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7 Reasons why safety is an issue within Yoga

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Inspired by William Broad’s recent NY Times article, here are some reasons why safety is a growing problem in the yoga community.

Many yoga teachers are undertrained: To put it bluntly, 200-hours of training isn’t enough. If you map that to a 40-hour week, that’s 5 weeks worth of training. Five weeks may be enough to teach English in a foreign country, but many modern yoga classes involve poses that can cause serious injury. I suggest to friends that they seek experienced teachers with 500-hours of training. Ideally 200-hour teacher training should be followed by a year of apprenticeship, assisting a senior teacher.

Yoga classes have gotten too big: Towards the end of his life, the esteemed teacher Krishnamacharya mainly taught individual and small classes. In a large class a teacher just can’t scan the room fast enough to catch every unsafe alignment. I currently have primarily a home practice that I supplement with regular, one-on-one sessions with my (very experienced) teacher. Because individual sessions can be expensive, the other option is to find a small class in your local studio. Unfortunately small classes tend be held during inconvenient time slots (which is the main reason they are small to begin with).

Mass media hypes Celebrity teachers: Not all famous yoga personalities are great teachers. Many become famous for reasons other than their teaching skills or knowledge of safety. In addition their classes tend to be extremely large and fast-paced.

Large, fast-paced classes bring out competitive juices: With music blasting and the teacher yelling instructions, it’s not uncommon to scan the room and compare yourself with other students. “Hey that person can bend far, I can do that too!”

Many standard poses are actually not as safe as you think: In previous posts I highlighted the headstand (sirsasana) and the seated forward fold (Paschimottanasana). In Broad’s recent NY Times article, he has stories of yoga teachers who’ve gotten injured while executing seemingly standard poses.

Strict vegan diet and intense yoga practice: I admit this is pure speculation on my part, but somewhat based on anecdata. Many of the busiest yoga teachers are also strict vegans (or vegetarians). If you’re practice puts you at the level of serious athletes, then you have to make sure you have the diet to sustain your level of physical activity. As a group, Vegans probably need to be more conscious that they’re getting enough nutrients.

Not enough yoga practitioners study history and anatomy: In some circles, there might be too much emphasis on the idealized/spiritual roots of modern asana practice, and not enough on recent academic research into the origins of modern yoga. The result is a physical practice that downplays science and empirical data. Fortunately there is also a growing number of experienced teachers who have assembled materials on yoga anatomy and gentle assists. Consult my reading list for possible resources.

Related posts:

  • Headstand isn’t for everybody
  • Paschimottanasana shouldn’t be taught to beginners
  • Finding the right Yoga Teacher
  • Jade rides the current obsession with Celebrity Yoga Teachers
  • Yoga Reading List
  • Update (1/13/2012): Yoga teacher Glen Black, who was quoted extensively in Broad’s NY Times article, elaborates further in this excellent Huffpost interview.


    Written by virtualsatsang

    January 10, 2012 at 5:19 pm

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    Making the Familiar seem Strange and the Strange seem Familiar

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    The title of this post is a quote from an essay written by Jonathan Z. Smith1, which I found in David Gordon White’s note to instructors, who plan to use the essays found in Yoga in Practice.

    I thought the sentiment expressed also applies to modern-day hatha yoga teachers. I think many times yoga teachers relish being “exotic” (Sanskrit anyone?), when often the best pedagogical technique is to use familiar concepts.

    In many cases authenticity is tied to Hindu concepts and formulations. Whenever you find yourself looking down on a particular style/lineage/school of yoga, consider that there have been so many systems of yoga, your favored system is just one of them. So embrace the yoga system that works for you, but realize that “authenticity” and “lineage” can be slippery slopes.

    From Yoga in Practice pages 24-27:

    Given the fact that the people who “do” yoga number in the tens of millions in the West alone, many students will come to a course on yoga with a number of preconceptions received from their teachers and trainers. Primary among these is the received notion that all yoga are one, and that one Yoga tradition has remained unchanged since its origins in the mists on antiquity. An alternative assumption is that yoga has evolved in a straight line and following some sort of historical determinism from the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutra down through the classical works of hatha yoga and into modern-day Vinyasa, Astanga, Kriya Yoga and so forth. What a chronological reading of the outstanding translations and introductions in this volume makes abundantly clear is that there are as many discontinuities as there are continuities in the history of yoga, and that there are nearly as many yoga systems as there are texts on yoga.

