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Yoga Hurts So Good (Or Does It Just Hurt?)

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The word “yoga” invokes visions of incense, gongs and meditation––not torn hamstrings, cracked ribs and hospital visits. Yet, the number of yoga-related trips to the emergency room is on the rise.

Enthusiasts tout the discipline’s positive results, which include stress reduction, boosted energy levels, improved sex life and greater flexibility. But a growing dialogue about the risky nature and potential harm of yoga has emerged, particularly as the number of students––and subsequent number of injuries––increases.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) indicates an upward trend of yoga-relate injuries. It reported 7,369 yoga-related injuries treated in doctors’ offices, clinics and emergency rooms in 2010, an increase from roughly 5500 in 2007. Since these statistics do not include injuries treated by chiropractors, massage therapists and other non-traditional healers, the overall number is likely higher.

Many experts––including instructors, sports therapists and chiropractors––argue that the risks and issues stem not from the practice itself, but from other sources. The most frequently cited culprits include inexperienced instructors, a commodity-driven yoga business, personal ego, preexisting medical conditions and overemphasis on the physical components of a yoga routine.

e2436a739044a9bf6a7eb2c660a4f288Dr. Sunit Jolly, D.C., is a Boston-based chiropractor who has treated many patients with yoga-related injures. She attributes the pain to a misalignment resulting from a series of movements and a gradual breakdown.

“I don’t think it was yoga that actually hurt them,” Jolly says. “Most people assume [they feel pain] because of one specific injury, but the truth is that unless you have trauma, it happens slowly over time.”

As a result, when students start a yoga practice and injure themselves, they directly link the pain to specific postures and activity.  The most common injuries Jolly address relate to the lower back, which is usually affected by lumbar flexion activities common to yoga.

“If people are coming from prolonged sitting, their ligament restraints are relaxed,” she says. “With lumbar flexion, the restraints aren’t working, and the spine will go beyond its natural limit. Yoga can be the straw that breaks the camels back, so to speak.”

Jolly believes that yoga injuries fall into two major categories: people who push their bodies into painful positions without paying attention to the discomfort; and those whose spines slowly slip out of alignment and result in pain when shifted into certain postures, often those with lumbar flexion.

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According to the independent yoga organization North American Studio Alliance (NAMASTA), between 2008 and 2013, the number of people practicing yoga increased by 20 percent. Also, the amount spent on yoga-related products increased 87 percent, totaling approximately $27 billion in 2013. With more people practicing yoga, a higher number of injuries naturally follows.

However, yoga teachers like Justine Cohen, owner of Down Under Yoga in Newton and Brookline, rarely encounter students injuring themselves. Cohen attributes the low rate of injury in her studio to proper instruction and uniformity in teacher training. She believes that yoga classes, in general, lack these two qualities, which has resulted in preventable physical injury.
“You can get hurt from any activity done badly or incorrectly,” she says. “Well-instructed yoga doesn’t tend to result in injuries.”

Cohen claims that Down Under Yoga employs managers with extensive training to greet students and counsel them on appropriate class levels. All of the teachers learn about their students’ respective backgrounds before allowing them to join advanced classes. Cohen says that she has a strict policy of directing inexperienced students to introductory levels.

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Joetta Maue, who specializes in Ashtanga yoga––a modern-day form of classical Indian yoga popularized by K. Pattabhi Jois––agrees that proper instruction is essential to preventing injury. Maue has taught yoga around the United States, including Ohio and Massachusetts, for 14 years, and learned firsthand the consequences of faulty practice as a student. While in triangle pose, she required assistance in adjusting her hips, which the instructor pulled forward, resulting in injury.

“I love deep adjustments, but that was the one time I got injured doing yoga,” Maue says. “The teacher didn’t need to hold my hips. She could have just reminded me.”

She also believes that as yoga grows in popularity, the market has become over-saturated and filled with insufficiently trained instructors. As a money-making industry, yoga has expanded into a numbers game, which can compromise the quality of teaching, Maue claims.

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“There is a lot of pressure for teachers to please the masses,” she says. “Now the practice is more commodity-based.”

Whereas yogis used to study for years before teaching their craft, the Western market has now made teacher training a fast-paced, convenient process for aspiring instructors. Maue studied for nearly a year before teaching, but that has changed since her training nearly two decades ago.

“I don’t buy that you can learn to be a teacher in a month,” she says. “There is now little difference between yoga and exercise classes. Both need to make money.”

