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Yoga Is Not Stretching

in YogOpinions

toe-touch-yoga-stretchby J. Brown

The ubiquitous trope that “yoga is stretching” is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of both yoga and human anatomy. Now that scientific research is largely debunking ingrained notions of what it means to “stretch,” the language that yoga teachers and media are using to describe what yoga practice does needs to be questioned.

In almost all avenues of health and wellness advice, importance placed on stretching is a given. Yet, when you ask someone if they know what stretching actually is they rarely have any idea about it. We associate the sensations felt when our bodies are put in one position or another, or challenged to move in new ways, as an abstraction that we call “stretching.” And these days, when many people are looking to stretch, yoga classes are often where they go because, for lack of any other reference, they have come to think of yoga as merely an elegant way to “stretch out.”

A June 2014 study in the Journal of Clinical Biomechanics found no differences in people’s muscles and tendons after six weeks of a stretching regimen. What we typically think of as “stretching” is not actually making muscles longer.

When I was growing up we always had to try and touch our toes in physical education class. Some kids could touch easily and some kids could not. We were told to bounce. I remember having an image of two steel cables along the back of my legs being pulled taut and longer. This carried over into my early adulthood and forray into yoga. I was determined to mold my body into an ultimate enlightenment machine and was willing to withstand whatever pain might be in the way.

My ranges of motion did increase. But this came with a price. It was quite an accomplishment to achieve full splits that one summer when I made it my life goal. And I relished showing off my accomplishment in every yoga class I went to throughout the subsequent year. However, the degenerative issues and pain I now deal with in my SI joint seems hardly worth it. Eventually, wanting to feel better became more important than poses. And I began to discover that a lot of the discomfort in my body was not because of energy blocks or toxins that needed to be purified but the natural result of a “unbridled pursuit of unlimited flexibility” that I was being praised for and encouraged to pursue.

Muscles sliding long and conditioning oneself to withstand the signals that fire when we press our bodies past the point of safety are not the same thing.

Honestly, I’m not really much of an anatomy guy. At a certain point, too scientific a viewpoint sucks all the magic out of it for me. But watching video of people with limited motion who miraculously regain full range when placed under anesthesia is quite a revelation. As crazy as it may sound, we all have full ranges of motion in our bodies when we are under anesthesia. Clearly, what is restricting movement in our bodies is not determined by our muscles alone. And more importantly, if not determined by muscles then from where else would we derive the mobility and stability that constitute a healthy functioning system?

The technical keys to answering these important questions will need to be left to others more knowledgeable than myself. But in lieu of being able to fully explain these revelations empirically, I feel obliged to at least question some stock things I’ve been saying in my classes for years. And I think other yoga teachers ought to do the same. A quick perusal of the content that yoga teachers, media, and the fitness industry at large, are generating online reveals a grossly ill-informed use of anatomical platitudes. While well intentioned, these attempts to explain the nuanced phenomenon of a human system through sweepingly inaccurate statements, and what’s worse purport to provide easy answers to complex conditions, is doing everyone a disservice.

Those ubiquitous numbered lists of yoga poses to address whatever condition are entirely bogus. Offering poses as a means of targeted stretches assumes a uniformity among human bodies that does not exist and serves to obfuscate a deeper understanding of how we move and feel.

Last month, I wrote a piece called Slow Yoga Revolution. The outpouring of camaraderie around a slower, simpler, and more attentive practice was remarkable. Seems like others  are also getting over the allure of  accomplishments and embracing the subtleties instead. For all those who find common sentiment there, I want to suggest that part of changing the dialogue around yoga practice requires becoming clearer about what we are saying to people. And not continuing to perpetuate myths.

So, I’m officially done with stretching. As far as I can tell, there really is no such thing. And even if someone can make an anatomical case to the contrary, the reasons why yoga practice makes people feel better encompass more than our ability to articulate physiology. In my experience, when my muscles slide long, when my body moves freely, when pain abates, it feels like a comforting release more than an intense sensation. Not like those two hard cords down the back of my legs being pulled taught, but rather the gentle caress of a loving hand that soothes my nerves. It feels like a softening. It feels safe. It has nothing to do with stretching.

