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On becoming an amateur yogi

Posted: January 31, 2013 3:24 p.m.
Updated: February 1, 2013 5:00 a.m.

One of my new goals in life is to become an amateur yogi.

Amateur, solely, because I probably will not take the time to learn every single aspect of the tenets of spiritual practice/philosophy associated with various styles of yoga or Sanskrit, simply because I am already rooted in another spiritual practice.

I love the meditation aspect of the yogic lifestyle. What I’m more interested in, however, is the modern-day asana, the physical aspect of yoga. An asana is one of the eight limbs of yoga. Asana means seat, which has led many to believe, with evidence of the other seven limbs, that physical yoga is a modern practice. It is my understanding that yoga simply fosters a better meditation practice, the most important practice of a yogi. Indian pioneers and masters of meditation often sat cross-legged in their daily meditation practices which spurred what we now know as yoga.

Yoga -- the physical practice and the lifestyle -- has become popular all over the world. It is a beautiful strengthening of mind, body and spirit through a series of postures, breaths and possibly meditations.

We hear mixed reviews about yoga: some say it’s completely changed their life, others have sustained serious injury. Although the benefits of the physical practice of yoga seem to lure people into trying it out -- relaxation, strength, more focus, flexibility -- yoga is not as easy as people think. Those interested need proper education about how to perform the poses, what each pose can affect in the body and the risks associated with the practice.

It is suggested that yoga not be sought after “by a general class,” according to a 2012 New York Times article “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.”

Most people should give up yoga altogether, long-time yoga teacher Glen Black said.

“Yoga is for people who are generally in good physical condition. Or it can be used therapeutically,” Black said.

Black studied yoga and meditation in India and allegedly has a clientele list of celebrities and “prominent gurus.” Writer William Broad, author of the New York Times piece, sought the advice of Glen Black, after Broad sustained injuries, causing him to lose his faith that only good things came from the practice of yoga. Black is apparently the go-to man in regard to yoga injuries and sustained one himself after 40 years of “careful” practice.

The idea of a lifelong asana practice that incorporates mind and body in such a small space appeals to me, still. You don’t need machines or weights, you don’t even really need a mat, though it’s helpful. You can do it anytime without assistance from an outside source; it’s just you and your body -- a meditation in its own right. That’s probably why I get extreme joy from Pilates -- it’s the same sort of idea, using your body weight as resistance. It’s important to do both out of a place of awareness rather than ability to say you’ve can do this pose or that pose. The quiet and the focus experienced, and the challenge that comes from aspiring to do any set of yoga poses is truly encouraging -- encouraging enough for one to dedicate the rest of their life practicing art.

There is great risk, however, there have been sporadic cases of young adults having strokes after yoga practice.

Willibald Nagler, a spinal rehabilitation expert at Cornell University Medical College, wrote about a seemingly healthy 28-year-old woman that suffered a stroke while doing “the wheel,” in which a person lies on their back and then lifts their body into a semicircular arc resting on hands and feet. She can walk now, after rehabilitation, but her left arm is hardly usable and her left eye droops. There have been other cases of young adults permanently affected in various ways by too strenuous or holding yoga poses inappropriately or for too long.

Embarrassment about pain from yoga practice is just seeing the light, according to Broad’s article. Black spoke of yoga teachers who taught on their back because their back pain was too strong. He also told Broad the story of a man whose ribs “gave way” immediately after he went into a spinal twist pose.

“Underlying” physical weaknesses “inevitably” create injury, from some, Black said; for others, it is long-term abuse. Ego however, as Black believes, has caused many more to unnecessarily exert themselves, in a practice that’s meant to connect the mind and body and create awareness.

 “It’s ego,” he said. “The whole point of yoga is to get rid of ego.”

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