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Steve Weiss, an instructor specializing in the Iyengar practice––a detail-oriented form of hatha yoga developed in the 1970s by B.K.S. Iyengar––also stresses the pitfalls of modern teaching credentials. Rather than an emphasis on knowledge, wisdom and specific experience, the basic teaching qualifications require a minimum number of practice hours, Weiss claims.

“Teachers come from a variety of backgrounds that do not have a sign-off from anything other than an organization that merely recognizes hours,” he says. “That seems to invite some serious problems of an illusion of some certified training guaranteeing knowledge, but what’s the basis of that knowledge?”

Weiss also believes that an overemphasis on the physical aspect of yoga, rather than the mental or spiritual, often results in physical pain. He claims that Iyengar himself stresses that yoga is not  solely a physical practice.

“Discussions on yoga in the 19th century in America, primarily by Swami Vivekananda, renounced the physical practice,” Weiss says. “Vivekananda was worried people would be too infatuated with their own physical improvement and miss the point of yoga entirely.”

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He agrees with Vivekananda and believes that modern practitioners in the Western world trade spiritual development for a physically strenuous practice, often leading to imbalance and subsequent injury.

Colleen Carney, owner of Back in Motion in Boston, has noticed a greater focus on yoga’s physical component. During her 23 years as massage therapist, specializing in athletic training and recovery, she has seen a range of injuries, many resulting from yogic postures.

“Yoga has increased in popularity over the last five to 10 years and has become a go-to exercise,” she says. “People gravitate toward it because they have an impression that it’s extremely beneficial, and they subconsciously believe that they can’t get hurt.”

image-full;max$248,0(Colleen Carney, Boston-based massage therapist and owner of Back in Motion.)

Carney encourages yoga practice, particularly for individuals who want to increase their range of motion. However, her concern is that individuals who use yoga as a sole exercise practice do little else physically and, therefore, increase their risk of injury.

“People who do a lot of yoga can do splits when they’re 50, but they often lack strength and stability,” she says. “They need to do something to hold up over time.”

She also warns that flexibility alone, a primary reason people practice yoga, does little to benefit the body. It constitutes but one element of many that help with overall physical wellness.

“Anything we do has wear and tear on our bodies,” she says. “I don’t want to bash yoga.”

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The best solution, according to Carney, includes a mixture of dynamic strength-training exercises and more passive, flexibility-oriented activities. She says that relying solely on the latter increases the chance of discomfort and injury.

“It’s overrated to be stretching so much,” Carney says. “Mobility and flexibility come from joints, and [over-stretching] can dislocate joints or pull ligaments.”

She believes that the increasingly popular heated yoga adds to the practice’s overall appeal. The hotter the class is, the more intense the workout feels, even if artificially. It makes students feel that their flexibility is greater than it would be in normal circumstances.

“There is an idea that sweat equals a workout,” she says. “I can sweat, too, if I’m in a 150-degree room.”

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Carney emphasizes the importance of balance in exercise for optimal health and minimal risk of injury. she encourages variety to mix up routine and work on an equilibrium of strength, flexibility, endurance and agility.

“When anything hurts, you have to pay attention,” she says.

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The Evolution of Steve Darwin

Patrons sip on mugs of herbal tea, nibble scones and line up to order specialty sandwiches at Darwin’s Ltd. on Mount Auburn Street in Cambridge. A light murmur of coffee-fueled socializing circulates the café and sandwich shop at lunchtime.

“People come here not just for the food, but for something else,” says owner Steven Darwin. “You can ask them what that is, and a lot of them don’t know.”

Darwin thinks he knows what it is, though. He attributes the business’s popularity to life changes made 15 years ago, when he faced major personal and professional crises. Darwin overhauled his diet, attitude and beliefs, and started a regular yoga practice. The results helped improve his work life and his marriage.

“I don’t think that Darwin’s would have survived as a business if I did not discover yoga,” the 49-year-old business owner says.

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In 1993, Darwin and his wife, Isabel, opened the sandwich shop, and eventually expanded the space to accommodate a café. Another Darwin’s Ltd. thrives on Cambridge Street on the opposite side of Harvard Square, and a third will open on Massachusetts Avenue near MIT later this year.

After opening the first store, where Isabel initially worked as the head chef, the couple struggled to share a tiny work space. Tensions mounted and Darwin’s physical and mental health declined. In 1998, while on a camping trip with his wife and college friends, Darwin suffered a nervous breakdown, causing him to consider ending both his marriage and his business.

“I wasn’t healing because nothing was congruent,” Darwin says. “Everything was a reflection of what I was, which sucked at the time.”