~

J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, NY.  His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy Today, the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, and across the yoga blogosphere.  Visit his website at jbrownyoga.com

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41 comments… add one
  • maggie

    The video of manipulation under anesthesia does not show that the body has full range of motion under anesthesia. In fact, it is showing the doctor pushing the patient’s limbs to break down scar tissue that is restricting the joint’s range of motion. It is a very painful procedure, which is why the patient is under anesthesia. If you listen carefully, you can hear the snapping. Ouch.

    • John

      Yes, I’m not sure whether the author is as ignorant as that paragraph makes him seem or just did a spectacularly bad job of expressing whatever point he was trying to make. Either way this is how complete nonsense becomes yoga gospel. This in an article which claims we shouldn’t “propagate myths”! What about starting by not propagating total inaccuracies?

      As for “yoga is not stretching”, the author clearly states he regularly did the splits in yoga class – and that this was a flexibility challenge for him. Sounds like yoga as stretching there. He contradicts his own title. I guess “yoga is stretching and other things” doesn’t generate the same publicity, even if it’s a more accurate title.

      Then there’s the suggestion that somehow all of this is “new”, something not known to the world at large. I really wish yoga writers would spare us the straw men. “People used to think but now we know” might have been a suitable introduction to second grade biology homework but I for one would like something better from an essay claiming to set the record straight.

      If this is the author at his best I’m going to avoid any teachers who trained in his yoga school like the plague.

      • Jamie

        Great counterpoint to this silly article, John. I like the part where he says, “Honestly, I’m not really much of an anatomy guy. At a certain point, too scientific a viewpoint sucks all the magic out of it for me.”

        Awww…gotta keep that magic.

        Great excuse to avoid studying. Imagine telling a teacher that all that learning “sucks the magic out of it for me, teach!”

        BTW, on the author’s point: “As crazy as it may sound, we all have full ranges of motion in our bodies when we are under anesthesia.” Yep, sounds crazy because it is incorrect (it is crazy). Joints have a greater range of motion during general anesthesia in part because the muscles relax under GA. But, no, we don’t all have full ranges of motion under anesthesia–nowhere near. Part of the problem with this is it spreads myths that are, well, myths. But it does keep it magical!

        • VQ2

          Magic … is absolutely right!

          I have internally rotated hip joints. Not the “spiritual (or psycho-spiritual) defect” of having “emotions trapped in my hips” – and I love the woo-woo of yoga as much as any spiritual person would. I will never NOT be attracted to the anatomy knowledge of even an inexperienced and undereducated pilates instructor, which blows the anatomy knowledge that many yoga instructors either WANT to profess or acquire. Even the yoga instructors I want to get along with (who have, maybe not coincidentally, advanced degrees in psychology) tried to let me get over my (initial) frustration at those “trapped emotions” in my tight hips. Ironically, they put up with those lacking hips in yoga class pretty well, too!

        • Jamie- That’s not fair. I wrote that “too scientific a viewpoint” sucks all the magic out. And it often does for folks, not just me. But I have studied anatomy and have been studying yoga diligently for the last 20 years. No avoidance in suggesting that science does not hold all the answers. And in the video of MUA we do witness someone who had a frozen shoulder that is able to be moved. As I stated above, the point is that what is restricting mobility is not the length of muscles alone. There is a myth about “stretching” making muscles longer. If you have better knowledge then I regarding these matters then I encourage you to share. And yes, the fact that I was once a single cell that multiplied and divided and now I am sitting here at a computer, a complex thinking, feeling being that is having a life, is incredibly magical. It is a wonder beyond my ability to fully comprehend. And there is nothing naive in admitting that.

          • Jamie

            Your statement, “There is a myth about “stretching” making muscles longer” is a straw man argument. When you move the origins and insertions farther apart (as when you stretch) the muscle lengthens. This is fairly simple geometry. When you move two points farther apart, the distance between them becomes greater. Are you saying this doesn’t occur? Do explain.

