The great yoga debate

In the wake of the <em>New York Times</em> yoga controversy, an Equinox expert explains how the practice can harm as well as heal.

The recent William J. Broad article in the New York Timeshas ignited voices within the yoga community unlike any controversy I've ever seen. The fact that yoga can harm as well as heal seems to incite many. I understand this sentiment, because I used to believe that it was the "perfect" form of whole body/mind exploration-transformation. But when I first began studying with Glenn Black (who was the main source for the article) more than 20 years ago, he opened me to yoga’s potential liabilities, which, as evidenced by the response to the article, could use some serious explanation.

Here's the essential piece: It's not that yoga was or was not the "perfect" form for me — or you, or another — it's that the form and the intricate architectures of the poses are potentially destructive if the body is unconscious of its own blind spots or injuries lying in wait.

Often, injury that results from any physical activity — be it yoga poses, dancing or weightlifting — comes from a combination of your body’s own imbalances and the modality in question. The key is addressing and correcting those imbalances and increasing your proprioception, which is simply your body's ability to sense itself from inside-out. We are equipped with specialized nerve cells that provide our brains with information about pressure, temperature, position, vibration and, yes, pain.

As Glenn’s assistant and apprentice, I have witnessed firsthand the soft tissue and hard tissue damage created by yoga practices pushed to the extreme. We've seen numerous MRI's and X-rays of bones and soft tissues that can no longer navigate their "old practice." Glenn always told me, "Human movement first, asana second." He wanted his students to be able to move well as human beings — not necessarily be able to perform so-called "advanced asana." Glenn teaches about awareness more than anything. He teaches endless meditative processes to help students sharpen their mind-body awareness. His instruction hones the senses until one's own mind becomes like an inner X-ray, or self-MRI.

The body's ability to discern sense perception is a big, complicated neurological jungle, but basically the nerve cells, which act as sensors, can become dysfunctional and create speed bumps in the continuity of communication from brain to body and body to brain. When our proprioceptors stop relaying information, we lose coordination, function and balance, since there’s a lack of communication with the sensorimotor cortex area of the brain. When we become "out of touch" with our own brains and bodies, injuries are indeed more likely.

As a teacher, my goal is to help people become more physiologically self-aware. By awakening your proprioception and sense acuity pathways, you become more aware of your body — as well as its "blind spots." To wake these sleeping sensors, you need to compress and pry loose sticky fascia and muscular trigger points to improve hydration and circulation. In my method, Yoga Tune Up, I use therapy balls, which I find work best (find sample moveson my site), but PNF stretching (essentially contracting a muscle while it’s being stretched) or even standing on one leg with your eyes closed can help.

There's no instant fix. It's a lifelong process of working to develop a deeper understanding of your physical self. But through the process of gaining this greater awareness of your body and how you are moving through space, you change the game. Instead of recklessly muscling through movements — or poses — to detrimental effects, you start to move mindfully through them. The result? A real yoga body.

Jill Miller’s original group fitness format, Yoga Tune Up®, is taught at Equinox clubs nationwide and includes more than 100 certified teachers internationally. Miller is also the program designer behind anatomy trainings for Pure and Equinox Yoga Teacher Trainings.