That New York Times Magazine's article on the dangers of yoga has made a lot of people mad. It didn’t really make me mad—I do too much yoga to get mad, though I do still sniff disdainfully—but I did want to address why many of the arguments in it are totally lame.
1. The Times' health coverage often gives way to local news-flavored hysteria. You can’t expect the Sort of People Who Tend to Read The Times to freak out about Amber Alerts and Child Molesters. The readership simply isn’t concerned with anything that has no direct effect on them, unless that thing is cool (design), epic in scale (Nicholas Kristof) or risible (Tom Friedman). About the only thing that will get upper-middle-class coast dwellers into a frenzy is the idea—the word 'fact' is so black and white, n’est-ce pas?—that Some Day They Are Going To Fucking Die. Like to exercise a lot? That might MAKE YOU DIE. Do you just like to walk leisurely? Is that what you enjoy? Too bad for you, because if you don’t get your heart rate to 96 percent capacity, fourteen minutes a day, eight times in a 15-day cycle, YOU ARE GOING TO DIE. Guess what else? If you don’t have hot sex enough with someone who also loves you and pays your bills and who has the same values as you (good luck with that one!), your brain will stop secreting a certain hormone and you WILL DIE. If you do not make this beet green pasta dish like Mark Bittman made and get this special trace mineral found in beet greens that’s the only thing that feeds your liver oxygen, YOU ARE ALSO GOING TO DIE. This yoga article—actually, an excerpt from a book by Times reporter William J. Broad—is in this tradition. It finds subjects with genuine, perfectly reasonable things to say and a few suspect anecdotes and by the time a little Science (said in Thomas Dolby voice) is thrown in (some of this science is from 1972!) everyone has run away screaming at the top of their lungs: "Yoga, noooo! I’d be better off smoking crack and turning tricks outside Benito’s."
2. Yes, you can get injured doing yoga; you can also get injured walking across the street. People tell you all kinds of crazy shit about how they hurt themselves. "I was taking out the trash," "I was raking leaves," "I was vacuuming with a vacuum cleaner I don’t normally use.” The cures are often even more ridiculous than the causes. “I got a new pillow filled with millet." "I got a dog leash with a wider strap," "I did a watermelon basil enema—and it’s gone. No, not my entire asshole, dummy, my hip pain!" Who in this world has not been flat on their back and suddenly gotten a check for 5k or a promising phone call from someone hot and leapt up, miraculously cured, ready for shopping and hand jobs? Which is not to say that no one ever gets hurt in yoga. Of course they do. I have pulled a groin muscle, a shoulder muscle, a pectoral muscle. (I once got a nasty sore throat yelling at Jivamukti’s assistant manager when she let someone else take my vintage Pucci tights out of the lost and found.) But seriously. What is life but a series of mundane moments, punctuated by hazards? Someone once told me he ruptured a cervical disc reaching out to pick a piece of lint off a friend. The Times headline for this would have been “When Sweaters Are Not Just Warm.” And yes, this person was gay. I’m certain the gesture could have been a bit less operatic.
3. Let's let this one speak for itself. “In one case, a male college student, after more than a year of doing yoga, decided to intensify his practice. He would sit upright on his heels in a kneeling position known as vajrasana for hours a day, chanting for world peace. Soon he was experiencing difficulty walking, running and climbing stairs.” Oh my god. That is so weird! I can’t believe someone would sit for hours a day, days on end, in one position and get hurt. That reminds me of the time I sat around in my house eating Twinkies for hours and hours, chanting for world peace. Soon I was experiencing being really fat.
4. Did yoga really cause that stroke/aneurysm? One example in the article comes from 1972. A woman went into wheel pose, in which she rested on her head, and then had a stroke. Another guy did headstand every day and had a stroke. Well, a lot of people suffer heart attacks having sex or running, but isn’t this because their hearts are already fucked and they have sex or go running and their heart’s like, Okay, here we are, it’s go time? Isn’t it very likely that the moment that these people were doing these things was the moment that they had a stroke, and if not, well, why aren’t classes just full of people having strokes? I’d also like to add that my aunt died of a stroke too, and no one wrote an article about how eating Stouffer’s creamed chip beef and being married to a drunk asshole with orange hair causes strokes. Sometimes people just have strokes. My sound medical opinion on this is, “Better you than me.” And you know, if these people did get strokes from yoga, they were putting extreme amounts of weight on their head. There is an easy way to avoid this. Do kundalini yoga, which is headstand-free. Or merely do not do headstand. You will miss about .001 percent of what goes on in the average yoga class.
5. This article is actually more about how no one should go to a bad yoga teacher, but, you know, who would want to read an article about that? This article focuses on Glenn Black, a yoga teacher whose own injuries forced him to evaluate both the teaching and practice of yoga. He mentions “teachers jumping on people, pushing and pulling and saying, 'You should be able to do this by now.'” Well. I don’t want to go to class with any of these people either, but the existence of bad yoga teachers comes neither as a surprise to me nor some sort of proof that the practice itself is flawed. I have never been shocked to come across bad teachers, bad policemen, bad psychologists (are there any good ones? Please let me know), bad dry cleaners or bad restaurants. I’d rather go to a bad yoga class than a bad restaurant. At least you can take a nap. There’s a way to avoid doing stuff you don’t want to do in class, and it’s called 'having boundaries.' If your yoga teacher looks like they might jump on you—and whimsical hair style, body odor and overuse of the word "magic" would all be danger signs—approach them before class and ask which side of the room is for people who dislike being jumped on.
6. What’s wrong with yoga is not yoga. According to Paramahansa Yogananda, author of the yoga classic and all-around great read Autobiography of a Yogi, Kriya Yoga was well-known in ancient India, but was eventually lost, due to "priestly secrecy and man’s indifference." If we lose yoga it will also be a one-two punch, from different forces. One will be because we let the idea that we don’t really know our limitations—this is a core idea of yoga—translate into fantasies about how we can do a backbend even though we’re fifty and kind of fat, because hey, to believe it is to be it, etc. Combine this misuse of yogic philosophy with our capacity for senseless competitiveness and fear of being old, or ugly, or anything but the best, and yes, you’ve got a good recipe for injury. But if you think of yoga as a great way to breathe more, well, you’re not going to get hurt.
I'm sure Glenn Black is a great teacher and a great guy. And hey, I’m not about to trash some guy who just had his vertebrae fused. But I do marvel at his account of having put himself through 18 years of painful backbends. How did he do yoga for so long and think that doing a freaking backbend was really so important? If I lost my legs and arms and was being dragged around on a skateboard, I would still do yoga. To quote the Bhagavad Gita (and yes, I got this from Wikipedia), yoga happens when we are "[o]ffering inhaling breath into the outgoing breath, and offering the outgoing breath into the inhaling breath." Whether you hate the word Universe or love it (I have mixed feelings) I assure you it does not give rewards for enduring physical pain. It does, however, seem to give some rewards for learning to recognize yourself as a mere speck in its enormous scope and yet somehow representative of its totality while also seeing the same in others. Which is why it would kind of make me sad if people read this Times article and decided that the elliptical was a better way to unwind after work. Not that I have anything against ellipticals—though I have a sneaking suspicion the Universe may actually frown upon them.
You don’t have to stand on your head to see what’s left of you when everything else is gone, and it's something you should really take time to find out. Just in case The Times is onto something with this whole death thing.
Related: Why Yoga Can Be So Irritating (Although You Should Go Anyway!)
Sarah Miller is the author of Inside the Mind of Gideon Rayburn and The Other Girl, which are for teens but adults can read on the beach. She lives in Nevada City, CA.