Saturday, January 7, 2012

More Questions. Few Answers. On the NYT's "How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body" article and more

I'm sure most of you have already read/been irked by the NYT's critique of yoga, "How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body." It definitely ruffled a few of my feathers, largely because most of the author's "evidence" for the evils of yoga is anecdotal. I've no doubt that there are already many good responses published, such as that of The Reluctant Ashtangi, so I'll leave the rebuttals to others.

(I do feel I must point out that although the author lumps Bikram Yoga in with other yoga series, none of the postures demonized in the article are done in Bikram (I don't think Cobra referred to in the article is the one done in Bikram; the description evokes Upward Dog, often labeled Cobra in non-Bikram classes.).)

What I am more interested in is where the glimmer of truth lies (and I think there's a glimmer of it in all arguments advanced!). Bikram has long touted the safety of his series, claiming that it is a beginners series. Teachers of his yoga are trained to give extensive description of the postures--how to enter and exit, as well as the benefits received from each one. Because you simply stand between each posture instead of moving into a sun salutation or flowing rapidly to another posture, there's less the chance of "getting behind" and injuring yourself in a rush to catch up. I would think that the series is as safe as humanly possible, even for those who don't happen to have much body/self-awareness. Despite the anti-Bikram sentiment that one might interpret in my previous post, I am a Bikramite through and through and recognize the many benefits of this series.

Chapel Hill, Sedona, at sunset
The timing of this anti-yoga article is coincidental, however, considering only two days ago I took a class that left me wondering about the safety factor. I just returned from a trip to Sedona, AZ, where I enjoyed a few days of its rejuvenating, warm red rocks. There is no Bikram studio in Sedona, so after a couple of days, I tried the local "hot yoga" studio to loosen up my hiking-tight hamstrings and shoulders.

I went in with an open mind--pretty easy to do, considering how burned up I've been lately about what I perceive as arrogance on Bikram's part for his insistence on TM-ing, R-ing, and Copyrighting his series. I asked the instructor what type of yoga class she taught and that I was familiar with Bikram. She said her studio offered a style of yoga taught by Bikram's nephew, Sumit, who has apparently made a small name for himself in the hot yoga world. She said it combined Vinyasa with some Bikram poses.

And... that's exactly what it was. The room was lovely--juicy, just uncomfortably warm at first, and it reached a pleasantly toasty temperature midway through the series due to the heater, humidifier, and the many packed bodies who showed up for that weekday morning class.  I was initially trained in Ashtanga, and I would characterize most of the class as being "flow" Ashtanga--postures like Warrior series, Triangle, etc were held momentarily as we "flowed" through sun salutations. This was almost randomly interspersed with postures from the Bikram series--all of a sudden, we'd stop, do Half-moon/Awkward/Eagle, go back to flowing, then do the balancing series, go back to flowing, etc.

I was able to retain my non-judgmental mind for most of the class. The flow-y stuff was initially fun. Then, however,  I realized we really weren't holding the postures very long. The energy I was exerting was going not into a posture. It seemed to evaporate as I moved--quickly! as if we were running out of time!--from one posture to the next. The teacher talked a lot, though it was mostly motivational/hippie-spiritual and less about how to get into and out of the postures, or what to do if I got tired. If I hadn't had a lot of Ashtanga experience, I wouldn't have known what I was doing. I would be looking around and struggling to catch up, much less get a sense of what I was supposed to be getting out of the postures! Talk about an injury-inviting experience.

Talk, also, about an eye-opening experience. On one level, it was kinda fun! My hamstrings got stretched as they haven't in years. The part-Vinyasa, part-Bikram series kept my attention. In that sense, though, it was very American--no chance to get bored, as there was always something to occupy the mind; the poses weren't held long all. And, there wasn't much depth to it.

Different strokes for different folks, I suppose. If you are an experienced yogi, I'm sure you'd do fine in the class. For some reason, I feel compelled to make a tenuous connection between the article, my time at the hot yoga studio, and my previous post on Bikram's insistence on going after studio owners who teach too close to his series. The NYT article would seem to bolster Bikram practitioners' justification for the series and why it needs to be kept pure, taught/sold only by trained teachers.

Different strokes for different folks... or is it that some folks, afraid of being slapped with a lawsuit, feel the need to modify classes from Bikram's style so much that they lose much of the benefit and increase risk of injury?

No answers here in my first post of 2012. Is that going to be a theme for this year? No answers, just more questions? :-) Can't wait to get back into the hot (Bikram) room and find out.

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