Dear Dear Mr Broad.....or Perspectives on loosey goosey hips and making safety sensational! And to my yoga friends.....a response to some of the issues raised in Mr Broad’s recent article
So Mr Broad, science writer of the NYT has done it again. And this time, there is some smoke to his fire and brimstone. Not to dismiss his other rants and alarm bells on yoga safety as pure poppy cock but many of us plain, ordinary run of the mill yoga teachers wish he had other “experts” , wiser teachers and some decent body mind anatomy gurus to consult on some of his saner and more logical claims.
Much of what he has said in his book is – my personal opinion – clouded by the fact that his sources are part of the endemic safety problem, which I see as systematised, repetitive positions that have little heritage in yoga and don’t fit into any reasonable definition of the word “yoga”. More training, wiser training he bleets!– absolutely, but let’s not just add fuel to the fire because those that train or are held as educational experts don’t necessarily understand why these issues are arising. More men showing up in emergency rooms because of yoga!, Oh my heart bleeds for them. Could it not be that these particular characters overdid it in a macho sort of way and are not used to taking care of themselves other than scream “emergency!”. That particular article created much amused third eye rolling among more experienced and mellow women and men practitioners.
But I digress. And I do not want you to dismiss some of the information that he presents in his newest article in the New York Times. The hip, SI issue in women and some men has been a concern of many of us over the last 2 decades. There is a bizarre denial in copyrighted yoga about the relationship to certain ways of practicing and its long term impact on hip joints. But I hasten to say certain types of repetitive, sytematised practice that, for example, overuse standing poses and surya namaskar sequences. Many of us believe that it’s more particularly the intention and the attention that is applied in yoga asana practice that is the root of the issue. One can easily create problem poses. How many times did I have to undo the damage done by Mr Broads’ accusations around the demon pose parsvokanasana for terrified individual yogis? After reading his first article/book these folks felt that they were doomed to lower back pain if they even attempted this relatively innocuous and often quite helpful pose. If practiced with clarity of intention, anatomical understanding and kindness, this pose although not a very old one in yoga text terms, can actually help relieve back pain and support healthy joints.
But our problem is with the dim-witted way we limit ourselves to a myopic understanding of the body by seeing it in terms of poses and performance and constantly moving it out of a bigger context of yoga history and as an evolving human bi-ped in the 21st century. Nowhere is this better put in context than by Emily Conrad, creator of Continuum Movement, who has always expressed doubts about the way some of our unconscious gymnastic interpretation of yoga is harming us.
My concern has always been with the ingenious ways we become self-limiting; and how all our various cultures define the parameters of what is knowable. Western culture, in particular, has brought about the industrialization of the body, with a devastating and alienating effect. For us, mechanical, repetitive movement is accepted as desirable, and this mechanization lies at the core of how we live and describe our world. Does this have any connection to a flowing vital process called a human being, whose form is based on the movement of water?
Iain MacGilchrist – literary scholar, psychiatrist and philosopher – would probably concur with this portrayal of our disembodied 21st century existence in his recent book called the Master and his Emissary, a must for those who are unravelling the myths around embodiment in an overly left brain dominant yoga world. In this industrialization of the body, and with our dwarfed right hemispheres, we lack the contextual, ambiguous, visceral connection of a more balanced hemispheric orientation. The consequence is that much of our exercise motif is about control and domination of the body not respect, enquiry and understanding.
I include myself in this tendency in earlier decades, and have lived in fear that I would be heading for an inevitable early hip replacement after my years in the Iyengar world in the 70s and 80s. We did some pretty nutty things with our bodies in those days in the spirit of exploration. Not necessarily what BKS ordered but in the spirit of enquiry and youth, we stood on each others femurs, did standing poses til we would almost faint, forced forward bends in the ridiculous pursuit of...... I am not really sure what! You could say perhaps that youthful zest could have been chanelled into more destructive pursuits and you could also say that there was then, and there has continued to be major progress and discoveries in some areas of yoga anatomy and alignment in these communities. However, this hip issue is not being sufficiently addressed.