            As far as your example of frozen shoulder, that also shows how you misunderstand restrictions on movement. Another straw man. Frozen shoulder is a condition affecting the capsule of the shoulder. It becomes thickened, inflamed and contracted. This condition only affects the shoulder–you don’t get “frozen hip”. Moreover, once frozen shoulder resolves (as it does even without manipulation in all patients), patients are typically left with a deficit in range of motion (also when the patient has manipulation–which BTW isn’t the standard of care for this condition anymore–arthroscopic release of the capsule is the standard). The deficit in range of motion is thought to be related to chronically shortened muscles. It doesn’t usually affect activities for most people, but if it does, guess what the treatment for it is?

            Stretching the muscles! Know why? Because that makes them longer. Anyway, your statement about the muscles and lengthening has the faint scent of other unsupported articles that appear on this blog on stretching. Are you buddies with Jules by chance?

            But, let’s get back to your statement that when under general anesthesia everyone gets full range of motion. That is incorrect. Muscles relax during general anesthesia, but some patients are still “tight”. When that limits the surgery, guess what the doctors do? They give an agent that blocks the muscle from contracting. Then it is easier to move the origin further away from the insertion. Which makes the muscle longer than when the origin is closer to the insertion. Simple geometry, BTW.

          • Katrin

            You’re right – it’s what is taught since about 100 years in somatic movement practices.. the sense of not getting longer muscles by stretching is caused by the stretch-reflex, which is a neural response to joints being pulled apart. It tightens the muscles in order to protect the integrity of the joints. Mabel Todd was talking about it in The thinking Body published in the 1930s, well worth a read for yoga teachers. What controls the muscles is the brain, and only the brain. Thats why if the brain is ‘asleep’ under anaesthetics, it doesn’t send the signal to contract to the muscles. The person appears limp. Awareness in movement, increasing muscle control and something Thomas Hanna called Pandiculations are a better option than stretching. There are numerous studies about the inefficiency of stretching (especially static ) by now.

      • John-

        What exactly do you feel is inaccurate here? I can see how some think my reference to MUA is misleading. But my point is simply that the body is capable of fuller range of motion (albeit after scar tissue was broken.) What is restricting movement in our bodies is not short muscles that need to be lengthened or “stretched.” My personal story of doing splits until I ended up injuring myself is an example of a misguided notion of “stretching.” And while it may not be new to some, for the majority of people attending yoga classes today, the idea that pulling or pushing hard on our bodies will not make our muscles longer is an entirely new idea.

        This post was not trying to provide anyone with answers, only to provoke conversation and inquiry. But I do know that flexibility for flexibility sake is fleeting and most often becomes an injurious undertaking. What I was hoping to point out is that if what we want is greater mobility (not necessarily the same thing as flexibility.) then doing “stretching” is counterproductive. The “stretching” that a lot of folks are doing to get more flexible is often destabilizing their body rather then making them more mobile.

        • John

          The implication in the article is that the anaesthetic is the reason a MUA leaves the patient with increased range of motion. It isn’t, it’s the manipulation. If the patient had a high enough pain tolerance they’d get the range of motion without the anaesthetic. The body is capable of a full range of motion because scar tissue is broken by manipulation, not because of the anaesthetic. The article credits the wrong element with the increased range of motion and then uses that credit as “evidence” for an argument.

          Many asana are stretches and are used as such by physiotherapists and athletes to healthily increase range of motion. To say “yoga is not stretching” is to deny that basic fact. The splits is a yoga asana and the splits is a stretch. Some asana are not stretches, and some people feel that asana is not all of yoga, so “yoga isn’t just stretching” would be a valid title, but “yoga is not stretching” runs into some very basic problems.

          Even asana that are not stretches are frequently described in terms of stretching for very good reason. Teaching headstand you do not want your students to collapse, you want them to extend, to “stretch”.

          “if what we want is greater mobility (not necessarily the same thing as flexibility.) then doing “stretching” is counterproductive”

          That’s neither accurate nor “provoking conversation and enquiry”. It’s a categorical statement and one that doesn’t hold up. A great deal of the best mobility work involves stretching – active, passive, dynamic, pnf… Like yoga, it often involves other things too.

