This amazing article on Yin Yoga.com talks about how, in certain situations, stress is needed to strengthen even the most fragile bodies. While I love this article, what a lot of modern yogis fail to talk about is energetics. I understand that energies can't be measured and often go under the category of quakery and yogic delusions, however, the movement of stagnant energy has always been apart of yoga. The yogis understood the nadis or the energy channels of the body and how yoga poses effected them. Sometimes the body needs to be stressed to awaken energy in the body and to move out mental traumas that have gotten stored in the tissues and in the mind.
It is commonly accepted, even in the medical community, that people can feel pain long after a trauma has been physically healed. Yoga can be used to get rid of mental samskaras, or ruts in our minds, that result in us being mentally and physically in pain long after the events in our lives have passed. To do that, a person needs to be uncomfortable. They need to come face to face with the uncomfortable sensations and the perceived limitation.
Do No Harm?
Every yoga teacher wants to do good for his or her students: like doctors we strive to "do no harm." But, unfortunately, harm sometimes occurs. Teachers are no different in their intentions than nurses and doctors, but the prescriptions offered by teachers may be just as dangerous for the student as a well-intentioned prescription issued by a physician. Iatrogenics is not mistakes by a doctor, it applies to situations where a doctor followed all the right protocols and procedures, the right medicine was issued, the patient took it in the right doses and times, but the patient died because of all these "right" processes, not in spite of these instructions.
This can and does happen in a yoga class as well. The teacher may follow all the instructions she learned in her teacher training course, she may have followed the latest discussions about whether to bend the knees or not while in a forward bend, whether to stress the spine or not if the student has osteoporosis, to find the right alignment for the neck in headstand, and the student may follow the instructions perfectly, and still an injury may result, not in spite of the right instructions being given and followed, but because they were given and followed.
Let's examine just one illustrative example: a student comes to a yoga class for the first time, approaches the teacher and explains that she has osteoporosis in her lumbar spine. The teacher, well-trained and knowledgeable about osteoporosis, acknowledges the students conditions and offers directions and alternatives for her: she prohibits the student from any flexion at all in the spine, restricts twisting to the upper back only and then, only mildly, and also limits the amount of extension in backbends. The teacher rightfully believes that the student is close to the point labeled (B) in figure 3, but she prescribes for her student stress levels only at point (A), which is none at all. The teacher helps the student to minimize all stress to the lower back and checks constantly on the student to make sure that she is comfortable in every pose. Props are the student's constant companions every time she comes to that class.
What is comfortable makes us fragile! The noble intention to do no harm to the student by making her comfortable, by minimizing or eliminating stress to the damaged areas causes those areas to become more and more fragile. Her lumbar joints atrophy further because of the reluctance of the teacher (and thus the student) to place any stress there. The student's back becomes as fragile as a porcelain frog. The teacher's intentions are commendable: her teaching harmful.
Risks & Rewards
William Broad's articles and book, The Science of Yoga, caused controversy and debate in the yoga community when he listed many of the ways, through anecdotes, that yoga was causing harm to students. He was accused of shoddy reporting, selective sampling, and sensationalism. His stated aim was to make students aware of the "risks and rewards" of yoga. Broad was warning about the dangers of going too far, of employing too much stress, of going beyond point (B) of figure 3, and of iatrogenics - the harm caused by yoga even when it was properly taught. Again, this was not to imply that all yoga is harmful: it isn't - yoga can be lifesaving and is very healthy and healing for most people, but not for everyone all the time. A reaction set in when the book was released which saw many yoga teachers go to the other extreme: if too much stress or challenge was bad, then it is better to have none at all. They went to point (A) on our curve. Dogmatic assertions switched from "always do this pose this way," to "never do that pose that way." But dogma is still dogma: Paul Grilley is fond of saying, "Never is never correct and always is always wrong." As doctors have long known, we cannot have one prescription that will work for every patient. That is an important understanding, but it is one that is very hard to put into practice.
There are yoga teachers who insist that students must never do Pigeon Pose, or Headstand, or --- pick an asana. There are teachers who claim that every time any student does a forward fold, whether standing or sitting, their knees mustbe bent. There are teachers, who, following their training, or their own experience, or even guided by valid logic, insist that students must always or never do such-and-such. Unfortunately, the reality is - by trying to do no harm, we may be preventing our students from getting the stress that they need to be healthy: we are making them fragile. Certainly, there are some students who really should not be stressing the challenged area. The problem is - how to know which student is which? Like the doctors who don't know in advance which patient will be cured by chemotherapy and which patient will be killed by it, yoga teachers can't know in advance what really is going to be best for our students.
It may seem quite counterintuitive to suggest that someone who has a fragile or damaged spine should deliberately stress it. The obvious course of action is to give it rest, but this debate has run its course in terms of women's recovery after childbirth. At the turn of the 20th century the prevailing wisdom prescribed lots of bed rest to allow the new mother to recover her strength. In time it was realized that this was the worst thing to do for most mothers: they needed to become mobile as soon as possible. Indeed, a study published in Lancet suggests that bed rest is never a good idea for any conditions. By subjecting ourselves to small amounts of stress, we become antifragile. Figure 4 shows this graphically: if we extend Nassim Taleb's logic to people who are injured, we find that they still need some stress or they will risk becoming more and more fragile.
To read the full article, click this link