    … There are continuities — historical, philosophical, ritual, and so forth — between and among various yoga traditions … This being said, once cannot help but notice that even when they are seeking to refute one another, the authors of these words were clearly engaged in some sort of conversation. So, while there are distinctively Hindu, Buddhist, Jain, Tantric, non-sectarian, and even Islamic yoga traditions, there are a number of pervasive themes that recur across texts and time. … As the six contributions on yoga in South and Inner Asian Tantric traditions make clear, sectarian differences among Hindus, Buddhists, and Jains paled in comparison to the commonalities of their shared Tantric worldview, metaphysics, goals, and techniques.

    … What distinguishes the principal types of yogic practice from one another are the components of the self that are the objects of one’s discipline. So it is is that in meditative traditions, the principal focus will be on immobilizing thought, usually in conjunction with breath control, the inner repetition of mantras, and so on. In most forms of Tantric yoga, thought, semen, and the body are highlighted to varying degrees. In hatha yoga, the focus can be on all four components as immortalized in a medieval vernacular poem attributed to the Nath Yogi Gopicand: “Steady goes the breath, and the mind is steady, steady goes the mind, the semen. Steady the semen, and the body is steady, that’s what Gopicand is sayin.”

    … culture warriors from worlds apart are making the nearly identical claim that yoga is fundamentally Hindu. In the United States, a number of Christian evangelists are taking this position for the expressed purpose of controlling the bodies of Christian women, while in India, Hindu fundamentalists are doing the same in the service of their ongoing campaign of identity politics.

    … As for their shared claim that Yoga is fundamentally Hindu, this can only stand if one allows that there has only ever been one “yoga” , and that yoga has remain unaltered since incepetion, i.e., the yoga being taught today in yoga studios across the globe is identical to the yoga of the Upanishads or that taught to Krsna in the Bhagavad Gita, the two earliest treatments of “yoga” in the Hindu cannon. However, upon inspection these two original Hindu teachings on yoga are found to diverge on several points, an so one must conclude that from the very outset there have been at least two Hindu systems of yoga. And, as the contributions to this volume make plain, the past 2,500 years have seen the emergence of many, many systems of yoga — the earliest of which may not have been Hindu at all, and many of which arose outside of India — whose theories and practices have often been diametrically opposed to one another.

    … Now, it is the case that many modern-day yoga gurus have collapsed the rich and varied histories of the many yogas of India, greater Asia, and now the West, into a simplistic vision of yoga as an unchanging tradition grounded in the religion of the Vedas. However, the simple fact that some contemporary teachers and practitioners of yoga hold to such an untenable hypothesis does not make yoga Hindu, any more than the presence of a plastic Jesus on some dashboards would make all automobile drivers Christian.

    (1) “… the task of the religious studies scholar is not only to make the strange seem familiar, but also to make the familiar seem strange.”

    Written by virtualsatsang

    January 3, 2012 at 12:06 am

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    Yoga and Yogi Practice

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    I always smile whenever I hear people refer to themselves as “yogis” or “yoginis”. Especially when the person is a bit of a self-promoter to begin with. So I found it interesting to read the following passage from a recent essay by David Gordon White: my instinctive reaction does have a historical basis!

    From Yoga in Practice pages 11-12:

    Here it is helpful to introduce the difference between “yogi practice” and “yoga practice”, which has been implicit to South Asian thought and practice since the beginning of the Common Era, the period in which the terms “yogi” and “yogi perception” first appeared in the Indian scriptural record. On the one hand, there is “yoga practice,” which essentially denotes a program of mind-training and meditation issuing in the realization of enlightenment, liberation, or isolation from the world of suffering existence. Yoga practice is the practical application of the theoretical precepts of various yogic soteriologies, epistemologies,and gnoseologies presented in analytical works like the YS and the teachings of the various Hindhu, Buddhist, and Jain philosophical schools. Yogi practice, on the other hand, concerns the supernatural powers that empower yogis to take over other creatures’ bodies and so forth. Nearly every one of the earliest narrative descriptions of yogis and their practice underscore the axiom that the penetration of other bodies is the sine qua non of yoga.

