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The Dark Side of Yoga

I was working on Wall Street when I first started practicing yoga.  During that time I suffered from severe neck and back pain, so I thought yoga would help me.  Being a novice at the time, I had no idea what the different styles of yoga were. Perhaps it was karma or a twist of fate, but the first yoga classes I took were Ashtanga-based.  Ashtanga yoga, as introduced by Pattabi Jois, is one of the most rigorous and physically challenging yoga practices in the West.

Often times I’d show up to class while a svelte, nimble ex-dancer yoga teacher would direct the yoga sequence, effortlessly demonstrating complicated yoga poses.  I applied my “no pain no gain” mindset and would grit my teeth and bear the incredible amount of discomfort and pain through the entire class.  It would take me about an hour of total strain and effort that ultimately exhausted me, but allowed me to collapse and relax in corpse pose in the last five minutes of class.

Even though I was pretty athletic, I found yoga to be somewhat awkward and strangely difficult.   I wasn’t sure if yoga was actually causing me more body pain, since I was so disconnected from my own body. Sports injuries and stress from work had me tied up in knots.   I trusted the teacher’s instructions, but often wondered why my joints hurt so bad after class.  Paradoxically, I often felt worse after practicing yoga.  It seemed like everyone but me could do the yoga postures.  Was I doing something wrong?  I practiced all-the-time and I still couldn’t touch my toes.  It made me feel inadequate. Yoga class was not a place where I felt good about myself.

It took years for me to slough off my competitive approach to yoga.  After plenty of self-flagellating classes, I started to learn how to listen to my body and respect my body’s limits.   It wasn’t till I started meditating, did I stop being so hard on myself.  That’s when my yoga practice started to transform.  I would have never dreamed of teaching yoga myself, that is, until I left Wall Street to take Yoga training at Nosara Yoga Institute in Costa Rica.  That’s where I got to experience both the yin and yang of yoga, and fell in love with gentle yoga.  It really helped me to release my Type A.  Now I know the hardcore yogis when I see them:  a strong jaw, a hardened body and a fierce look of determination.  They like their yoga fast and hard.

The way people approach life is the way people show up on their yoga mat. And yoga teachers are no exception. Some yoga teachers may lead with a sense of aggression and competition while others will promote a feeling of safety and peace. I’ve noticed that depending on your own personality type you’ll be attracted to a teacher or style that tends to emulate your own tendencies. i.e. if you are hard-core, you will like hard-core yoga.

But in the practice of Ayurveda, a Hindu system of alternative health and medicine, people who have core characteristics in their personality, like intensity and fire, should work on balancing their energy buying engaging in activities that promote the opposite effect. If you are competitive and ambitious, a gentler, softer practice would benefit you.  If you are sluggish and tend to be more sedentary, you should work towards a more active or fiery yoga practice.  It is about creating balance.  In Ayurveda yoga, the intention is to adapt the yoga to the individual, not the other way around, as you may be unconsciously reinforcing negative tendencies.

Yoga is a bag of mixed nuts.  You never know what you’re going to get, and not all yogic experiences are created equal.  There are some darker aspects of yoga that people often don’t talk about, what I call the negative side-effects of yoga.  Here are some to be aware of and how you can remediate them.

Negative Side-Effects from Yoga:

1) Injuries: In 2010, the Consumer Products Safety Commission reported that yoga-related injuries in emergency rooms and doctor’s offices rose to 7,369 .  Yoga injuries are very common.  The most common yoga injuries include neck, back, knee and shoulder injuries.  This includes torn muscles, herniated disks and carpal tunnel.  Poses like Chaturanga, an upward push-up with bent elbows, can cause extensive damage to wrists, elbows and shoulders.

** Remedy: Listen to your own body.  Don’t assume that the yoga instructor knows your body better than you do. If you experience pain or extreme discomfort, modify your pose or tell the Instructor.  Don’t be afraid to ask questions.   If you have any body pain or injuries, inform the teacher at the beginning of class so that he/she is aware and can help you modify.  Remember that the teacher is there for your health and safety.