In the last 20 years, there have been many, many early hip replacements in this community and others, and endless amounts of SI dysfunction especially among – although not confined to- noodlier women who push themselves muscularly and intensely. For many years, in workshops I have talked about this as a 3rd chakra imbalance and often find a hardness and pushing quality around the kidneys and adrenals in hard core Iyengar, Anusara and much Vinyasa flow and Ashtanga practitioners. It was only meditation and some common sense regarding alignment gleaned from other movement modalities* and my own practice, that lead me to understand that this driven way of doing yoga was entirely unnecessary and excessively unkind. (I do have many friends in the above systems who have an exquisite understanding of the joints but they tend to be on the edges of the system and not towing the entire party line)
Part of our industrial view of the body is the assumption that “one size fits all” – Paul Grilley debunks this myth clearly in relation to hips in his Anatomy of Yoga DVD. He shows how the structure and angle of the femur head and neck differs radically in individuals and makes it simply impossible to cultivate a uniform degree of flexibility in say paschimottanasana no matter how much attention is paid to the usual restrictions of hamstring, rotators and psoas. Bone just grinds bone.
On the other hand Mr Grilley’s Yin yoga and its encouragement to “hang on the joints” (my language and interpretation) causes its own set of grievances along with some undoubted charms. Once again, when something is systematized or copyrighted we need to educate ourselves to watch out for warning signals. In much of our yoga education, we put a tremendous amount of faith in the man or woman at the front of the room who “knows” instead of fostering a receptivity, a sense of self responsibility and a dialogue with our interior worlds. As Gilchrist says, the left brain is the Berlusconi voice in the body and for many in our westernised society (and not only in the West which has an enormous number of the most excellent of yoga teachers), we just love a loud voice who contains us and directs us. This is compounded by the fact that many of us sit all day, are hooked up to various technological devices and havent a clue where our left foot or right foot is most of the time. We come to yoga, inert, passive and wanting to be shaken and stirred. Loud clear voices and intense muscle-oriented poses have a great allure.
One of the poses implicated as guilty in the hip debacle article is tadasana. Why tadasana? More to the point - How tadasana? This standing position has as many variants as the number of stars in terms of how it is taught, many of them conducive to a sense of integrity, groundedness and balance. However when the tailbone is encouraged to descend – note, I don’t even say tuck, but descend – all manner of problems arise over the years in the pelvis, particularly the female pelvis. This is a subject that truly upsets me (Can you sense me bouncing up and down on said hip joints as I write this!) as I meet student after student who has distorted their natural pelvis in an attempt to live upto someone else’s ideal of the pose or their strange notion of bipedal posture. This accompanied by overworking the gluteus muscles and gripping in the tailbone area creates a weird kind of battle between groin and sacrum and shifts the body into a muscularly controlled position rather than a bone and breath oriented place of ease. From here, it’s usually a few weeks or a few years away from SI instability and grinding in the hip joints. When the basis of this pose is then transferred into standing poses and other postures, it’s amazing there aren’t even more hip injuries and complaints.
Recently in Cuba, we were having a discussion along these lines and I encouraged folks not to adopt systems of yoga that compromise their natural latino posture, (another form of commercialised colonialism in my not so humble opinion), not to tuck the tail bone and to actually allow belly and butt to be released from westernised cultural biases and tyranny. A student came upto me and hugged me very hard. – They love hugging in Cuba! “ Thankyou” she said. “My teacher keeps telling me to lengthen my tailbone and says my hips will feel better – they don’t! they never have, neither does my back when I follow his instructions, but now I have it confirmed that the way I naturally stand, which feels great, is actually OK......Thank you”
We have to remember that most of our popular standing poses were evolved by men primarily for men and do not accommodate the female pelvis which is usually larger and broader in relation to the base of support. Constantly asking students to put heel in line with arch or heel in line with heel, can create problems for some women. Skilful use of the inner body and core can mitigate some of the distortion and torque on the pelvis but in a ubiquitous pose like triangle, jamming on both the front and back hip and tension in the SI joint is very de rigeur! This can be compounded by over use of the muscular structure around pelvis and femur, especially the rotators and thighs, creating a situation where the muscles are in battle with the bones. I don’t buy Mr Broads references or his (seemingly one and only)l teacher source Michaelle Edward’s to more muscular buttock support as being the answer to this issue - too often its part of the problem.
