Normally, my yoga class is an oasis of calm. We unroll our mats, gather our props, sit in a comfortable posture — relaxing, breathing, quieting our busy brains — and wait in silence for the teacher to begin.
Not last week. Holy Patanjali! A bomb had been dropped, and everyone was buzzing — not just in my yoga studio, but across the country: "Did you see the piece in the Times?" "It was great!" "It was awful!" "Idiotic!" "Sensational!" "Can you believe that guy?"
That guy is William J. Broad, author of a highly inflammatory article in the Jan. 8 New York Times Sunday magazine that has turned the yoga community upside down. Why? Because Broad focuses almost exclusively on the damage yoga can do if you're not careful — and sometimes, even if you are.
"A healthy women of 28 suffered a stroke while doing a yoga position known as the wheel," he writes, citing case after case of injuries, even though the sum total of documented yoga injuries is puny compared to running, basketball and other athletic endeavors.
Broad isn't interested in comparative studies. His article, adapted from his new book "The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards," due in February, exists to warn people that "a number of commonly taught yoga poses are inherently risky." Shoulder stand can "wreck havoc on the brain." Spinal twists can paralyze you. Bikram yoga can "raise the risk of overstretching, muscle damage and torn cartilage." And so on ...
A story in The New York Times on the possibility of nuclear war with Iran gets 30 comments on a good day. Broad's feature, called "All Bent Out of Shape: The Problem With Yoga," had an astounding 734 comments within the first few days, many of them criticizing Broad for his narrow-minded view that ignored the benefits and philosophy of yoga in favor of the dangers:
Amy from Montpelier, Vt., was "appalled by his lack of research" and resented "the sensational and misleading photos" that showed the absolute wrong way to do popular yoga poses.
Charles from San Antonio called the article "deceptive and misleading and represents junk science ... do not let this drivel discourage you from doing yoga."
"I started Bikram yoga when I was 64, about two years ago," writes injury-free Judy T. "My body has been transformed from being crippled and overweight to feeling energetic, strong and thin."
"I walked out of one of my first yoga classes with a double hernia," says Mike B. from Del Mar, Calif.
Annie from San Francisco thought Broad's article was "a great read." So did Clint, who prefers weight training to yoga: "Why put yourself in awkward, unnatural postures?"
And finally, before I offer my own opinions and invite yours, here's the wisest-of-all reactions from Karan of Los Angeles:
"It's not yoga that injures you, it's you that injures you. It's you not listening, it's you not choosing the right teacher, it's you not being patient, it's you not listening to your body, it's you not taking responsibility, it's you passing your power to others."
ALL EXERCISE INVOLVES RISK. People can, and do, injure themselves doing all sorts of physical activities. Broad begins by saying he believed yoga could never harm you. That is stupid and naive. In truth, the greatest health risks come from doing no exercise at all.
YOGA IN AMERICA HAS BECOME A COMPETITIVE SPORT. Yoga is an ancient, profound philosophy that connects body and mind with breath and leads to a calmer, healthier, happier life. As Broad's flawed article rightly points out, "If you do it with ego or obsession, you'll end up causing problems." The injuries he dwells on can, for the most part, be prevented if you do yoga mindfully, with a master teacher, learn to pace yourself and never push into pain. Many teachers — especially in gyms — are woefully underqualified and can push you into postures that hurt you. Don't let them.
YOGA ISN'T THE ENEMY. Ignorance is. Do it with awareness, with ahimsa (nonviolence: the first principal of yoga.) Don't overdo it. Every body is different. When you accept your limitations, your joy is boundless.
And where do you stand?
ENERGY EXPRESS-O! ANOTHER FAVORITE COMMENT
"First, I sprained my ankle, and then I broke it and needed surgery. But I am not giving it up. Soccer is fun." — Paul from Boston
Marilynn Preston — fitness expert, personal trainer and speaker on healthy lifestyle issues — is the creator of Energy Express, the longest-running syndicated fitness column in the country. She has a website, http://marilynnpreston.com and welcomes reader questions, which can be sent to MyEnergyExpress@aol.com. To find out more about Preston and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.