Over the past fifty years, modern postural yoga (MPY) has improved the lives of countless people worldwide. It has awakened millions to the intimacy of embodiment and deep breathing, and the realization that mindful movement can both heal and evolve the spirit.
But people are also injuring themselves—and getting injured by their teachers—in asana studios around the world. Hard data on rates of injury is non-existent. Anecdotally, it would appear that people are being injured at a higher rate than either yoga marketing or its spiritual pedigree would suggest.
These injuries occur for many interweaving reasons. Obvious factors include prior conditioning, poor education in biomechanics, overbearing instruction, sacrificial attitudes towards pain, and group pressures to fulfill presumably shared spiritual ideals.
More subtly, many people are first driven to asana by feelings of inadequacy or the memory of trauma. These experiences can motivate the desire for bodily reclamation and redemption, but they can also acidify practice with anxiety and impulsiveness. Asana is a crucible in which some attempt to forge new selves, and in the process, burn their bodies and minds.
The body of modern yoga is a body of longing, possibility, and revelation. But it’s also a body of shame, confusion, and suffering. Injury can mark the place where these two bodies wrestle on the mat.
This dynamic is likely at play in any physical discipline through which a new self is sought—from ballet to Crossfit. But in asana culture the struggle is complicated by a diverse array of philosophical ideas and commitments. Whether ancient or modern, body-negative or body-positive, some ideas are communicated directly, while others are transferred through cultural osmosis.
The ideas that support asana form a double-edged sword. They can glorify injury as a necessary sacrifice to spiritual development—proof that the body is illusory, or subservient to the divine. Alternatively, they can help students recognize injury as an opportunity to change paths and self-perception.
Asana can injure. But it can also introduce us to the yoga of discovering what injury tells us about the world, and ourselves.