The Dark Side of Yoga


This post is a response to an article published in the NY Times Magazine, Jan 5,2012, How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.

I’ve been reading an important text about yoga called “Light on Yoga” by B.K.S. Iyengar.  This is one of those books that as a teacher of yoga you really feel like you “should” read.  It’s called the “Bible” of modern yoga, the definitive guide to the Iyengar method.  I don’t teach Iyengar method, but I respect it very much.  I recognize that the founder of this style is one of just a few prominent teachers, gurus that are descended from the source of modern yoga, Krishnamacharya.  When I read this seminal text though, I can’t help but think “ouch!”, and sometimes “WTF!”

The first 53 pages of this book are about yoga as a spiritual path.  It’s about how to become closer to God.  In fact, Iyengar tells us approximately how long it will take a certain individual to reach enlightenment, samadhi, based on personality type, prayer and strict adherence to his guru.  The next 550 pages or so are descriptions of asana, or poses. Photographs and instructions are included about how to get into a pose and also, why:  Why should you do this pose.

Pages from Light on Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar

The poses are rated on a scale from 1-60 indicating the “intensity” of the pose.  One is easiest.  The pose in the photograph on the left (Plate 538 in Light on Yoga) is categorized as a thirty-three. Um… WTF!  Thirty- three!!  Out of sixty?  So why should you do this pose?  Well, according to Iyengar it vigorously stretches the abdominal organs…  oh yeah and the psychological significance of “stamping” on one’s head helps to eradicate ego.  I’m not sure how Guruji feels in this pose but I can tell you that the only thing that would lead me into this pose is pure, ugly ego.  I will find myself no closer to God in this position.  Especially if ego acts as a divider.  This book was first published in 1966 and I wish I could tell you that these ideas are outdated, antiquated, but I can’t.

As yoga has gained popularity in the U.S. yoga related injuries have increased.  This seems natural and correct, and in itself is not particularly alarming.  The number of people who are seriously injured or killed by yoga poses is quite low.  What I find alarming is the way that yoga practitioners get hurt.  The article that I referenced at the beginning of this post describes this problem as yoga’s dirty little secret.  Those lithe-celebrity yoga teachers and gorgeous models on the cover of Yoga Journal look fantastic.  The stuff they do is graceful and awe-inspiring.  But they are hurting themselves.  A yoga therapist in the article mentions prominent yoga teachers that are so broken from their yoga practice that they must teach lying down.  We look to these individuals to show us the path to lifelong vitality and sadly the path has rendered them functionally disabled. Those poses that we love to look at on the cover of yoga magazines are often cajoled to the detriment of the model, and heavily edited at that.  The modern trend in yoga photography is just as harmful to yogi body images as Glamour Magazine Fashion spreads are.  The trend in yoga classes as well can often be a problem.  Whether it is the teacher or the culture of a certain studio or type of studio often the competition to do more and more difficult and unique positions is fierce and dangerous.

This ugly idea that yoga is “always” good for you seems to be the root of the problem.  Even those of us who experience injury deny to ourselves that our beloved yoga practice might be the cause.  Here too, ego rears its ugly head.  “I should be able to do that pose”.  All too often a serious, debilitating injury is the wake up call that reminds us that yoga should feel good!  Sure, sometimes building strength or flexibility is intense or painful, but the mindfulness that must accompany asana practice will act as a barrier to the dark side.  Ego destroys mindfulness.  Unwavering attention and intention to honor the body destroys ego.

Iyengar says “The yogi conquers the body by the practice of asanas and makes it a fit vehicle for the spirit.  He knows that it is a necessary vehicle for the spirit.”  Iyengar is a pretty bad ass dude.  If you’ve seen him in person or like me on hours of video you know that he’s pretty harsh.  Even among his most devoted pupils he’s strict and maybe a little mean (okay super mean).  When he says “conquer” I think he means it in the truest sense, unfortunately.  I think there has to be a softer, more subtle approach.  There must be compassion.  In the 48 years since this book was initially published, yogis in the West have taken these ideas and run with them.  Science now supports the claims that asana is usually good for you, in many ways.  We also know that it can harm, maim or even kill.  The West has given birth to ideas that embody the “Light” of yoga asana and also the darkness.  I teach a Sound Method of yoga.  I think there is room for playfulness and adventure but I also think that yoga should feel good.  To “conquer” indicates some sort of subjugation or enslavement.  When I practice or teach the yoga that is right for me I feel free and open and I try very hard to help others feel this way too.  I think many are drawn to yoga because it is an outlet for competition and achievement.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t personally appeal to many of my students early on with these methods; in time though the going inside of asana becomes a new, more vital quest.  One that is far richer and more rewarding.  I won’t estimate a date for enlightenment but I’m pretty sure I’ll get closer the farther away I stay from the pose in Plate 538.  I for one am working to stay in the “light”.

If you’d like to read the article that inspired this post here it is.

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One thought on “The Dark Side of Yoga

  1. Light on Yoga was our asana textbook in teacher training, although it was not an Iyengar training. I use it now as an asana encyclopedia. We need to know where our edge is and work with it. Some people’s edge is way farther out than mine, and they should refer to plate 538. I keep it simple for myself and my students.

    And I feel that I need to always teach that we can’t tell very much about the quality of a person’s practice by looking at their asana practice. I understand yoga to be a set of practices that aims at shifting our consciousness away from our ego-centeredness. A mindful asana practice can certainly help with that. And much of the work we have to do can be practiced on our mats. But if we’re hung up on appearances, we’re stuck. Of course, our entire society is hung up on appearances, so what did we expect – that we would treat yoga differently? We have to start where we are. And in our society, that’s at the surface. We teachers have the responsibility of seeing to it that our students don’t get stuck there.

    Around the studio, the NYT article has reminded us all to do everything we can to protect our students and ourselves from injury. So that’s good. But I really wonder just how big the problem is if you have to go back to 1972 for examples. And some guy in college sitting in vajrasana all day chanting? Are we really going to blame yoga and yoga teachers for that sort of thing? Anyway. If anybody wants some caring and careful yoga teachers and a beautiful community of students, they can come to our studio up here in Brunswick, Maine. No celebrities; lots of love.

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