest but cheesy. The article ends with a story of Friend reciting “an ode to creativity” at a private “happening” in an LA loft, while a young woman in tiger face paint “danced and writhed on the floor.”

We ride the tiger. . . .
I taste her hunger
In the burning of my desire
There is no hotter fire.

Ouch.

(See his response to the NYT article here. He says: “…hav[ing] such an extensive article published in the New York Times on yoga, particularly Anusara yoga…is another clear sign that Grace supports Anusara.”)

The end. Please use this information for good, not evil.

NYT manufactures a controversy about Tara Stiles

Yoga? Ms. Stiles in an american apparel ad.

Tara Stiles is a young, NYC-based yoga instructor. She is Deepak Chopra’s “personal instructor”, author of “Slim Calm Sexy Yoga,” and apparently great at getting press (with features in Elle, Lucky, InStyle, Esquire, and Men’s Health, according to her bio.)

Her most recent press coup is this article in the NY Times, which calls Ms. Stiles a “rebel” yoga instructor. It paints Ms. Stiles as a rebel in the yoga world because she teaches in a more physical, less philosophical style. She calls the sacrum the lower back. (Is being imprecise rebellious?) She refuses to name the studio where she trained because it was “not useful”. (Wouldn’t a 200 hour teacher training have had some sort of influence, good or bad?)

I find article silly because Ms. Stiles is hardly controversial–most yoga-ers in America learn yoga from teachers that ignore the philosophy and have had generic training. Ms Stiles is pretty and has an enormous number of free videos on youtube–all of which help her attract more Americans, especially dudes, to yoga. And some of these people, once attracted, may then decide to go deeper into the practice. This is good.

And, how to make this sound less callous than I mean it, I don’t think many yoga-ers beyond the hard core few expend much energy thinking about her, because: 1) she’s not a rebel, 2)  she’s not a strong presence in the yoga scene (how many have taken her class or read her book?), and 3) yoga people are too groovy to get judgmental in public. Indeed, when Yoga Journal blogged about the NYT article and asked if there was a controversy, most responses were a variation of “no, no controversy, to each her own.” (There has been much discussion of the article in the yogablogosphere. For example, here, here, here, here. I found NY-instructor Sadie Nardini’s post about the background machinations of Creative Artists Agency quite interesting). But still, I believe that the article misses its mark, because Ms Stiles is but a symptom of yoga’s growing pains as it becomes more mainstream in the U.S.

I commend the NYT on its attempt to root out the seedy underbelly of yoga–who doesn’t love a good controversy?–but the NYT needs to try harder. Perhaps more articles on cults or maybe something on inappropriate adjustments?

UPDATE: I went to her class. I enjoyed it.