The Dangers of the competition, self-judgment and external judgment, and ego in a Yoga Practice
As part of my healing stage, I have been interested in injury prevention (I never want to go through this again if I can help it!) Not only is injury prevention key in the recovery process from an actual injury (preventing reinjury), but also as a yoga instructor I feel obligated to provide the safest possible environment for my students. I must try to be aware of possible risky movements while in poses, entering or exiting a pose, or desperately pushing the self too far to get into the pose. While I am well aware of proper form; when this form is compromised I’m also aware of the risks associated with poses done when the student is either not strong enough and/or lacks the flexibility to stretch themselves in such a way.
Throughout my yoga path, I am always confronted at one time or another with an individual athlete (or it could be anyone, but will use the example of an elite athlete), who has remarkable flexibility issues, but has never been injured (usually they’re young and feel that they are impervious to injury). I always have the discussion how yoga would be extremely helpful for the physical and mental well-being both while playing their sport and in their daily life. I then get one of two responses: “I don’t need to do yoga, I’m not that inflexible, I stretch a couple of minutes before and after I play and I’ve never been injured. I heard that people get more injured from practicing yoga than from it helping to prevent injury. Why would I want to risk that?” This is response one. The second response is: “oh, I’ll do yoga, I’m really strong, I’ll probably be a natural.”
The second person then goes to a yoga class, generally in my experience since I practiced yoga in NYC for 10 years, that is jam packed, filled with Type A personalities, and may even be heated as their first class; after all, they are in such good shape and so strong they definitely don’t need any individual or semi-private lessons or beginner workshops on mechanics. This is what I call a high-risk situation (response one to not try yoga would probably have been better). In this situation, the elite “strong and incredibly cardiovasculary fit” athlete will break a golden rule of yoga and look to the left neighbor, right neighbor, and person before them, and try to match that person’s practice even if it involves stretching a groin or hamstring muscle that is not accustomed to such deep stretching, or trying an inversion without fully understanding the mechanics of it and risking cervical injury in a headstand or shoulderstand. Trying arm balances, the person might not be accustomed to dealing with the slippery surface of their body as a result of the heat in the room and slip, resulting in injury. Yes, this is how yoga can be harmful. If we let our ego take control of us and push our body in ways that it cannot handle or it has never been introduced to, or we fail to listen to instructions on how to safely enter and exit a pose, serious injuries can result.
For this reason, many studios offer a beginner series yoga class to go over simple Sanskrit names, sun salutations, sequences, meanings of different poses, and mechanics of poses in order to prepare the yogi for an all levels class where they might not get the attention or guidance of the instructor in a larger atmosphere. Or the studio may recommend a couple of private or semi-private workshops or sessions to learn correct and safe form. This is why studios hold inversion and arm balance workshops since these poses are risky if not done with correct form. Back to the new yogi, but elite “strong” athlete (meaning there is just more muscle to pull or overstretch – trust me), in the jam packed hot yoga all levels power vinyasa class. In this situation the yoga instructor, like I do myself, in group classes will rely on the yogi to know their limitations. We often remind students to not push themselves too far or know their limitations especially since in a hot room they may feel like muscles can effortlessly stretch (beware, once out of the heat, they can effortlessly contract and spasm as well), but we are not able to walk around and make sure that every student is listening and in proper form. In general, in large all levels classes, inversions are recommended ONLY if the individual has a strong inversion practice in the center of the room. I like to avoid having individuals in a larger group using the wall (in a smaller group where you can workshop, through step-by-step guidance, the inversion, this is okay), because people kick up into headstand with such vigor and I hear the banging against the wall, just so they can be upside down. I shutter with the bang or kerplop. This is incredibly risky on the neck.
Headstand should have a controlled entry and exit requiring the core muscles and the back muscles to properly balance the center of gravity and limit the percentage of body weight distributed on the head and neck (yes, this is why I am so adamant on core work)! This is a similar reason why I shy away from including shoulderstand into my yoga classes; I need to know that the yogi knows proper fomr to get into and out of the shoulderstand and to NOT move the neck while in the pose as this can result in serious cervical injury. In a larger class that is all levels and has some new practitioners, the teacher simply cannot walk around and ensure the safety of every student. There is a certain amount of responsibility that the individual assumes when they walk into a yoga studio. Whether it is the individual’s second or 1,000th yoga class, that individual is responsible for knowing their limitations.
A studio is a supportive, non-judgmental, learning environment to safely explore and practice while listening to bodily limitations, which change on a daily basis. Many individuals assume that their practice yesterday will be the same or better the next day. I’ve had to learn this too, as I’m a Type A personality. It’s equivalent to always thinking that you’re going to beat or match your best record swimming the 200m or running a 5K each additional time you do it. This is just not practical. Sometimes our bodies crave a more restorative, slower, and gentler flow of yoga focusing on breathing and challenging our brains with mindfulness and relaxation techniques especially if our body is fatigued, stressed, or injured. Some days we need a power power power flow – we need to get it all out and physically challenge ourselves. Yoga is not like tennis (my sport), there are no rules or lines, and the sport is fluid, variable, and receptive to our own needs. A yogi only “loses” when they let their ego command their body and push through limitations into dangerous territory.
A new yogi, who really is a strong “elite” athlete, may be so tight in their hip flexors and glut muscles that a block under his/her hip or blanket might be more appropriate in a pigeon pose. Muscling their way through pigeon could result at minimum in general discomfort in the glut muscles for the rest of the day (I’ve experiences!) or even a muscle strain or pull. In addition, pushing muscle stretching too far, defeats the whole purpose of yoga, to breathe deeply and to relax into the stretch. I’ve tried muscling my way through a pose where my body and my mind resist the whole time and I only exhale when I exit the pose. I have learned over the years, that this is not yoga, and is not beneficial to my mental or physical wellbeing.