    The cleavage between these two more or less incompatible bodies of theory and practice can be traced back to early Buddhist sources, which speak of a rivalry between meditating “experimentalists” (jhayins) and “speculatives” (dhammayogas). … The gulf between yoga practice and yogi practice never ceased to widen over the centuries, such that, by the time of the British Raj, India’s hordes of yogis were considered by India’s elites to be little more than common criminals, with their fraudulent practices — utterly at odds with the true “science” of yoga, which, taught in the YS, was practiced by none — save perhaps a handful of isolated hermits living high in the Himalayas.

    Written by virtualsatsang

    December 27, 2011 at 5:32 pm

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    Books for Your Yoga Teacher

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    Here are (holiday) gift suggestions for your yoga teacher. You’ll notice that the titles I’ve chosen lean towards the academic (history, anthropology) side — I am after all, an ex-academic.

    Postural Yoga

  • Eighty-four Asanas (A survey of traditions) by Gudrun Buhnemann: Make sure you get the 2011 edition.
  • Yoga Tradition of the Mysore Palace by N.E. Sjoman: It looks like its price on Amazon has dropped considerably, in the past a used copy of this title was at least $75. I’ve reviewed this here and here.
  • Yoga Body by Mark Singleton: My review of this book was the first ever entry on this blog!
  • Krishnamacharya (His Life and Teachings) by A.G. Mohan: I really enjoyed this short book by one of Krishnamacharya’s longstanding students.
  • Extra Love (The Art of Hands-on Assists) by Jill Abelson: One of my pet peeves is that many yoga instructors don’t spend enough time teaching safety precautions and learning how to properly assist students. Popular Jivamukti Yoga teacher, Jill Abelson (formerly based in DC, but now in SF), has been conducting workshops on yoga assists for years. I’m glad she put together this well-written manual.
  • History of Yoga

  • Yoga in Practice, edited by David Gordon White: I’m currently reading this just published title. White’s introductory essay is a fantastic overview of Yoga across several religious traditions.
  • History of Modern Yoga by Elizabeth de Michelis: I’ve met several teachers who’ve read Singleton’s book, and I always point them towards this book. Vedanta and Neo-vedanta have heavily influenced modern yoga but I suspect many teachers are unaware of the historical impact of the movements discussed in this book.
  • Yoga in Modern India by Joseph Alter: Make sure you get the 2010 edition.
  • Positioning Yoga by Sara Strauss: A well-written ethnographic study of Swami Sivananda’s Divine Life Society. Modern postural yoga instructors seem to be descended mostly from either Krishnamacharya or Sivananda. Many contemporary teachers in the US are familiar with Krishnamacharya either directly or through his students (who founded Ashtanga and Iyyengar yoga). The late Swami Sivananda also has his share of famous students, including Mircea Eliade, Lilias Follan, Sachtidananda (Integral Yoga) and Satyananda (Bihar School).
  • India

  • Nine Lives by William Dalrymple: I love this book, I’ve read each chapter multiple times.
  • Wandering with Sadhus by Sondra Hausner: I learned so much from this book, and unlike many academic titles, it is extremely readable and even entertaining. Hausner conducts an ethnographic study of renunciates, and along the way provides a wonderful overview of the organizational structures behind the scene.
  • Darsan (Seeing the Divine Image in India) by Diana Eck: A great guide to the statues that are so popular in Yoga studios.
  • Miscellaneous Titles