          MUA is used in several conditions with several joints and typically when more conventional stretches, often identical to yoga poses, fail to result in a return to full ROM. It is simply a way to apply more force than the patient can tolerate when conscious. I hope neither you, nor any one you know well needs a MUA after ACL reconstruction, for example, but if it were to happen you would begin to realise just how misleading MUA (of any joint) is as evidence for the argument presented.

          Yes, the goal is a fuller range of motion – the ability to move the origin further from the insertion – to stretch. That the obstacle might be scar tissue (“adhesions”) has been common yoga knowledge since at least the late 90’s, when the yoga teacher at my local gym mentioned the possibility where appropriate, and books like 15 minute yoga by Godfrey Devereaux covered it (albeit experientially and in the kind of detail you’d expect from a book with that title).

          I think you miss my point with regards to the splits. If splits is a stretch, and you became able to do the splits in yoga

          • John

            Need an edit button 🙂 that last comment wanders off

          • VQ2

            Yeah, with an edit button, I, personally, would not have to be in a dispassionate frame of mind to post and make sense the first time … kind of don’t have the skill to do so …

        • Mickey Delgatto

          In your comment you say, “My personal story of doing splits until I ended up injuring myself is an example of a misguided notion of “stretching.” Maybe that was your misguided notion of stretching. Maybe you did it wrong, J Brown. I’m curious how you know you injured yourself by practicing the splits. What was your injury? Did you tear a muscle? That’s not usually catastrophic, and is usually related to pushing yourself too much. If it’s more of a chronic injury, how do you know the splits caused it. Presumably, you do other asanas besides splits. You also could have injured yourself doing one of those incorrectly. Or, (gasp!), you might just be getting a bit older…Anyway, lots of people practice the splits. Martial artists, gymnasts, dancers (I even did them as a cheerleader! 😉 Given that a number of athletes use that pose, I would expect to be hearing a similar tale of woe all over the place. Yeah, I’ve heard of people over stretching their hammies. Is that the fault of the stretch?

  • I found that simply practicing yoga for fifteen minutes per day has given me all the flexibility i’ll ever need. Plus I can focus on my breathing while stretching 🙂
    This was a good post, many people don’t know how to correctly approach stretching and just think that a quick two minute stretch will prevent chronic muscle tightness.

    > http://www.enhancedexercise.com

  • Interesting article and very eye opening. I appreciate the insight on developing range of motion. Thanks!

  • Thank you for this great article on why stretching is a myth and why feeling better is more important than performing the poses. Many people are trying to stretch parts of their body in poses like straight knee forward bending without realizing the damage than can occur by pulling on the ‘parts’. There are other structures like ligaments in the knees, hips, spine and feet and these structures serve to stabilize and hold joints together. In many yoga poses, people are trying to pull on their joints in positions that remind me of trying to drive a car while the brake is on. The damage to joints by making them too loose is getting more common as yoga teachers and students are undergoing hip replacements and labral tear surgeries. Charlotte Bell and I have been writing of the liabilities of flexibility for many years and my desire to make yoga asana safer led me to create YogAlign. Our body is made of curves that provide shock absorption while moving. Trying to pull the back of the body flat or flex the ankle and flatten the plantar surface of the foot will overtime lead to laxity and you may never feel any pain at all to warn you. See this article for more information. http://www.elephantjournal.com/2013/07/when-flexibility-becomes-a-liability-michaelle-edwards/
    Please get informed by reading this too.
    http://www.elephantjournal.com/2013/09/yogis-be-careful-with-your-joints-charlotte-bell/

  • Yoga is one of the best ways for getting in shape and full body fitness. Great article.
    http://jimshealthyliving.com/shapeshifteryogareviewupdate2015

  • S.

    It makes me a bit sad how “yoga” has taken over the word “asana” and how the practice is now viewed soley as an exercise regimen. Very sad indeed.