Triangle is my bete noir. It’s not a beginners pose, it requires a sophiscated understanding of the body and it does proportionately much more damage to women than men whose pelvises are narrower and generally more stable. Generally – as I have heard of several men who have had early hip replacements who I know were on a steady and intense daily diet of triangle poses. Learning to sense the joint space and tap into it, breathe into it as if that space is its own oracle is one way to prevent compression in this pose but this requires a willingness to embrace the subtle and let go of the desire to dominate or control the body. Even throwing out some of the retarded instructions that students have taken as gospel for years like – “Imagine yourself between 2 planes of glass” “Kick the hips to the side” and simply doing the poses with less frequency and more enquiry and imagination would go a long way to prevent much of the damage that is currently being done. Until relatively recently, students were/are often advised to keep the pelvis completely even in triangle pose which is not kinesiologically desirable or possible. The stress will inevitably end up in the hip joint or the SI or even in the torque of the knee, or all 3 places!
Ironically the poses that Broad managed to make students quake at the thought of, in his book -inverted poses - are actually excellent for balancing the hips and supporting the joints from underneath. These poses require skill, experience and sensitivity to teach but these are some of the greatest gifts to us from the yoga asana practice, and have helped many women gymnasts and dancers regain stability and sensitivity in damaged hips as part of a wholistic asana practice. Many students with whiplash, heart and eye conditions, neck and shoulder problems may never be able to do the more traditional inverted poses but some form of elevating the legs, turning things upside down, and taking the weight off the hip joints in our sedentary, left brain heavy world is if not essential, very desirable.
So let us cultivate a practice that honours the being and does not attack the pose either with inner vim and vigor or with harsh and simplistic external critiques. Let’s take some of this information not as just another splash of statistics and go deeper, do some serious research and fez upto the fact that we need to find a kinder more curious ways to take care of the pelvis, evolve as 21st century bipeds, and explore this ancient and ever-changing practice. Can we see it as a way of living, pursuing truth, not a series of random poses some of which have become holy cows without any real justification?
Mr Broad, thank you for using your post as science correspondent of the prestigious NYT to alert people to the hip issues. In future, please talk to a wider sweep of teachers and practitioners before you start sending the yoga bejesuz out into the mainstream. I am going to have to deal with another swollen inbox after your recent article. There are a lot of wise beings out there that you seem to never consult. Is this your role in life to stir things up without adequate information and with an intent to titillate, or even to put people off yoga all together?
Mary has been teaching yoga since 1985 nationally and internationally and working with the Cuban yoga community since 1998. She is currently relieved to see that in a recent xray her hips are still in reasonable nick despite the damage done in youth through her initial approach to yoga and many other things besides. Mary wishes to apologise to her early students for too many triangles and not enough common sense. www.maryyoga.com
* So here are some of the folks that have been incredibly helpful to me and a generation of yoga teachers
– Angela Farmer and Victor van Kooten who challenged many of the premises of systematized left brain yoga and saved me – from myself!
- Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen whose Body Mind Centering has done just that! and her work on developmental movement is an essential study for would be and current yoga teachers http://www.bodymindcentering.com
- Moshe Feldenkrais and specificially his work in the pelvis
- Andrea Olsen and her wonderful work in dance and experiential anatomy including her more recent books on evolutionary/ecological anatomy.
- Thomas Myers and his Anatomy Trains has helped us move to a more complete, intelligent understanding of movement and could greatly enhance -along with Andrea -the anatomy sections of our current yoga teacher trainings.
- Some of the earlier Pilates explorers (late 80s – early 90s) like Lynne Uretsky, who combined sophisticated somatic work with their understanding of inner core support. Now its more of a mixed bag in terms of what is offered in pilates instruction. Seek the multifaceted teachers out!
- Emily Conrad as quoted above http://www.continuummovement.com
- Postural work of yoga teachers Francois Rouault, Jean Couch, Angelika Thusius and many, many more.......
and all the many marvellous teachers and practitioners out there across this country and the world who day by day do their practice, investigate and share, treating themselves and their students with the same respect, humility and kindness as the great gurus of yoga’s ancient past.