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Ten reasons yoga might be bad for you isn’t a list of reasons not to do yoga. It is intended to encourage people to do yoga consciously, with a specific eye on what their body needs in the moment, but also, possibly more importantly, what the body needs to age well. I often say in classes that I teach that what your body can get away with in your 20’s, 30’s and 40’s might come back to haunt you in your 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.
While I love yoga for the workout it provides, it should be more about building a vessel that accepts and cultivates the breath in pursuit of a long healthy life. From my perspective you need to approach your practice as a means to change, rather than reinforce, long held conditioned patterns. Certainly, exercising is better than not exercising – and very important for everybody – if you are doing it incorrectly it will not be good for you.
Forward head posture is the most common form of misalignment, along with a tucked pelvis and turned out feet. In fact, forward head posture is most often the result of a tucked pelvis and weak abdominal muscles. If you fall into this category, and so many of us do, it is probably not wise to put the weight of your skeleton on top of a misaligned cervical spine. Even if you are able to get yourself up into the pose you will be building all of the wrong muscles and often reinforcing your bad posture. While I do headstands myself, I stopped teaching them a long time ago.
Tadasana is the foundation pose of many yoga styles. While your yoga practice should be an ideal place to work on changing your posture and long held conditioned patterns, most people show up to yoga and continue to reinforce, or even exacerbate, their postural inadequacies. For many students, Tadasana is very often a more active version of bad posture. At the beginning of each class I walk around un-tucking every student’s pelvis (except for the few that aren’t) and then ask them to return to where they began, watching them re-tuck and lean backwards, compressing their lumbar spine.
It is essential to stop tucking our pelvises.
Some people have more space between their joints than others. It is good to be flexible with a wide range of motion but there is a large contingent of people who are too loose, which can easily lead to injury. In a class of twenty people there will be a mix of loose, tight and somewhere in between. A teacher would have to be pretty amazing to provide for everyone’s need in this context. Personally, I don’t worry too much about the tight people; it is hard for them to overwork, their bodies simply won’t go where they can’t. The people in the middle are usually okay as well, but the loose must be hyper-vigilant if they want to serve and protect their body as they attempt to develop the necessary tension in muscles and ligaments to support an excessively mobile skeleton.
Many doctors tell patients with carpal tunnel syndrome to do yoga because it can help strengthen the hands and wrists. Never mind that most carpal tunnel issues emanate from the neck and basic postural corrections are key to alleviating the injury – many people with carpal tunnel syndrome don’t know the anatomy of their issue. There is a tunnel formed by the carpal bones of the wrist that the median nerve passes between.
If you are doing downward dog with heel of the palm flat on the floor, rather than creating a tunnel for clear passage of the median nerve to travel through to the hand, you can actually make the problem worse. This link shares an affective technique for creating space in the carpal tunnel.
Most yoga classes include urdhva danurasana, or wheel pose. Wheel pose is very difficult to do correctly and trying to do it without the appropriate amount of core muscle tone it is going to end badly for your lower back and sacroiliac joint.
There should be no thrust in a successfully executed wheel pose. If you are someone who can’t get into the pose without turning your feet out, which externally rotates the leg and forces the pelvis to tuck under in order to get up, wheel pose might not be good for you until you develop more core tone. The video at this link can help develop a successful wheel.
Our shoulders have a wide range of motion by design, which makes them easy to abuse. When we lower to chaturanga from plank, or from a standing pose, there are four muscles that should activate to stabilize the shoulders en route (Serratus anterior, rhomboids, lower trapezius, pectoralis minor). If you do lots of chaturanga vinyasa, and the head of the arm bone consistently rolls too far forward and down each time, you won’t be developing balance in these muscles. Most often it is a tight pectoralis minor that pulls the shoulder blade on a sorrowful journey towards future injury. You might get away with this for a while, but you will be developing patterns that will never serve your body.
We go to yoga to stretch with a capital S – which is a beautiful thing. But we are all tighter on one side of the body than the other for different reasons. So, say you are in down dog and come to a lunge on your tight right side, which might be frustrating. You give it your all, but your all doesn’t take you very far. Then you step back and step the left foot forward. As the left side has more room to move you take advantage of this and go as deeply as you can. While this makes emotional sense – we are there to move as deeply as we can – over time this simple repetitive pattern can end up increasing the body’s imbalances rather than bringing us closer to the middle ground that we are looking for.
There a four different ways that we can breathe: abdominal, thoracic, cervical and paradoxical. In abdominal breathing, ideal in most situations, the diaphragm (the main muscle of breathing) is supposed to descend, pushing the belly out slightly. When I am teaching and I ask everyone standing in tadasana where they think the breath should go when we inhale, almost everyone responds “the belly”. And then I ask where it is going at that moment and the answer is usually “the chest”.
With the exception of ashtanga yoga, where you consciously employ the bandhas and ujjayi breath in order to breathe only into the chest (thoracic), I think abdominal breathing is the way to go.
When teachers tell you stand up straight, open the chest, take the shoulders back, or any variation on that theme, the instruction shouldn’t interfere with diaphragms descent into the abdominal cavity. The front of the ribcage is not supposed to lift to accomplish the action. Once the sternum lifts too much, the ribcage is no longer level and the diaphragm is no longer free to drop, forcing the breath up into the chest.
The quality of our breathing is a serious issue for so many people in and out of yoga classes and it needs to be addressed in the search for a healthier practice and longer life.
The practice of yoga, at its root, is meant to be an exchange of one teacher to one student – a guru/disciple dynamic that has only been subverted in the last hundred years. Not paying attention to the historical context for such a profound energy practice can have real consequences. Group yoga classes are seriously fun and exciting, but not necessarily to the point of yoga with a capital Y. And on that note, here is our final reason…
It is all too easy to become a yoga teacher and, while there are many great ones out there who truly know their stuff and teach beautifully precise and informed classes, there are equally as many who aren’t. The truth of the yoga world is that there are so many yoga centers and so many yoga classes. Hiring practices, in my mind, should be akin to becoming a college professor – publish or perish! However, many teachers are hired on the basis of personality and looks (both valid attributes) and how many people they can put in the room (it is a business after all).
It is the student’s responsibility to be discerning. Just because someone stands at the front of the yoga room doesn’t mean that they have a clue about telling you what to do with your body. When I am teaching I often like to say that it is my job to be confident and act as if I am correct. It would be ludicrous if I didn’t. And, while I genuinely think I am right about everything… maybe I’m not.
The world needs yoga (and exercise in general), and I will even grant that it is better to do yoga badly than not at all. But, and the but is huge (no pun intended), it would be better for everyone to take some time to examine how they accomplish the practice outside of what their teachers tell them. Whether it be pursuing yoga for spirituality or exercise, students should spend most of their time getting to know themselves, inside and out, in the search for a healthy life.