  • That is one of the most common misconception about yoga. It’s funny when people just think that it is just all about stretching. I always say that part of yoga is stretching but it has more to offer like it increases and improves strength, better breathing, flexibility and posture. 🙂

  • IMHO

    This didactic type of “what-you’ve-learned-is-wrong-so-I’ll-tell-you-what’s-right” article is common to other professions, and is unfortunately creeping its way into the yoga world. Readers would take it more seriously if it were factually correct, if the author paid attention to spelling and verb tenses, and if self-aggrandizement was not the obvious primary goal.

    • IMHO- If there are factual errors here then please do tell. And as far as grammar and spelling go, I know I had “taught” instead of “taut” but did I miss something somewhere else? I do try to be good about these things but I have a five month old baby at home so must of my writing happens in the wee hours these days. And I did not intend to give myself any more importance then anyone else. Just expressing my thoughts. You are certainly welcome to disagree and write a response. I’m sure yogadork would be happy to post it.

      • IMHO

        You have a nice demeanor, but your response to my original post suggests you haven’t read the preceding posts, that you’re in a willful fog. Congratulations on your newborn, but that’s not an excuse for poor performance by a journalist or educator. I’m not really sure what you are, given that you are now saying you are “not trying to provide anyone with answers, only to provoke conversation and inquiry,” but this is belied by your myriad assertions and admonishments in your original article. Just as your ego should play no role in yoga, your writings should also be free from ego’s influence.

        • marieange

          As a writer, I know that all attempts to communicate risk misinterpretation. But it is part of the courage of writing to try anyway. The attempt might not be perfectly satisfactory to every reader, but by God, he tried!

          What about gratuitous comments? Are they exempt from ego sanctions?

  • Ed

    Would you provide the link to the June 2014 study please. The only thing I could find on the Journal of Clinical Biomechanics was this:

    “Increased range of motion after static stretching is not due to changes in muscle and tendon structures”.

    Which was about this: “..the purpose of this study was to investigate the influence of a six-week static stretching training program on the structural and functional parameters of the human gastrocnemius medialis muscle and the Achilles tendon.”

    A study on the calf muscle and the achilles tendon that led to the researchers to:

    – “Interpretation: The increased range of motion could not be explained by the structural changes in the muscle–tendon unit, and was likely due to increased stretch tolerance possibly due to adaptations of nociceptive nerve endings.”

    They may not be saying what you’re suggesting they say.

  • Ed
    • Ed

      One more thing.

      B.K.S Iyengar: “However, asanas penetrate each layer of the body and, ultimately, the consciousness itself. Only in yoga can you keep both the body and the mind relaxed, even as you stretch, extend, rotate, and flex your body.” [p. 19 Yoga The Path To Holistic Health]

      Throughout the book Mr. Iyengar uses the word “stretch”, though at times it has a different meaning then lengthening muscle tissue.

  • Great article! really good read.

  • Fred

    “There is a myth about “stretching” making muscles longer.” J. Brown
    Actually, when you stretch a muscle it does, by definition, become longer during the period you stretch it. That’s ’cause stretching involves moving the muscle attachments further apart. If the muscle didn’t stretch then either the attachments wouldn’t move further apart or it would tear off its attachments. Please explain to us how that is a “myth”. You can’t explain it because it’s not a myth; it’s a fact.
    But let’s call a spade a spade: When lacking a marketing hook, create a “myth”. In fact, this is actually little more than a recent meme that was basically fabricated by folks in J. Browns crowd in order to market a new thing that “dispels the myth”. Hence, this article.
    A+ for creative marketing.

    • OK. Wow. The notifications landed in my spam folder and folks have been chiming in. Apologies for the group response.

      Seems like the issue is around me saying that there is a myth about stretching making muscles longer, and then folks want to call me put on the technicalities of what is happening with muscles and how different ways of engaging muscles will increase ranges of motion. What I was meaning to reference is the sensation that people think of as a stretch.

      Jamie took issue because “when you move the origins and insertions are farther apart.” Of course that is true. “When you move” being the keywords. Not when you “stretch” (please note the quotation marks.) When people hang over their legs to touch their toes and feel that big sensation across the back of their legs, they have in mind that the sensation is their muscles getting longer and getting more flexible. But, very often, that sensation is not muscles getting longer but muscles resisting getting longer. The “stretching” that a lot of folks are doing to get more flexible is often destabilizing their body rather then making them more mobile.