He explains that ‘namaste,’ a common term used in yoga, is like a mirror image. It can reflect the positive aspects or the darkness and negativity, depending on whatever emanates from the individual at the time.

“Namaste means ‘the light in me reflects the light in you,’” Darwin says. “Or it could be the asshole in me reflects the asshole in you. It could be anything. [It’s] my energetic person that dictates my business.”

Darwin decided to change his approach to business and life, and he sought help from friends, conventional doctors and alternative healers. One acquaintance introduced him to rolfing, a type of forceful massage therapy that repositions tissue under the skin.  The rolfer encouraged Darwin to take regular yoga classes between sessions to maintain a level of openness.

Shortly after his daughter, Chelsea, was born in 1998, Darwin took that advice and worked yoga into his daily routine. He explored different yoga types and found the classes at Baptiste Yoga in Porter Square––when owner Baron Baptiste charged only $10 per class and taught them himself––the most helpful.


Baptiste told students that one or two classes per week would make them feel better, but that practicing yoga five times per week would change their lives, Darwin recalls. Three months into his own practice, Darwin felt that his life began to transform in positive ways, but he still struggled with health problems. His medical doctor referred him to Ron Cruickshank, a Cambridge-based homeopathic healer and acupuncturist.

Cruickshank, a fan of Darwin’s Ltd. and its menu, nonetheless placed Darwin on an austere dietary regimen––restricting for one year all forms of caffeine, dairy products, refined sugar, processed foods, drugs and alcohol––claiming that the plan was to crash Darwin’s system and, ultimately, shake up his life. Cruickshank predicted that the internal changes would affect his patient’s external environment, notably with a massive turnover of employees.

Darwin, skeptical of the restrictions, asked Cruickshank incredulously, “Do you know what I do for a living?” Most items at Darwin’s Ltd. contain at least one of those ingredients.

Cruickshank emphasized the importance of trusting in universal principles, regardless of how unlikely his predictions seemed at the time. Darwin reluctantly acquiesced, but noticed almost immediate results. He says that within one month of this drastic shift, 15 to 20 of his employees left voluntarily, and new, more qualified workers replaced them.

“My energetic level changed, resulting in a new dynamic,” Darwin says. “There was a crescendoing effect. It was no longer the environment it once was, and people were dropping like flies.”

Shortly thereafter, he expanded his business on Mount Auburn Street. The growth felt easier and more natural after the internal cleansing process. Everything, Darwin says, ran more smoothly, and the concrete results encouraged him to take yoga more seriously. He upgraded from a casual practitioner to a yoga teacher, and underwent a four-year teacher study project while running his business. Eventually, Darwin worked as an instructor at Karma and be. in Union yoga studios.

He admits to approaching the discipline with a more ego-driven attitude than he does now. Practicing alongside younger, less athletic students and instructors, Darwin felt tempted to push himself beyond reasonable physical limits.

“I thought, ‘If this scrawny 21-year-old can do it, so can I,’” he says. “It was self-induced and required a a trip to the chiropractor.”

He has less to prove now, but that process has occurred over several years. Isabel believes that her husband’s ego initially prompted him to teach yoga, and it provided a humbling experience. After receiving honest feedback from his yoga peers, she says, Darwin began to see himself differently.

“Steve’s motivation to become a teacher was about ego, about receiving the attention and admiration that a teacher receives from his students,” she says.

Isabel thinks that he grew less controlling and more accepting as a result of teaching yoga. According to Darwin, his wife and his staff, he now delegates more responsibility to his managers, trusting their abilities and judgment in a way he didn’t before.

In the basement office of the Mount Auburn shop, Darwin describes some of the more recent challenges––plumbing, grease traps, coffee machines––plaguing his business. The phone rings, as it often does. Employees swoop in and out of the office. Pandemonium ensues, yet Darwin smiles and sits calmly at the center of the chaos.

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His general manager, Joetta Maue, a former yoga instructor and longtime practitioner herself, says that she has seen changes in both the store and her boss since meeting him 11 years ago. In 2003 she started working for Darwin, when he had a regular yoga practice but hadn’t yet begun teaching it. After more than two years at Darwin’s Ltd., Maue left Boston. She returned to the city and her job at the store in 2012, and observed a newfound calmness in her boss.

“I notice a difference when he’s attending more yoga classes,” she says.

Maue notes that Darwin is now more aware of the need to let go and trust the people he has trained. During her first stint at the store, she sensed that he had was more anxious and controlling.

