– It’s all good.
– Yoga can wreck your body.
The truth lies somewhere in the middle.
The truth is that any yoga pose can heal, and any yoga pose can harm. It’s all in the approach, engagement, application of the teachings, and our ability to balance learning from our own bodies with external guidance.
The “exercise is dangerous” contingent will always exist. It exists for runners, where there is an entrenched mythology that running hurts the knees (sometimes true, sometimes not) or leads to sudden cardiac arrest. Both can be true. Yet both are more true in non-running populations.
It exists in the elderly or injured population, who might go to the extreme to avoid activity because a medical practitioner – trying to play it safe – once said “rest”, “swimming is the only exercise that is safe” or “never go barefoot”.
It even exists for high risk pregnancies, where women are often told to be on bedrest, despite that lack of normal movement can also be harmful. In fact, research making headlines in the spring of 2013 showed that bedrest during pregnancy not only does not prevent premature birth, but may do the opposite.
Yoga encompasses much more than exercise, but the physical form of yoga will always bear the burden of some of the general critique that all exercise bears. “Exercise is dangerous” is an excuse that many people use for movement avoidance, to stay in their comfort zone. You will hear questions and variations about this theme if you teach asana.
There is a time and place for activity-avoidance guidance, but the most important element is always balance, and never to lose sight of the whole person for the body part.
Bodies are designed to move and to explore. We are designed to stretch and seek novel ways of moving. Look to babies for proof. Movement is how bone grows (and continues to stay strong with aging), some joints form, how the venous system returns blood to the heart and lungs.
In a famous study from 1966 (pre-Institutional Review Boards to review ethics of human experimentation), The Dallas Bedrest and Training study, five healthy college-aged men were recruited to be on bedrest for 3 weeks straight. Thorough cardiac measurements were taken before and afterward. Predictably, cardiac output and maximum oxygen uptake dropped significantly. Peripheral circulatory control was impaired, and two subjects fainted after being placed back on the treadmill. Heart size even decreased. Follow-up 30 years later, when the subjects were in their 50s, showed normalized heart size, normal cardiac output, and general health markers that all surpassed the post-bedrest measurements.
The greatest health challenges of modern day revolve around lack of movement, which leads to limited body awareness, compounding the effects of poor postural habits, small repetitive motions (driving, texting), and even generalized anxiety. When we do move, often there is a pressure to get as much out of it in as short a time as possible: to sweat, to push through.
Modern life shows up on the yoga mat. You will have students who want to be pushed to max out their brief movement time, and who are not familiar with their bodies. Others who thrive from slow, methodical approaches, perhaps to counteract overwhelm elsewhere in their lives. Skillfully taught and executed yoga helps us balance all of the above by injecting our lives with a balance of movement, stillness, awareness, and health.
Not all yoga is good yoga. Not all yoga is equal. But awesome yoga is an awesome antidote to modern life.