      I concede that my piece was intended to be provocative. And I wish that I was as good of a marketer as Fred suggests. But given the comment thread that has ensued, one could make a case that my intention to get a conversation going was successful to some degree.

      People do yoga for all kinds of different reasons and I don’t want to take anything away from anyone. But I do think there is a misguided notion of “stretching” that is prevalent. And the sooner we come to grips with that and explore other possible ways of thinking and engaging our bodies, the more I think everyone will benefit.

      • John

        So, the problem is people are thinking the wrong things and the article tells them the right things to think? Oh, I’m just being provocative.

        Passive stretching is very definitely stretching. When people hang over their legs gravity pulls the attachments apart – subjecting the material between to the exact definition of a stretch. The feeling that accompanies that action – whatever causes it – is the feeling of being stretched. Passive stretching increases range of movement (with the usual caveats) – it makes it possible to move the attachments further apart – from that point of view it makes the material between the attachments “longer”. Using language that matches the experience is no bad thing – nor is it evidence that the speaker doesn’t understand the anatomical detail.

  • fellow bk yoga teacher

    I think the following would be relevant to this discussion. http://www.liberatedbody.com/jules-mitchell-lbp-009/ it’s a bit self-aggrandizing but rather on target.

    While I must admit the tone of J’s writing is often not my cup of tea, it strikes me as pedantic to suggest that any movement that brings the origin and insertion apart from one another is stretching. Words have meanings that are determined by their use, and you surely would not refer to throwing a punch for instance as a “stretch” despite the fact that some tissue is lengthening. I think J’s over-all point, that pulling muscles longer and longer is not necessarily the best way to achieve a healthier range of motion is well taken.

    Also the new discussions around anatomy etc in the Yoga community while certainly useful has definitely hit a point of ad nauseam. If we really do believe that anatomy and kinesiology are the end all be all of human movement, then what the hell are you doing teaching yoga? Surely there are things we can learn from other disciplines while allowing our own to keep it’s distinction and integrity? I am with LK here when he says we should either be super precise in our anatomical language or just steer clear of it for good metaphor. Yoga teachers aren’t anatomy teachers, and they shouldn’t be.

    • James

      Agree with the part about self aggrandizing on your link–Jules Mitchell’s pompousness does wear on one. She is apparently J Brown’s source of this info, i.e. a mischaracterization that those of us in yoga apparently think that when we stretch muscles they permanently become longer (deform to the length at the time of stretch and stay there). Bullshit like this is tough to wrap your head around, because it’s not likely many people actually think muscles grow permanently longer when we stretch, although they certainly lengthen during the period of being stretched. Otherwise we’d be sort of floppy (like, permanently) after class and it would be tough to walk (relates to length/force curves in muscle physiology).
      The increase in range of motion from stretching is thought to be attributable to a number of factors, “tolerance” to stretch being a bit of a catch-all phrase being one of them. It has been used in the scientific literature for some time now–at least since the ’80s– as part of the explanation for the increase in range of motion after stretching . So this concept is not new. Nor is the concept that stretching a muscle causes it to deform to a new length (like silly putty) a widely held belief; as such, J Brown and Jules Mitchell admonishing us not to think of stretching that way is kind of unnecessary, since few people actually think that.

      I’m beginning to agree that this is a rather demented marketing meme. Much of J Brown’s article is along a similar vein, with the obligatory scare tactics about how stretching destabilizes the body. I guess all of the PT’s should take note for their patients and athletic trainers for their clients. Interestingly, neither Mitchell nor Brown offer any concrete evidence that their solution prevents this destabilizing (or doesn’t cause other problems).
      Other than that, Mitchell’s “new” thing is essentially about contracting a muscle when it’s out to length stretching. This is also known as PNF (i.e. not “new”). It’s application in yoga has also been used for years and is well known.