  • Transcendent in America (Hindu-Inspired Meditation Movements as New Religion) by Lola Williamson: Profiles the Self-Realization Fellowship, Transcendental Meditation, and Siddha Yoga, through interviews with longterm and former members. (Williamson herself was a former member of two of the organizations.)
  • White Lama (The Life of Tantric Yogi Theos Bernard) by Douglas Veenhof: I wouldn’t be shocked if this book becomes the basis for a movie. Veenhof does an incredible job retracing Bernard’s life — though there are sections where the detailed narrative reminds me of Bob Woodward.
  • Yoga in the Modern World edited by Mark Singleton and Jean Byrne: An underrated collection of essays.
  • Alternative Medicine and American Religious Life by Robert Fuller: I just stumbled upon this 1989 title, and already I’ve learned so much about the history of different forms of alternative medicine.
  • Written by virtualsatsang

    December 23, 2011 at 7:31 pm

    Posted in History, Yoga

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  • Yoga Tourism in India: I came across this unpublished manuscript by Kenneth Liberman, in an illuminating short paper on Ashtanga Yoga1. In a recent post, I used ideas from a separate paper of Liberman, to come up with a short checklist for finding yoga teachers & classes.

    American yoga aspirants remain very much inside their own cultural universe and have minimal contact with Indian society, except for the commodified yoga they desire and receive. They cannot read any signs in the regional language, leam little about the politics or culture (“We’re only here for a few months”), and keep their focus upon their own practice of asana. The most appalling part of it is that many of them suffer from a smugness that is derived from having completed such a fine, advanced practice of asana early in the morming, entitling them to spend the rest of the day in idleness while bearing a feeling of superiority toward most any other person they meet during the day.

    … Young people seeking fitness, older people wanting to regain youth, most of them self-absorbed with a focused effort to become or remain attractive, focus their energies intently upon what each of them term “my practice.” For one or two hours they direct their energies (and in many cases this energy is abundant and highly directed) upon themselves. Only themselves. Each breath is a celebration of one’s body electric. It may be beautiful, but the danger is that it easily reinforces egotism and self-centeredness at the very time that one’s practice of yoga should be eradicating the self, egoistically conceived. In all fairness, it may be said that a yoga practitioner will inevitably meet other practitioners who are more adept at asana or run up against the limits of his or her body. But a sense of inadequacy is not actually the opposite of egoism, since it is just another form of self-absorption. If Patanjali is to be believed, spiritual lessons are indeed to be gained from a correct practice of asana, but when the practice is distorted by what is already most abundant in the culture – vanity, pleasure-seeking, and self-absorption – is there a fair chance for its cultivation? The metaphor of the camel that is able to pass through the eye of the needle seems appropriate here.

  • The former warden of San Quentin as an anti death penalty advocate: In her new position heading Death Penalty Focus, Jeanne Woodford’s criminal justice gravitas and calm demeanor makes her an effective advocate for eliminating the death penalty.

  • Half of New Testament forged: CNN highlights the key findings from the new book by biblical scholar Bart D. Ehrman:

    * At least 11 of the 27 New Testament books are forgeries.

    * The New Testament books attributed to Jesus’ disciples could not have been written by them because they were illiterate.

    * Many of the New Testament’s forgeries were manufactured by early Christian leaders trying to settle theological feuds.

    NOTE: Evangelical scholar Ben Witherington refutes the key arguments in his short review of Ehrman’s book.

  • Overwhelmed caregivers should try meditation: Further confirmation of what Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard has been suggesting.

    … UCLA researchers Helen Lavretsky and Michael Irwin conducted an eight-week, randomized trial on the effects of meditation exercise on 49 people who were home-based caregivers of a loved one with dementia. About half of the caregivers listened to relaxation tapes for 20 minutes a day for eight weeks, while the other caregivers practiced Kirtan Kirya yoga, a meditation exercise. The study’s authors then conducted tests on mental and cognitive health, did brain scans and measured telomere length. Telomeres are sequences of DNA at the end of chromosomes that are protective of cellular health. Measuring telomere length can be used to determine how fast a person is aging.

    The study found strong evidence that a meditative yoga routine improves both mental and physical health. While caregivers in both groups experienced benefits, the caregivers practicing Kirtan Kirya yoga had more improvements in quality of life, cognition and memory. Those study participants reported better sleep and less anxiety and said they felt care-giving was less of a burden than before they participated in the study.

