Insult To Injury

Neal Pollack's body may be wrecked from yoga, but the rest of his life is a whole lot better.

By now, every human being on Earth with a pulse and a yoga mat has responded to that New York Times Magazine piece on how "Yoga Can Wreck Your Body." If the article proved anything, it's that, when it comes to criticism, yoga practitioners are more sensitive than Justin Bieber fans. My takeaway: The photos were annoying, it's probably not a good idea to hang out in shoulderstand for too long, and, yes, yoga can wreck your body. It's certainly wrecked mine.

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I'm always injured. Since I started doing yoga eight years ago, I've popped a shoulder and knocked a sacroiliac joint out of whack. I've strained a peroneal tendon, a patellar tendon, and various neck tendons. At the moment, the inside of my left knee is as tender as a slice of marinated flank steak. Taking time off from practice doesn't seem to help. Either does practicing more often. I do yoga slowly and deliberately and I very rarely push my body anywhere near the narrow limits of what it can do. The one time I did, I strained my hamstring so badly that I had to walk with the aid of a stick for almost a month. This was in the middle of a teacher training, so you can imagine the inconvenience.

Last week my wife emailed me the details of a study. Actually, she emailed me the details of a dozen studies, like she does every week. But I actually paid attention to this one. Scientists had reached the conclusion that a traumatic birth experience, like overlong labor or an umbilical cord wrapped around the neck, could lead to fine-motor skill issues in the child. Without physical therapy, or even with physical therapy, the issues could last a lifetime.

Well, I was a breech birth. Look it up, it's pretty gross. And I've had fine-motor skills problems my entire life. For many years, I couldn't tie my shoes, and didn't learn how to ride a bike until I was 16. I'm bad at puzzles and don't understand how Legos go together. So when a yoga teacher tells me to inwardly rotate my thigh, or outwardly rotate my knee, or both, I get confused. I try, but I often get it wrong. It's hard for me to figure out which way my pelvis is tilting. I just don't understand, and I get hurt.

Often, I find myself pondering giving up the practice altogether. But then I realize how foolish that would be. I'm almost 42 years old. My body is supposed to be mildly traumatized by now. Something was going to do it, whether that thing be cycling or basketball or skiing or running or inactivity. In the voyage of life, we all end up dashed on the rocks.

So I keep doing yoga, because the benefits outweigh the occasional tweaks to my physical system. Yoga has helped me live with more calmness and equanimity, to be kinder and more thoughtful in my relationships, to not be quite as neurotic, and to deal with the constant stream of envy, self-doubt, disappointment, and anxiety that makes up the mental stuff of an ordinary human day. Knowing that there's a nonjudgmental activity available at any time where it's just me, my breath, and my imperfect, slightly-damaged frame is a great source of comfort. Doing yoga can wreck your body. But not doing yoga can wreck everything else.

Now if somebody could just explain to me how to externally rotate my femur, my life would be complete.