Have you ever tried yoga?

This is one of the first questions people ask me when I tell them I’ve had problems with back pain, and I always feel a little embarrassed when I have to tell them that yes, I’ve tried it, and no, I didn’t really like it.

It’s awkward because the person asking is usually really enthusiastic about yoga, and because it has such a great reputation.  After all, yoga has connotations with not only physical but emotional wellness.

For me, yoga has been painful because I have always been inflexible.  I managed to keep it at bay during my running days by stretching religiously, but in shape or not, it is next to impossible for me to stretch without doing some kind of cardiovascular warm-up.  (These days, when I say stretch, I’m talking about doing little movements that a pain-free person probably wouldn’t even notice.  Some days tying my shoes counts as a stretch).

I once attended a pain clinic at a very prestigious Boston rehabilitation center.  The whole experience actually sucked (we’ll talk about that later), but the worst part of it was the four times a week yoga class.  All of the other eleven pain patients and I would end up in more pain by the end of every class.  By the end of my three weeks there, we were unanimously convincing the instructor to teach us an extra tai chi class every time the schedule said it was time for yoga.  We actually liked tai chi because it involved motion, which turned out to be much easier than holding one static pose.  We also probably liked it because it helped get our circulation going.

At any rate, I tried to keep my dislike of yoga on the DL among non-pain-afflicted people.  That is, until I saw this:

New York Times: How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body

Now I don’t want to offend anyone who loves yoga, because I’ve only tried it with two different teachers, and I’m aware there are different schools of thought and ways to do yoga.  But for me, this article touched upon a lot of the things I’d been wondering about.

The article is based largely on interviews with Glenn Black, a yoga teacher who’s been practicing for four decades. Black’s basic point is that while yoga has some applications, the rate at which its popularity has grown in this country has not kept pace with the numbers of qualified teachers, and it is not always taught with enough care.

Some of the most telling quotes:

“Not just students but celebrated teachers too, Black said, injure themselves in droves because most have underlying physical weaknesses or problems that make serious injury all but inevitable. Instead of doing yoga, ‘they need to be doing a specific range of motions for articulation, for organ condition,’ he said, to strengthen weak parts of the body.

“‘Yoga is for people in good physical condition. Or it can be used therapeutically. It’s controversial to say, but it really shouldn’t be used for a general class.'”

In other words, yoga shouldn’t be one-size fits all.  Someone with any kind of injury shouldn’t be going to a class of fifteen people and trying to keep up.  Black says,

“’Today many schools of yoga are just about pushing people… You can’t believe what’s going on — teachers jumping on people, pushing and pulling and saying, ‘You should be able to do this by now.’ It has to do with their egos.’”

The article tells of yoga teachers who tore their Achilles tendons by holding Downward Dog for too long over too many years, and even of a very small number of people who suffered a stroke due to the extreme neck movements that occur during some poses.  Black talks about instructors who had been teaching yoga for decades who’d hurt their backs and hip joints so badly that they now taught classes lying down on a mat.

I know there are a lot of people out there who really love yoga and have had a totally different experience than me.  I guess what I’m saying is that the expectation that everyone will totally love yoga and find it a transformative experience is probably  bad.  That’s what leads beginners to pull muscles during class, because they went in with some kind of underlying structural weakness and tried to keep up with everyone else.  That’s what leads the master teachers to continue to teach even after their doctors have warned them that some of the poses they’re doing can be damaging to their hips.

I think it’s possible that I would like some forms of yoga if I could do things my way.  I would have to do a real warm-up first, and I would probably want to be alone with a teacher or with a very small group of people.  Someone with chronic pain especially needs to take things at his or her own pace.  (Trust me– you can’t rush through things when you’re living with chronic pain.  Things have to take as long as they need.  If you try to ignore your gut feeling and rush, it ends up backfiring every time).

Then again, I know I am partly just saying that as a concession to my friends who actually like yoga.  Part of me is genuinely curious why people enjoy it so much.  But it’s also very hard to admit that you’re that narrow-minded person who doesn’t like yoga.