    Surprisingly, the telomere analysis showed meditative yoga also had an anti-aging effect.

  • (1) I highly recommend that paper: “With Heat Even Iron will Bend”: Discipline and Authority in Ashtanga Yoga by Benjamin Richard Smith, pages 140-160, in Yoga in the Modern World

    Written by virtualsatsang

    May 19, 2011 at 9:47 am


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  • A Historian studies paranormal activity: Jeffrey Kripal tries to explain to Silicon Valley listeners that paranormal experiences are hard to formally study using the scientific method. I enjoyed Kripal’s previous book on Esalen and the human potential movement, and am generally sympathetic to the views he expresses in the interview below:

  • American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting: If you’re going to be somewhere near SF in mid November, AAR has a session titled “Yoga in Theory and Practice”. Suggested topics include David Gordon White’s forthcoming book (Yoga in Practice), as well as Mark Singleton’s recent book on postural yoga. The registration fee for non-members ranges from $325-$400, depending on when you register.
  • Faith, Education and Income, in the U.S.:

    In every case, the correlation between education and income is extremely strong. As I note in the magazine, the relationship goes both ways: more affluent people tend to produce more educated children, and more educated people tend to earn much more than less educated people. It’s one more reminder that the financial value of education has never been greater.


  • Greg Boyle on giving jobs to ex-gang members:

    I had the honor of witnessing Lorenzo’s seven-month journey from convict to accounting assistant, watching as he became the young man God had in mind when he made him. But despite his remarkable turnaround and the many things he had to offer an employer, Lorenzo’s prospects for finding a job outside our program were dim.

    Opportunities for second chances are few for people like Lorenzo. Homeboy Industries is about the only game in town. Most employers just aren’t willing to look beyond the dumbest or worst thing someone has done.

    Another “homie” recently came to me for help after, for the third time, he was let go from a job because his employer had discovered he’d done five years in prison. He told me the boss said, “You’re one of our best workers, but we have to let you go.” Then, with a desperate sadness, the young man added: “Damn, G. No one told me I’d be getting a life sentence of no work.”

    The business of second chances is everybody’s business. We lose our right to be surprised that California has the highest recidivism rate in the country if we refuse to hire folks who have taken responsibility for their crimes and have done their time.

    Even in this alarming economic climate, where the pool of prospective employees is larger than ever, we need to find the moral imperative as a society to secure places in our workforce for those who just need a chance to prove themselves. This can’t be the concern only of a large gang rehab center; it must also be part of our collective response to keep our streets safe and our communities healthy.

    As a society, we come up lacking in many of the marks of compassion and wisdom by which we measure ourselves as civilized.

    We are among the handful of countries that has difficulty distinguishing juveniles from adults where crime is concerned. We are convinced that if a child commits an adult crime, that kid is magically transformed into an adult. Consequently, we try juveniles as adults. We still execute people. And we belong to a small, exclusive club of countries that brands felons forever and denies them voting rights, access to employment and, sometimes, even housing.

    Delegations from all over the world visit Homeboy Industries and scratch their heads as we tell them of our difficulty in placing our people in jobs after their time with us. Americans’ seeming refusal to believe in a person’s ability to redeem himself strikes these folks as foreign indeed.

  • Written by virtualsatsang

    May 13, 2011 at 8:41 am

    Pose Mate Yoga Mat from 1979

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    A year after the ad for the 4-pound New Age yoga mat appeared in the Yoga Journal, here’s an ad for a rubber mat that looks more like contemporary mats. The Pose Mate mat’s dimensions are comparable to current models (24″ x 72″), although it’s a bit on the thin side: at 3/32″ thick, unlike the New Age mat, it’s “not a cushion”.

    In comparison, the mat I like to use these days comes in at 4.0 lbs, and has the following dimensions: 71” x 24” x 3/16”.

    (From the Sep/Oct 1979 issue of the Yoga Journal. Adjusting for inflation, $9 in 1979 would be equivalent to $27 in 2009.)

    Pose Mate Yoga Mat from 1979

    Written by virtualsatsang

    March 9, 2011 at 7:54 am

    Posted in History, Yoga

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