  • James

    J Brown: “So, I’m officially done with stretching. As far as I can tell, there really is no such thing.”
    Then you should also avoid teaching such staples of Hatha yoga as Trikonasana (stretches hamstrings and lateral kinetic chain), Uttanasana (stretches posterior kinetic chain), Urdhva danurasana (among other muscle groups, stretches hip flexors) and many other related asanas. FYI, stretching has also been shown to release endogenous neurotransmitters, some of which probably account for the beneficial feelings after practicing yoga.

  • wondering

    Keep it simple n call it what you will, I’ll continue to enjoy a good old stretch.

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  • Riled Mouse

    In the midst of all this hubbub, can anyone actually tell me what the long-term potential side effects are, of “overdoing it” in yoga over a prolonged basis? I had a business teaching private yoga lessons for up to 12 hours per day, 6-7 days per week, for about three years. I also cross-trained with weights, cardio, dance, etc. but eventually my body just “gave out” (for lack of a better term). What started as an increasing tightness and reduced range of motion in my right shoulder girdle, in particular, has developed into a full-blown disability that now completely limits my ability to do any sustained work, whatsoever. I’ve had to give up my business; I’ve lost countless relationships; and missed seemingly-endless opportunities all due to the fact that I can no longer withstand any physical exertion. It’s progressive even when I only rest, but no one can figure out what the heck is wrong with me. And Lord! When I “over-do it” and happen to exert myself “too much” (which is an ever-shifting and apparently nebulous, unpredictable amount), then I REALLY suffer and pay the consequences.

    I have tried so hard to remain diligently aware of the sensations in my body over the 15 or so years since I first was exposed to yoga. I also was so lucky in that my earliest teachers were true quality — genuine leaders, who protected the body and mind in an ethical and well-educated manner. I trained many, many hours in Iyengar, slow-hold, non-aggressive styles of practice until I eventually was fit enough to develop a more vigorous vinyasa practice. I know I can be a compulsive and perfectionistic person, but I always tried to keep competitiveness out of the equation. Sum total I’ve probably spent less than a year immersed in the no-pain-no-gain culture of hot yoga and the like. I tried CrossFit for a few months but quickly wore tired of being berated and beaten into submission. I simply loved to train and teach, exercise and dance … But now my body won’t let me do ANY of that. I get night sweats and uncontrollable, unremitting bone pain to the point of being incapacitated on an almost-daily basis. It’s gone on for more than two years, now, and all the best doctors in my area still can’t figure out what’s up with me. Some doctors even get angry with me after looking over my long and sordid history of tests and blood work, so sure they are that I must be faking it and only wanting everyone’s attention. Nothing could be further from the truth … All I want is to be well and have my life back, but it’s like my body is just broken.

    Degenerative condition affecting connective tissue, brought on by too much yoga? Broken metabolic system and inability to regulate autonomic (i.e., sympathetic vs. parasympathetic) systemic responses, resulting in an inability to withstand increases in blood pressure or neuroendocrine (e.g., adrenaline) levels? What the HECK could it be? What did I do?

    Or has no one else out there really experienced this after immersing themselves in the powerful practices that we call yoga? Is it all just coincidence, and it so happens that I was genetically pre-disposed to get sick (with some unknown, unquantifiable illness), regardless of whether or not I decided to pursue a physically-demanding career path?

    Or, a third alternative that has crossed my mind is that maybe, through my yoga practice, I’ve grown so tuned to my own internal homeostatic state that I can actually sense the presence of neuroendocrine tumors that the doctors and labs just haven’t been able to find, yet. Could that be? If Steve Jobs had been more attuned to his own sensations, could he have sensed the succumbing of his pancreas earlier, when the tumors had only just started?

    I’m sorry that this post reads so “me” focused, as I truly am trying to raise a more general concern, which is geared toward the entire audience. We have all these increasingly-nasty, hyperbolic, insipid arguments regarding the dogma of yoga… And stretching… And medicine… And what it means to be enlightened. But what do we really know, really? What IS the effect of these stress-inducing and -reducing regimens that we in the yoga community advocate and practice, hour after hour, day after day for years on end?

    What are we doing, really? On a metabolic and metaphysical level, how do we know that we’re on the right path?

