Yoga is widely touted, historically and today, as a miraculous holistic path to physical, energetic, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. The scriptures are full of extravagant promises: illnesses and aging will disappear, we can live forever! And they don’t stop there. We can cultivate paranormal powers like inflating to the size of the universe, shrinking to the size of an atom, being in two places at once, seeing into the future.
If yoga is so good for us, why are so many getting injured? And how?
How is the easy part. As a “science” in the Western sense, yoga is in its infancy. Ayurveda, the Indian traditional medicine, did not begin its study of the body by cutting it open. Dissections are a Western inspiration. Instead, Indian doctors explored the body experientially, learning what they could from visible markers like complexion and build and more subtle indicators like the pulse one can feel by pressing on someone’s wrist. The yogis of the past looked for similar signs, only on an even higher degree of subtlety. They explored with they experienced as internal energy flows, which they categorized as 10 forms of prana or the life force. These included upward flows and downward flows but also pranas devoted exclusively to sneezing, burping, and other spasmodic eruptions. The yoga postures we know began as attempts to direct, redirect, and channel energy—not as a spiritual form of physical fitness.
Thus, the yogis did not know about muscles and bones, the central nervous system, the cerebellum. Yogic “anatomy” instead mapped out 72,000 nadis (energy pathways similar to the Chinese meridians), chakras (spinning wheels located along the central nadi that govern everything from posture to personality), the pranas, and three bandhas (locks that direct or stem the flow of prana). It was only in the late 20th century, thanks to the singular, tireless, and exacting empirical research of Indian teacher B.K.S. Iyengar, that we came to view yoga asana from the perspective of Western structural well being. Iyengar, though trained by master Indian yogi Krishnamacharya, also served at one point in his youth as a medical model. He stood on stage in only a loincloth while a medical professor pointed out bones and muscles and their actions to his students. Iyengar picked up this knowledge and applied it to asanas, especially to the frustrations and limitations that many of his students were encountering in trying to fold in half, touch their toes, open their chests, or stand on their heads and hands. He created props (see “Props: Who Needs Them?”) like blocks and straps and blankets that would allow students to do modified forms of the poses safely and effectively while moving toward the happy day when their hips, shoulders, hamstrings, pecs, and hip flexors would open or their hands, arms, and upper back would grow strong.
Sadly, much of the yoga practiced today remains ignorant of Iyengar’s breakthroughs, or perhaps sees them as irrelevant. After all, the postures were initially created to facilitate the flow of prana, not to stack bones, and many yoga systems continue to see breath, not alignment, as the essence of yoga. The breath traditions view alignment as secondary at best, at worst as a mental preoccupation that distracts students from deep breathing. Even old photos of Iyengar doing asanas with wildly hyperextending joints and other anatomical distortions seem to contradict the very alignment instructions he gives students!
So, many of us continue to practice perilously ignorant of both the physical benefits and the risks of asanas. As in most fields, it’s how rather than what you do that matters. The same pose in optimal alignment can build strength, lengthen muscles, and improve balance—or feed old unconscious patterns that continue to weaken and destabilize the whole.
And even if we receive good instruction, applying the science of yoga is an art that can take a lifetime to refine. Indeed, the yogic texts of the past frequently admonish us not to practice without the guidance of a skilled teacher. Don’t try this at home! And the more subtle the practice, the greater the danger: pranayama, or breathwork is especially dangerous. Yoga teacher trainings often reinforce these fears. I have heard more than one story of some poor soul who had a psychotic break while experimenting too freely with the various breathing practices and never made it back from the ashram. Even applying physical alignment principles to our own bodies is tricky business; we think we have it right, yet it’s damn hard to know, as none of us can see ourselves clearly. I’ve injured myself more than once playing the role of self-teacher. A teacher or fellow yogi can often steer us clear of imbalances, torques, dropped shoulders, collapsed waistlines, protruding thighbones, and other distortions.