People have been asking me for my response to William Broad’s latest NY Times article on yoga, so here you go:
While the article is a bit sensationalistic, it does bring up a very important topic that is the elephant in the room in conversations about the benefits of yoga: the problem of hypermobile people making flexibility the main focus of their exercise regime. Muscles need to be both strong and flexible in order to be healthy. Yoga isn’t inherently just about flexibility, but it does have a flexibility bias. Of course it’s problematic to talk about ‘yoga’ as if it were a defined entity – it definitely is not. However, since yoga classes have become ubiquitous in the US, it’s important to me to observe the trends (both positive and negative) and see how I can be a part of the solution. The unfortunate truth is that naturally supple people tend to train flexibility and naturally stable people tend to train strength. This is a mistake in either direction.
It’s a classic story. A naturally flexible person attends their first yoga class & the poses come easily. This makes them feel sucessful, and they often get positive reinforcement from the teacher or other students. The combination of internal and external reinforcement entices the student to practice regularly and a love of yoga is born.
I was one of these people. Never very athletic, I pretty much hated exercise until I found yoga. Finally, an exercise modality that I was good at! Within a few years of practice, I loved it so much that I took a teacher training. It was the extra practice of the teacher training that tipped me over the edge: my joints started to hurt when I practiced. Fortunately, right around that time I found a style of yoga that taught me to engage my muscles to protect my joints in the poses. I gleefully practiced that way for several years until my next awakening. It dawned on me that I was still more flexible than I was strong and yoga was not the best way to change that. The clear truth was that there were other forms of exercise that were more efficient (and safer!) for what my body actually needed. I started lifting weights and doing cardiovascular training and though I’m still not “good” at them – I know they are good for me.
Four years later, I am now stronger than I am flexibile! Stretching is good for me again, as long as I do it mindfully. The silver lining is that once the idea of “exercise” was taken out of my yoga practice, it became far richer and more precious to me. It is movement, pure & sweet. It is listening to the needs of my body & fulfilling them. It is the study of my own mind patterns & the consciously shaping them in healthy & nourishing ways. It is “vitamin Y” – movement medicine.
So, does yoga wreck your hips? Of course not. Yoga doesn’t do anything. However, the way you practice yoga can either bring balance to your body or exacerbate your imbalances. If you have a strong stable body, flexibility training is great for you and you are unlikely to overdo it. If you are naturally flexible, you must learn to engage your muscles while you stretch or they will eventually pay the price. And you probably would benefit from strength training outside of yoga classes.
A sincere study of yoga involves an honest look at what is truly balancing & nourishing for our bodies and our minds. It is often not the easy choice. For me, the choice to practice yoga less aggressively & pursue strength training was one of the most ‘yogic’ choices I’ve ever made. Be a student of your body! Listen and learn from its challenges & weaknesses. The journey never ends in a perfect pose, a perfect body, or a perfect breath. It’s just ever the journey. May that be enough.
PS – If you’re curious to learn more about how to keep your hips healthy please check out my upcoming workshop: Restore Your Hips on Dec 14th at Asheville Community Yoga.