Yoga Becoming a Competitive Sport

Yoga is definitely this year's hottest fitness trend. It has become the "in" thing to do. Most yoga experts see this as a positive development because the benefits of yoga are now being enjoyed by the masses. And while it's true that many yoga wannabes are attracted because they want bodies like those of celebrity advocates Madonna and model Christy Turlington, yoga teachers hope that students will eventually see the discipline as more than just exercise and experience its other mind-body-spirit benefits.

The teachers are not too happy though about a very un-yoga-like attitude that is rearing its ugly head-competitiveness.

This dark side of yoga was one of the topics discussed during the two-day Idea Yoga Conference held in July in San Diego, California. It has been identified as a major cause of yoga-related injuries.

Many of the presenters at the conference, yoga veterans since the '60s, noticed that the "no pain, no gain" mindset of the gym had spread to the yoga class. Compounding the problem was the fact that many fitness instructors and students alike were flocking to the more athletic and aggressive styles of power yoga and Ashtanga. People drawn to this type of yoga are usually already competitive and enjoy pushing themselves to the edge.

Mark Stephens, a Los Angeles-based yoga instructor, told The New York Times that he used to see one student in 30 classes with a yoga-related injury. Now he sees one in five. He notes, "In the past people were drawn to yoga for the mind-body-spirit connection; today the motivation is a vigorous workout and a great body."

For her article in Yoga Journal, "Ouch! If yoga is such a gentle practice, why are so many people getting hurt?", writer and yoga instructor Carrie Schneider interviewed teachers and practitioners to get to the bottom of the worrisome increase in injuries.

One person she interviewed, Robin Aronson, developed a debilitating hip injury that had to be fixed through surgery.

Describing her gym's Ashtanga class, Aronson said, "It was a competitive environment, and I became fairly aggressive in it. I wanted to be really good. So (even) if something hurt a lot it didn't stop me from trying to do it. I was excited and just wanted to go for it-that's the culture of the gym I was in."

Even the slower forms of yoga can be problematic if the student does not listen to his or her body. Mary Jagiello, a 60-year-old woman, recounted to The Times how she hurt her knee during her first yoga class. She said her knee started to shake while she was doing a lunge but she ignored it. She then felt a searing pain and her knee gave out. The teacher, she said, didn't warn her not to try what everyone else was doing.

She also blamed herself, saying, "I'm still kicking myself. The second I felt pain, I should have stopped. Maybe it was a macho thing, but I wanted to keep up with the class."

But even though power yoga and Ashtanga are riskier than the more gentle forms, you shouldn't be scared of them if you like the challenge. You just have to look for an experienced teacher who offers modifications and, more importantly, you should know your own body's strengths and weaknesses and work with them. Build up to the more challenging poses, progressing by levels. Injuries occur because people do not listen to the signals their body is sending them. Educate yourself by buying books or videos designed for beginners so you can learn more about the basic poses.

You also need to develop a healthy attitude towards your yoga practice. You are a special, unique person who deserves a special, unique yoga workout. Make your yoga fit your needs and not the other way around. Do not be ashamed to modify any of the poses to make them safer for your body. So what if you have to bend your knees to touch the floor with your hands while doing a forward bend? What good will it do to straighten your legs at the expense of your hamstring muscles and lower back? Eventually, as your body gets more flexible you will be able to perform a forward bend in "perfect" form. Then again, you may never be able to do it with straight legs. There might be an anatomical reason why you cannot.

Donna Farhi, a yoga teacher in New Zealand, told Yoga Journal she always sensed that extremely deep and repetitious back-bending was not healthy for her body. Fortunately, she didn't insist because she eventually found out the reason for her stubborn spine-a congenital weakness in the lower back area where vertebrae had not fused.

It feels miserable to be injured and be unable to do the exercises you love. I know because I suffered a weight-lifting injury in my shoulder many years ago that, although healed, still bothers me from time to time. I don't want to make the same mistake with yoga. So I always tell my clients (I say this in all kinds of exercise classes) to leave their egos inside their lockers, together with their gym bags. Lock them in there and don't let them out till after the class. They should enter the room only with a humble and reverent respect for their body's uniqueness.

In last week's column, I mentioned that a friend and I joined a yoga class of about one hundred people in Santa Monica, California. It was my friend's first time to do yoga but she, the competitive soul that she was, was attempting to do positions that I, with some yoga experience under my belt, was not foolish enough to try. So, of course, I was giving her the "evil eye" and scolding her under my breath to stop before she got hurt. My friend is the sweetest of people but something changes in her when she starts exercising. After reading last week's article, she said she had learned her lesson and would stop pushing herself so hard because she would now "treasure and respect her body." Well said.

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