Top Five Ways of Derailing a Conversation about Yoga Safety

(King and Queen Update #1)

March 2, 2015    BY Matthew Remski

Several ideas in this article first appeared here.

So what happens when you publish a nuanced analysis of the safety of headstand and shoulderstand in global studio-based yoga culture, featuring the voices of five qualified commentators?

  1. You get a lot of views.
  2. You provoke a lot of emotions.
  3. Several classic ways of derailing an uncomfortable topic are instantly revealed.
  4. Emotions + derailments = repeat number one.

The response to “King and Queen No More?” was voluminous, spread over a thousand threads, and expressed in at least a dozen languages. It’s difficult to analyze, but in my own unscientific survey, the sentiments seemed equally divided.

The response to “King and Queen No More?” was voluminous, spread over a thousand threads

On the positive side, many readers appreciated the biomechanical deconstruction of two iconic poses. They wrote of their reticence around their own qualifications to practice or teach them safely in group settings. They felt that the ambivalence of skilled anatomists on the issue of cervical load-bearing activity—whether it’s appropriate at all, as well as how much is appropriate, for how long, and for whom—meant that the poses are better left on the shelf, especially if alternatives are available. Finally: Many expressed relief that the very poses they correlate with their pain or injury are now drawing closer scrutiny.

On the other side, many commenters re-pledged their allegiance to the King and Queen, and wrote of their gratitude for the many blessings they bestow. Some decried the micromanagement of the discourse by posture-crats who are losing sight of yoga’s larger purpose. Some lambasted the specter of yoga-teacher-as-helicopter-parent. Some argued for personal responsibility over bubble-wrapping each student against the precious chance of transcending fear and limitation. In the end, many detractors settled on the permissive side of the risk/benefit question, unconvinced that the cautions of Miller, Mitchell and Theoret carried sufficient weight to justify Leena Cressman’s decision to remove the postures from her studio’s classes.

Students of the Iyengar method wrote in to say that they learn these poses under strict safety guidelines, and wished that I had consulted with their senior instructors before posting. This is a fair criticism that I’ll be addressing in update number two. It’s true, in contrast to the drop-in visitors at many Sivananda centers who are asked to balance on their heads in the first class, an Iyengar student might work for more than two years in standing poses and shoulderstand variations before being allowed to even approach full headstand. In a few weeks, I’ll describe this Iyengar inversion journey a little bit, while trying to get some answers as to why the system claims that bearing weight on the cervical spine would ever be therapeutic, or even advisable. One senior instructor in the U.S. reportedly teaches that when beginning, 30% of the weight of the body should be borne on the head, and 70% on the forearms. As the student progresses, those percentages should gradually reverse. I’ll try to find out why anyone thinks this is a good idea.

Given the absence of hard data on how many people may or may not be injuring themselves through cervical loading in asana class, I respect the positions of both fans and skeptics of the poses. But I am also interested in how this experiential divide reflects an unspoken tension in the politics of modern postural yoga.

Positive responses to the critical scrutiny of posture safety seem to stake out a more collectivist approach to how we learn and know things. Distrustful of fiats from traditions seen as myopic, or gurus seen as autocrats, pro-scrutinizers advocate for interdisciplinary education, while thinking of practice as a culture more than an individual pursuit.

Negative responses are more libertarian, claiming that the true empowerment yoga offers comes from total freedom of choice, and that the “ego” targeted by practice cannot be challenged when choice is restricted by superegoic regulation. They argue that viveka (discernment) is a sleeping faculty to be awoken by “listening to your body," and they resist any intrusion into that process.

Watching this argument unfold is like watching liberal democracy wrestle out its individual/group tensions on a 2-by-6-inch pad of sticky rubber. The stakes with regard to the metaphysics of selfhood are high: To what degree can we realize that our self-inquiry must at times depend upon others?

Watching this argument unfold is like watching liberal democracy wrestle out its individual/group tensions on a 2-by-6-inch pad of sticky rubber.

Alongside the reasonable dispute, there’s a raft of responses that minimize, deflect, and derail the focus of the conversation altogether. I've collated a little list of my favorites from over the past two weeks, along with descriptive call-outs. They happen to echo many responses I’ve heard over the past eighteen months of research , and I’m particularly attuned to them because most of them were in my own personal speak-to-the-hand repertoire several years ago.

I don’t think these responses are intentionally tin-eared or cruel. If you study Non-Violent Communication a little (which might be enough, given how irritating it can be) it becomes apparent that these strategies are largely unconscious, pervasive throughout human dialogue, and especially amplified when emotions run hot. Nonetheless, I have this dream that I’ll never hear them again. We’ll see how that goes.

1. “Asana is not Yoga.” (Call-out: dismissal and minimization.)
This pious expression of scorn for any discussion of biomechanics and safety drags a whole metaphysics thumping along behind it that basically says that focusing on bodily safety is distracting from higher purposes. But the fact is that asana practice is the primary threshold to yogic self-inquiry across the globe today. Shouldn't darkening that door employ all of the techniques of discernment that yoga offers? Nobody who's serious about practice claims that asana covers the entire yogic path. Trying to understand whether cervical loading is therapeutic or dangerous doesn't take anything away from the aspirations people have toward psychic or spiritual liberation.