    What happens when the path shifts shape before us and nothing makes sense anymore?

    If you’ve been graced enough to discover a practice that reliably gives you peace and a sense of fulfillment but then, at some point, that same practice betrays you and your body and instead leads to an acceleration of your own demise, what do you do?

    Who do you blame?
    Yourself, for pushing too hard?
    Your teachers for saying that flexibility can be developed, that with practice you can change your body (as well as your mind! And your life! And the world!) over time?
    Is it a panacea? Or an albatross?

    It occurs to me that I’m exposing my jugular to you all right now, in laying my heart on the line like this. I can only hope the trolls will go more gently on me than they have on poor J. Brown in their responses to his insightful and thought-provoking post. But nevertheless I have to ask:

    WTF ARE WE ALL DOING?

    What IS “yoga,” anyway?

    Thanks, all. Much obliged.

    • John

      Hmmm… I think the troll here is the article, to be honest. The author admits it was deliberately “controversial”, intended to “provoke” – which is as good a definition of trolling as any.

      To answer the question – I don’t see how the article or ones like it helps. Sometimes practice does go wrong – every system – and all too often the assumption is that the person it went wrong for must have “been doing it wrong”. Articles like this encourage that response – “oh, they stupidly thought their muscles got longer when they stretched, of course they can’t move freely now”. The fact is that people can genuinely believe stretching permanently lengthens their muscles, and stretch hard every day for decades, and enjoy perfect health while others memorised stretching scientifically shortly after it first came out in 83, always had perfect technique, and end up crippled. Maybe the people “doing it wrong” in fact did it right and would’ve been crippled years sooner without the practice. All we can do is find the best teacher we can (and there are plenty with classes full of health “miracles”) and pay as much attention as we can to how what they teach affects us and hope for the best. Articles like this peddle the idea that if we just follow the author’s advice everything will be fine – and that’s a dangerous and impossible claim.

      • Wait a second John-

        Please tell me where in this post I speak about anyone else doing something wrong or give anyone else advice as to what they should do? It is written entirely in the first person and is about my own experiences and determinations. You, and everyone else, are most certainly welcome to disagree.

        I’ve been on Yogadork every month for the last 6 years. My penchant for provoking and starting conversations is well documented. And the posts have quite a range to them. There is nothing anonymous about me or my writing. I think it is simply inaccurate to accuse me of being a troll.

        You are absolutely correct that what is true for me is not true for everyone. I would never suppose to know what is right for anyone else. But I’ve received more emails from people who did resonate with this post and appreciated it then not. There are lots of people who have had similar experiences and share my view. It’s cool that you don’t. But what do you say we keep it civil? I’m here participating in this comment thread in good faith. I’m not peddling anything. Just sharing my thoughts. I do appreciate you sharing yours. Cheers.

        • John

          Yes, you have joined in the discussion you provoked with remarkable good humour and you are not anonymous. On the other hand the desire to provoke and generate discussion are ones frequently stated by trolls, and the “people think but the truth is” aspect of the article is typical of trolls. Don’t be offended, trolling is not a term reserved for random abuse by anonymous ignoramuses. Many respectable news sites employ sophisticated and intelligent people to turn out deliberately controversial articles and opinion to generate traffic – trolling. In too many ways this article is similar to theirs. (though maybe I am out of date and ‘click bait’ is more accurate today. Either way, any argument that describes the response to your article as “trolling” applies as much to the article, I fear) As for peddling… Your willingness to be a public figure counts against you here I’m afraid. You run a yoga business, we can assume your articles aren’t intended to put you out of business. Although you use only personal examples of injury you clearly state a majority of people are thinking the wrong things, practicing in a way that led to injury for yourself, and is likely to injure them. I’d also submit that the tone of your comments has been far more open and engaging than the tone of the article. I do opose the “most people think but the truth is” format because it does encourage a “blame the victim” response when some one is unlucky enough to be injured. The tone of your comments suggests you could write a much better article, though whether it would get the same exposure I am not sure.

  • Asananine

    True enough. I have disagreed in the past. However, J Brown appears to handle criticism with class. Happy to give credit where it is due.

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