2) Exhaustion:  Do you feel like you need a coffee or nap after yoga?  You may be exerting too much effort and strain during your yoga class.  Heat exhaustion from hot or power yoga classes may be stripping your body of electrolytes and sodium.  If you experience dizziness, fatigue, weakness, or nausea, you could very well be suffering from heat exhaustion.  Fatigue is a sign that you could be over-working your body or doing too much yoga.

** Remedy:  Move at your own pace.  Hero’s pose or child’s pose are excellent restorative postures to recoup your energy. Don’t be afraid to take breaks or even leave the studio room if you need to recover your breath or energy.  If you have soreness or lactic acid build up, take some days off yoga to rest and recover.  Drink plenty of water and be sure to get enough rest and sleep.

3) Competition: People come to yoga class for different reasons; some people want six pack abs while others want inner peace.  Many people come to yoga as a form of exercise, and approach it with the mentality of competition.  If you feel pressure in your yoga class to perform or over-exert yourself, you may be picking up on the competitive energy in the yoga room.  This kind of environment does not feel safe or nurturing.    Competitive environments are conducive to over-exertion, injury and exhaustion.  It is often influenced by the tone the yoga teacher sets in class.

** Remedy:  Fortunately or unfortunately, anyone can become a yoga teacher these days.   A  few thousand dollars is all one needs to become certified.  Teachers are human too.  Yoga instructors can over-assume, by over-adjusting or pushing their students beyond their boundaries.  You’re not there to please the teacher.  If you feel you are being pushed into pain or strain, it’s important to speak up and communicate what you’re experiencing.  Saying something as simple as “that hurts” is enough to get a teacher’s attention.

4)  Rigidity & Stagnation:  Do you practice the exact same sequence over and over again? Or possibly the same yoga DVD?  If so, you may be limiting your ability to grow and gain flexibility in other areas that aren’t being exercised.  It’s possible to stagnate or even create rigidity in your body due to repetitive movement.  Albert Einstein said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

** Remedy:   Mix it up.  Challenge yourself by moving out of your comfort zone.   If you like a fiery practice, combine it with a gentle practice every now and then.  While discipline and commitment can pay off in your yoga practice, don’t get stuck on a particular yoga style.  Some people get very rigid and harsh in their practice.  People get so hung up on alignment, they cut off the vital chi of flow through the body.  Be careful about being a yoga nazi. A true yoga practice promotes an attitude of fluidity, flexibility and harmony.

5)  Spiritual Delusion: Do you sometimes show up to yoga class wondering if it’s really about yoga?  Or do you question the teacher’s integrity?   Shit New Age Girls Say got 1.4M views on youtube.  It’s a parody on spiritual “fake-ism.”  Anyone can use spirituality to justify their actions.  It’s called spiritual ego.  Yoga teachers have been known to abuse their power and inappropriately get involved with their students.  Sex scandals in the yoga community are infamously common.

** Remedy:  Use your  intuition to see if a teacher or class rings true for you.  Refrain from putting your teacher on a pedestal.  Ask yourself what you most want to receive from your yoga practice.  If your B.S. meter is going off, pay attention to it.  Is your yoga teacher being honest, and living in integrity with what he/she is saying?  Does your yoga practice add to your life, or subtract in some way?  Follow what feels right for you.

The purpose of yoga is liberation, not bondage.  The postures prepare you for meditation so that you can sit in stillness and realize the truth of your being.  Staying in your truth and practicing integrity is essential to having a balanced yoga practice.   Try out different styles and teachers until you find one that most resonates with you. Be mindful.  Listen to yourself, and trust in your own experience.  If you feel negativity, pressure or pain, take time to examine it and see what loving actions you can take to create a healthy yoga experience.

“A mind free from all disturbances is Yoga.”  The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

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