2. “If you get injured, you  weren't  doing yoga.” (Call-out: Blaming and shaming.)
This is both presumptuous and uneducated. Firstly, even if we could all agree on what “doing yoga” means, nobody has access to another person’s internal state on their mat. And if the hundred-plus interviews I've already conducted are at all representative, there are large numbers of practitioners who report getting injured at the height of their intelligence in practice: maintaining smooth breath, not feeling as though they are striving, nurturing strong and clear feelings of equanimity or devotion, and generally following the best instructions they've been given with great faith and care.

The bald fact is that there are many, many yoga practitioners who have been injured by working in full mindfulness according to the instructions they've received from sources they believe to be reputable. And we’re not even talking about the many streams of yoga that accept pain as a necessary, and even desirable mechanism of practice.

The bald fact is that there are many, many yoga practitioners who have been injured by working in full mindfulness.

Sticky fact: You can absolutely injure yourself while experiencing deep strains of yogic communion. Here’s where the nervous system has some strange properties to understand and navigate. The mechanisms of nociception (pain perception) can be distracted, turned off, or confused by nervous tissue designed to register more benign sensations of heat, compression, or movement. This is surely at play in the several interviews I've done with people who have injured themselves in shoulderstand and plow. One displaced a cervical vertebra so profoundly that it partially severed his spinal cord, and the other lost two lower front teeth from compressive nerve damage. These practitioners reported peaceful breathing, profound relaxation, and spiritual bliss in those postures. In other words, as with extreme sports or drug use, long-term yoga injury can easily be the result of transient yogic pleasure. But that’s another article.

3. “People shouldn’t get injured, because Patanjali.” (Call-out: Teflon sanctimony.)
Related to number one, but with some extra yogi sauce. The three sutras related to asana practice tell us nothing about the appropriateness of cervical-loading. Referencing sthira and sukham is always a good idea generally, but it’s too vague to be of any concrete help to the practitioner preparing for headstand. It’s like expecting the sutras on satya (truthfulness) and their medieval commentaries to really help us navigate our multiple constructed identities at work, on social media, and in family life. The devil is in the details, as they say—and the details are changing all the time.

4. “People get injured crossing the street or playing tennis.” (Call-out: false comparisons.)
The entire marketing of Modern Postural Yoga hinges on the claim of therapeutic value. Most practitioners are attracted by the promised outcome of holistic health. Nobody starts playing tennis based upon the therapeutic claims of tennis coaches or the spiritual glow of John McEnroe. Bjorn Borg—maybe.

I think the comparison is a lazy way out of probing deeper. It’s becoming clear that despite the best intentions of early 20th century yoga therapy pioneers, many of the vestigial medieval goals, methods, and attitudes of hatha yoga are in no way “therapeutic." Yet they echo through the culture in every juice cleanse, appeal totapas, cranked thermostat, and joint-tearing contortion. Appeals to austerity can be useful, but they can also allow many practitioners to join certain ascetics of old (and perhaps the Crossfitters of today) in their attempts to punish or transcend the body in order to free the mind.

5. “Headstand and shoulderstand haven't injured me, and haven't injured anyone I know.”  (Call-out: self-referral + La-La-La-Happy-Place.)
If you’ve had a good run at cervical weight-bearing inversions so far, that’s great. If you have anecdotal evidence that other practitioners have done well with them too, fantastic. But neither observation has anything to do with the biomechanical issues raised, and how these might impact the safety of a general population that wants to invert.

A simple analogy might show how insensitive this self-referring strategy can actually be.

I can understand wanting to pipe up if one feels besieged by considerations that are hard to digest, or cast doubt on treasured aspects of one’s practice. I can understand the political and economic objectives of trying to remind readers that safety considerations about postures shouldn't detract from people’s general enthusiasm for the many paths of yoga. But a simple analogy might show how insensitive this self-referring strategy can actually be.

Imagine that this discussion wasn't about yoga safety, but that I was seeking out and reporting on factors involved in domestic violence. I would be reporting causes and conditions as accurately as I could. There would be so many questions to consider. Why do some people abuse others? What are the gendered and social mechanisms of abuse? Why do some people struggle to leave abusive situations?

Imagine then that the self-referrer chimes in with “Well that’s not what a loving relationship should be like at all. In my marriage, we cuddle a lot and leave notes in each other’s lunchboxes. We love brunch, long walks on the beach, fine merlot, and all the good things in life.”

Okay. It sounds like you have a good relationship. But we were talking about factors involved in domestic violence. Why did you change the subject?

There’s no doubt that this whole discussion is triggering for many yoga people. Asanas are highly personal and subjective experiences. They are intimate and transformative. They become indistinguishable from the flesh that grows into them.

Asanas are brave gestures towards personal autonomy for so many who have clawed their way out of disembodiment and alienation. The simple magic of asana, which Iyengar and others have been so good at evangelizing, consists of no less than this: You have a body (or you are a body), and that body can learn to reach beyond the cramp of fear to expand, flow, and secrete the curious and unique nectar of a changed life.

I’ll bet that the yoga of good conversation will help.

Which is why it would seem that for the foreseeable future, talking about physical safety in yoga may remain as contentious as talking about the role of the state in regulating religious freedom. I’ll bet that the yoga of good conversation will help.

Matthew Remski
Matthew Remski has practiced meditation since 1996 and asana since 2000. He’s taught yoga, yoga philosophy, and ayurveda in Toronto and beyond since 2005. He maintains an active ayurveda consultation practice from his home, which he shares with his partner Alix, son Jacob, and someone else who's on the way. He’s authored several books on yoga and related subjects, and is working toward completing What Are We Actually Doing in Asana?—an examination of pain, injury, and healing in modern... Read more>>

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