The two remind each other when they need to attend more yoga, she says. Such prompts encourage Darwin to continue his practice, but he attends fewer classes now than he has in the past. Fearing that absorbing any more might make him dogmatic and obnoxious, he has scaled back on the physical routine. Too much of anything, he says, is just too much.

Still with Isabel, who has been his partner for 29 years, Darwin now manages his marriage, work and life with less stress. He stopped teaching yoga last summer and spends more time rock climbing, mountain biking and skiing with his wife. Darwin focuses more on the expansion of his stores, which has become a full-time venture. He still applies yoga to every facet of his life, though.

“I had to really trust that these principles do work, and then reposition myself as believing this,” he says. “Even though in Scientific American terminology, there’s no proof of any of this shit.”

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Nourish Your Soul

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Susan Cabana at her store Nourish Your Soul in West Medford. (Astrid Lium photo)

“Juice is such a life changer,” says holistic health counselor Susan Cabana.

A diet trend for some and a weight loss aid for others, juicing has become a passion and purpose for Cabana, who now builds her lifestyle and livelihood around it.

On June 9, the vivacious 45-year-old entrepreneur opened her shop, Nourish Your Soul, in West Medford, Mass. The business features fresh juices, smoothies and cleanses, and emerged in the wake of what Cabana refers to as “life challenges.”

In November 2004, her husband, Christopher, died unexpectedly at the age of 37. Cabana was suddenly a widow and single mother of three girls, then aged 5, 3 and 1. Less than five years later, in February 2009, she was laid off from her long-term financial job at Putnam Investments. “I was in a dark place for a while,” Cabana recalls. “It was like losing Chris all over again.”

She eventually began to make positive changes for herself and her family. Cabana, a longtime resident of Winchester, Mass., started to run more regularly, practice yoga daily and make healthier food choices. “I kind of woke up and decided to live,” she says. “Chris would want me to.”

While working in finance, convenience influenced many of her decisions. Relying on “whatever got me through the day” meals often consisted of quick, easy and processed foods. Those habits changed after she lost her job and examined her life more closely.
With the help of yoga, Cabana took more time for introspection. She eventually saw the layoff as an opportunity to take her life in a different direction. “I never thought it would happen, but it was truly a gift,” she says. “I’m not sure I would have been able to leave something so stable.”

Cabana enrolled in Natalia Rose’s Intensive Teacher Training program as well as the holistic Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York City. She also completed the Prana teacher-training program and became a certified yoga instructor.

Since going into business for herself, she has not looked back. As a holistic consultant, Cabana has attracted several clients, many of whom joined friends and family as juicing experimenters. “My clients often made excuses about why they wouldn’t juice,” Cabana says. “But they told me that if I made the juice, they would drink it.”

Less than four months old, Nourish Your Soul has already attracted regular customers and local press, including a nod from Stuff Magazine’s Top 100 list in July. Relying on word-of-mouth advertising thus far, Cabana has not promoted the business in more traditional ways. “There is no need to advertise just yet!” she says with a chuckle.

The next step for Nourish Your Soul is to add more edible treats to the liquid menu. Cabana also hopes to expand to more locations and add a delivery service in the near future. “I want to provide a healthy alternative to what is out there,” she says. “The standard American diet is lacking on so many levels.”

A believer in balance, Cabana says that deprivation is not sustainable. One to indulge on occasion—especially in dark chocolate—she views juicing as a lifestyle, not a diet. “Yoga is about combining the mind, body and soul,” says the holistic health consultant. “Juice does the same thing.”

Still juicing everyday, Cabana also recommends her favorite elixirs to loved ones. “My kids all love something different,” she says of her daughters, now 13, 11 and 9. Her 20-month-old son, George, from a recent relationship that was short-lived, regularly drinks a version of her green lemonade. “The sippy-cup age is a good time to start incorporating juice into the diet,” Cabana explains. “It isn’t too taxing because there is no fiber to digest.”

Her mother has also integrated fresh juice into her diet after battling two bouts of cancer. According to Cabana, the nutrients have helped boost her mother’s immune system. “Juicing has helped with the healing process,” she says. “And sharing it with others helps me heal, too.”

Nourish Your Soul’s juice and smoothie produce comes from Russo’s market in Watertown, Mass. Cabana opts for local and organic ingredients when she can, emphasizing the need for large quantities.

Focusing more on seasonal options, she introduced Watermelon Mint juice in the summer and plans to add a carrot and root vegetable-based juice/soup for autumn. To view the entire Nourish Your Soul menu, visit nourishyoursoul.com.

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