Yoga, flexibility and controversy

The pursuit of ultimate flexibility may increase your Instagram following, but wouldn't you rather practise yoga in a way that helps rather than harms?

My opinion is that yoga – when practised in the ‘right’ way – can help us become more focused during everyday tasks, more considerate in our actions and more compassionate towards others. It can also help develop a body that actually feels comfortable to live in, is less prone to injury, and more able to do what we ask of it. Practised in the ‘wrong’ way, however, we can very easily create narcissism, over-competitiveness, a huge ego, and a body that is over-stretched, over-worked, maybe able to look great in an Instagram photo, but not much else…. 

Of course, we might argue that there’s no definitive ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, it’s all perception... 

But wouldn’t you rather practise in a way that helps, rather than harms?

If you practise yoga for an hour each day, is it helping you to be more alive, accepting and aware for the other 23 hours of the day? 

If you practise yoga for an hour each day, is it helping you to be more alive, accepting and aware for the other 23 hours of the day? 

If a yoga class does nothing more than encourage extreme flexibility and a kind of strength that enables you to stand on your hands rather than on your own two feet, then what good is it during the time that you’re not on a yoga mat? 

Balancing steadiness and ease

One of the most widely recognised Yoga Sutras – often the first to be taught on any training course – is Sthira Sukham Asanam or ‘Asana is a steady, comfortable posture’, with the words sthira meaning ‘steady’ or ‘stable’ and sukha often translated as ‘ease’. This concept of balancing ‘steadiness and ease’ is essential not just to a yoga posture, but to every aspect of life and every part of the body. Our bodily cells and tissues must have the ability to both ease and soften when absorbing nutrients and releasing toxins, but also have the stability to maintain their structure. When we move around in the world, our bodies need the ease to comfortably reach up, squat down, twist and bend, but also stability to keep the body safe and strong whilst doing so. Not to mention, the many more day-to-day tasks such as lifting, pushing, pulling and carrying that require strength over flexibility. 

Miracle cure or accident waiting to happen?

If you’re a yoga practitioner, it’s likely that whenever someone has complained of an aching back, ‘stiff’ joints and sore muscles, you’ve ‘prescribed’ them yoga. ‘It’s so good for you! Come to a class, you’ll love it. I don’t know what I’d do without it!’  sound familiar? Indeed, if you experience anything from back pain to headaches, to chronic fatigue and IBS, you’ll find a yoga posture that can apparently help. Spend ten minutes googling 'yoga cures' and you might begin to think that it is all too good to be true. The Telegraph - a UK broadsheet newspaper - even published a piece called Why Yoga Cures Everything’. The practice of yoga is getting a lot of attention right now.

What doesn’t get enough attention, however, is yoga injuries. 

We’re well aware of ‘runner’s knee’, ‘tennis elbow’ and the many different types of injuries accompanying different sports. There are books, websites, courses and blogs covering the A-Z on how to prevent and heal injuries caused by a range of exercise methods. There is, however, a relatively minuscule amount of study into the causes and effects of yoga injuries. 

When Swami Vishnudevananda arrived in the US in the 1960’s, he brought with him wisdom from the East, teachings from gurus and sages, the gift of meditation, and the word yoga. While we may feel that the practice of yoga has only really taken off and become supremely popular within the past ten years or so, those who were practising in the 60’s and now have 40-50 years' experience have, through their own actions, revealed that years of bending, stretching, pulling and binding can actually lead to an array of painful injuries, nerve damage, worn out joints and chronic pain. 

Those who were practising in the 60’s have through their own actions, revealed that years of bending, stretching, pulling and binding can actually lead to an array of painful injuries, nerve damage, worn out joints and chronic pain. 

Flexibility: how much is too much?

Many people begin a yoga practice completely unaware of the difficulty of many of the postures, or the strength and flexibility required for them, and 99.9% of people[1] will also have ‘an underlying physical weaknesses and problems that make serious injury all but inevitable’ – says Glenn Black, a teacher of over 35 years’ experience and time spent studying with Iyengar. 

Many yoga postures within themselves are not inherently ‘bad’. It’s just the frequency with which we practise them that can pose a threat - and the attitude we practise them with. Diane Bruni, an experienced Ashtanga practitioner and yoga teacher, reported that she experienced her own remarkable injury due to her extreme amount of flexibility. After a class of deep hip-openers and forward-bends, she folded forwards into Paschimottanasana’ (seated forward bend) or ‘stretching of the West’, and completely tore her hip muscles from the hip bone. 

“What’s happening right now in the yoga world is that we’re going beyond normal and healthy,” she says, and she puts her injury down to the fact that for years she focused solely on yoga, without balancing the practice with other activities like cycling, swimming or running. Bruni even now suggests that yoga should not be practised ‘every damn day’ as the Instagram hashtag insists: “Do yoga once or twice a week" she says "it’s plenty. Then do your other activities. Cycle, run, walk, go to the gym, swim, go to a dance class, move, do different things. And then your body will likely be less prone to injury doing any of those things. The majority of injuries happen because we do one thing too much.” [2]

Increased mobility in the joints often reduces their stability. If you’re a runner, weightlifter, into competitive sports or just want to live a life of minimal injuries, a yoga practice solely focussed on pursuing extreme flexibility and demanding poses might not be such a great idea. 