Back to my recovery from my patellar fracture; 5 weeks in a straight-legged knee brace resulted in muscle atrophy that could not be prevented no matter how many miles I walked, in addition to muscle and joint stiffness. Returning to my yoga practice utilizing both legs has been humbling. WOW, is there a difference between my left (injured leg) and right (now super flexible and even stronger for taking up the slack leg). I enter into triangle pose on one side and it feels restorative, on the other side it feels torturous and I have to fight my ego to keep my knee subtly bent and even put my hand on my shin. I fight the visualization of the before injured me actually taking a bind in triangle pose, which I’m able to do on my “superhuman” side. Restraining myself from pushing further and balancing both sides, I move into the stage of acceptance at where my body is at at the moment and appreciation that I’m even doing triangle on the other side! There’s a fine line between being to gentle on oneself and never stepping up to a challenge and overpushing. I generally tell Type A clients that if they are even in the conundrum – “to try or not to try,” than they should not try today since they normally push themselves without such indecision. I also remind clients that one side will most likely feel different from the other side and that it is not necessary to achieve the same “stage” in the pose on both sides, even though balance is always preferred in yoga. We must accept that we are human.
To myself during my recovery process and attending to my less flexible side of the body, but knowing that I need to work on increasing range of motion and strength, it has been challenging knowing just how far is too much. I’ve shyed away from some poses and arm balances perhaps for too long, but this is better than pushing myself too early. Now when I enter into them with my healing leg, I feel confident and there is no indecision. This was the first week that I got back to practicing forearm balance in the middle of the room into scorpion pose. It felt light and wonderful. I was patient and waited to enter a risky pose until my body was no longer indecisive. I also went into a headstand with lotus legs. In this position, I immediately felt discomfort and backed off, slowly releasing the legs, and accepting that full lotus is not ideal for my knee at this time. Listen to your body and listen to your yoga instructors, not to your ego.
In this past month’s yoga journal, I read an article that had researched the strain and risk of injury in yogis going into the “king” of all yoga, Sirsasana (headstand) I and other variations of Sirsasana, but all putting weight on the head and the neck. The article described at length the percentages and distribution of body weight on the neck, versus the head, and the forearms. It also outlined how different ways of entering and exiting the pose were instrumental for safety and weight distribution. This article further reinforced what I had previously known; yoga is only risky if practiced carelessly and without guidance and the proper muscle strength, flexibility, or balance to safely enter and exit a more challenging pose such as an inversion.
From the Yoga Journal Article, I found an article published over 5 years ago in the New Yorker on the risks and serious injuries resulting from improper yoga practice. I want to emphasize, that there will always be people that feel; why try something that can be risky. I completely agree. My point throughout this blog has been to demonstrate that yoga, as a practice, is not what is risky, it’s how the yogi interprets and modifies their own practice to meet the needs of their ego that may be cause for alarm and risk of injury. If Lebron James had never practiced yoga (I have no idea if he does), I still would not guide him to a hot power jam packed vinyasa class and have him move into a headstand or difficult arm balances and deep stretches without guidance and supervision and he is arguably one of the strongest, most coordinated, elite athlete around.
Yoga is healing physically, psychologically, can improve focus while playing a sport or academically, and can improve self-confidence and coping skills when it is practiced safely. I have spent months of medical school and my masters’ thesis reserching these very facts. By entering into a yoga studio, an individual is upheld to a golden rule of yoga to not let their ego command their practice. Trust me, I have sometimes let my ego command my practice and it has not been enjoyable and I have gotten injured.
In 2016, the World Olympics declared yoga as an official sport. Ratings are based on a 7-minute series of poses reflecting on an individual’s flexibility, balance, and free pose. I do not agree with this decision to judge yoga practice. Yoga dates back 5,000 years ago, perhaps longer, as a meditative practice and slowly evolved over the centuries and recently into a practice emphasizing the physical body and connection to pranayama, even to physiological changes that result from the practice of yoga, emotional, and cognitive benefits of a well-rounded personalized yoga practice. Bringing the idea of yoga as a sport to be judged into the world spotlight via the Olympics places the yoga practitioner at further risk of judging theirself while practicing yoga and letting their ego command the practice. Such self-judgment can result in injury. It is only with the introduction of yoga to the west, which places yoga in fancy gyms and promises extreme strength and flexibility benefits, that more injuries have been reported. This is because yoga does not belong in a space with mirrors, mats one inch apart, and neighbors looking to fellow yogis as comparisons. Yoga belongs in a space free from external reflections of what “your yoga looks like” (i.e mirrors) and from comparisons or competitiveness with fellow students.
In light of this long blog, I hope that each individual tries yoga at some point in their life and becomes attached to it for what it provides them without being distracted to what they should be able to do, what their ego is telling them to do, or what others are doing, or what they should be gaining from their practice. Focus on yourself. Be mindful of your body and how it feels in the present, not yesterday. Feel your emotions and tension in the present and honor and welcome a unique practice that feels good to you on any given day.
I love walking into my studio on a given day, leaving my external stressors at the door, and spending that hour or longer selfishly indulging my body in what feels mentally and physically “right” in the present. Similarly, when I walk into teaching a yoga class, independent of the description of the class, I gauge the mood and physical demeanor of the students (which is why I love a “small”town studio) and try to shape the class to reflect their presence today.
The image and quote "may all beings be safe" is taken from a much larger and important issue from the Yogaforourlives benefit class held March 24th to collect money to donate to address issues of gun control and the safety of our youth. I apply it to this blog only in the sense that I believe that this is a safety that we can control by practicing responsibly as yogis in our physical practice and in our daily lives.