Although we might think that these postures are inherently linked to divine consciousness and that each asana has a deeper meaning, some of them are actually no more than contortionism.

Although we might think that these postures are inherently linked to divine consciousness, and that each asana has a deeper meaning, some of them are actually no more than contortionism.

In ancient India, Fakirs – groups of so-called ‘Hatha Yogis’ would perform feats with their bodies in order to draw attention to the amount of power and control they had over it. Similar postures can also be seen in European contortionism, dating from the 1800s to the mid-1900s. To read more about this fascinating take on the ‘origins of yoga’, I would recommend reading Yoga Body by Mark Singleton, who suggests that much of our modern posture practice is nothing more than Swedish gymnastics, Indian bodybuilding and contortionism. 

Hyperextension and prevention

Hyperextension is rife within the yoga world, and many 'superstar' yoga teachers are actually extremely hyper-mobile themselves. Hyper-mobility or hyper-flexibility is where a large number of a person’s joints are more flexible than is the current ‘norm’. This wouldn’t necessarily pose such a problem in itself; the problem arises when hyper-flexibility is combined with stretching, which can result in over-stretching, straining and often injuring tendons, ligaments and muscles. 

Many people return to a class over and over again. With 20-30% of people actually being ‘hypermobile’ or ‘hyper flexible’ to some degree, and 8-9% of the US population currently practising yoga, there is likely to be some degree of correlation between the fact that people generally commit to daily bending, stretching and twisting, because they exhibit some degree of hyper-flexibility. After all, you’re not likely to practise physical yoga postures every day if you don’t enjoy doing it…

To help prevent hyperextension, it is helpful to maintain a very small bend in the joints while moving through postures which put a lot of stretch, stress and strain on the body. Trikonasana or ‘triangle pose’ for example, is one of the postures in which many people tend to ‘lock’ the knee and hyper-extend the leg. Maintaining a very slight bend in the knee can help to keep the muscles ‘active’ and create that much-needed ‘sthira’ where there is perhaps too much ‘sukha’. Building strength can also help to protect joints and develop more of an ability to maintain a safe range of motion while moving.

Yoga injuries

Degenerated joints, torn Achilles tendons, hip replacements, shoulder impingement, spinal disk bulges and even strokes are now well reported in the world of yoga injuries, all due to taking the body out of the range of motion and positioning it was created for. Just as there has to be a balance between ‘stability’ and ‘ease’, there also has to be a balance in the amount of flexibility we have. Natural movements like walking, climbing, squatting, crawling and bending and twisting within comfortable ranges of motion are what the body is designed to do. Allowing the weight of the body to be entirely placed upon the delicate cervical spine, twisting so far that the ribs are in danger of displacing, and attempting to cultivate flexibility to the point at which you could probably earn a good living in the Cirque du Solei – is not what most people’s bodies are made for. 

The reason there is much dispute over yoga, flexibility, strength and the subsequent injuries is because there is a somewhat blurred line between the spirituality of the practice, and the physical aspect. If many of us understand the word ‘yoga’ as meaning, ‘to unite’ or ‘to connect’, why are we spending so much of our time pulling ourselves apart?

If many of us understand the word ‘yoga’ as meaning, ‘to unite’ or ‘to connect’, why are we spending so much of our time pulling ourselves apart? 

If Salamba Sarvangasana, the ‘shoulder stand’, is the queen of inversions, said to rejuvenate the body, maintain the hormonal system and strengthen the energy in the upper chakras, then suggesting we completely remove it from a physical yoga practice isn’t always met with much enthusiasm. However, the fact that this particular posture moves the neck into an extreme position – cutting off blood and nerve supply to the brain and compromising the occipital and basilar artery, means it should probably be one of the last postures to learn and practise, not the one many practitioners – many with existing, back, neck and shoulder pain and often over the age of 40 - launch themselves into at the end of a class.  

It’s about the person, not the postures

Photos of the over-flexible representation of ‘yoga’ give the wrong message to those who don’t have an abnormal range of motion in their joints or extreme ligament laxity. To practise true Yoga in its purest essence, you don’t have to be able to stand on your hands or head, prise your limbs apart or balance for hours. You just have to be true, honest, kind and present. Aware of yourself and alive in the world.

To practise true yoga in its purest essence, you don’t have to be able to stand on your hands or head, prise your limbs apart or balance for hours. You just have to be true, honest, kind and present. 

If you feel as though your ability to touch your toes, wrap your legs behind your head or bind your arms around your torso mirrors how ‘good’ you are at yoga, then you may want to re-think what your idea of yoga is, and how it helps you be the best person you can be off the mat, not just on it.

References:

[1] The Science of yoga pg 107 William J Broad 

[2] http://www.sheknows.com/health-and-wellness/articles/1118641/turns-out-yoga-isnt-as-good-for-your-body-as-you-thought

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