This is Article #2 in a Series on Yoga Injury Prevention
Article #1 is HERE.
Was Ida Rolf RIGHT About The Dangers of Yoga?
Does Yoga Compress the Joints, as Ida Claimed?
PART I on Joint Compression
Who Was Ida P. Rolf and Why Should You Care?
You might have heard of Ida P. Rolf, Ph.D., founder of a system of hands-on bodywork called Structural Integration, otherwise known as Rolfing®. (There are quite a few yoga teachers who are also certified as Rolfers. In fact, Yoga and various forms of hands-on bodywork actually go very well together.)
Ida was a very influential and in many ways a positive force in the world of manual, therapeutic bodywork, especially more structurally oriented approaches. One could say Ida Rolf was a Grandmother of modern, therapeutic bodywork.
Yet, along with homeopathy and osteopathy, yoga was a major factor in Ida’s early understandings of the human bodymind, and she had for years been a student and advocate of yoga practice, especially in therapeutic situations. Ida studied with several of the early American pioneers of yoga in the 1920s and 1930s, including the more esoteric practices of tantric yoga.
Yoga was, to a great extent, an Organizing Principle of Ida's early life and career as a therapist.
According to an article at www.rolfing.org.au/ :
… "Dr. Rolf declared that yoga was the best exercise system ever devised, if the student worked with a good teacher," says Jeff Linn, Certified Rolfer and archivist. …
… [Ida] aligned her vision of Rolfing with the goals of yoga, "a physical system that enriches the student's body, mind and spiritual well being through an understanding of structural balance.” One article, Deep Impact by Linda Knittel, states that, due to its intensity and sometimes painful moments, Rolfing had the reputation of being “… the Ashtanga Yoga of bodywork.” …
For those of you who don't know, Ashtanga Yoga is a very aggressive from of physical yoga. It is considered a major form or overt exercise, very strenuous, and often leaves the practitioners with residual aches & pains. It is certainly in the realm of the more athletic approaches to yoga, rather than the slow, meditative, relaxing systems.
One of the relatively well known negatives of Rolfing was the acceptance of pain as a necessary component of the healing process. For the client to experience pain was considered, for the most part, an unavoidable and necessary aspect of bringing the body back into alignment. It was part of the No Pain More Gain approach to healing. And for some people, Rolfing was quite painful, to the point many people did not continue their sessions.
Over the years, however, especially after Ida and her son passed away, increasing numbers of Rolfers moved away from the No Pain More Gain approach, becoming much less aggressive in their manual techniques. However, their ideas on fascia or connective tissue have become wide-spread.
Ida Rolf’s Problem with Yoga
SO, one day, many years ago, I was staying at an acquaintance’s house right on the coast Pacific Ocean in the amazingly beautiful town of Laguna Beach in Southern California. Her front balcony was, literally, over-hanging the ocean's edge. … A very nice place to hang out for a few days.
Late one night, I was up in a sleeping loft reading a book on Ida’s perspectives by Rosemarie Feitus, Ida Rolf Talks About Rolfing and Physical Reality. In it, Ida said yoga compresses the joints and can lead to long term trouble!!!
As a result, Ida Rolf, formerly a major proponent of physical yoga, eventually stopped recommending yoga to her Clients & Students.
To Say The Least, I Was Somewhat Shocked!
Here I was, making my living as a yoga/bodywork therapist and teacher who used both yoga and bodywork specifically, among a few other things, to DE-compress joints of my Clients & Students. Now she comes along and implies I'm doing the opposite! How could this be? How could she think this? …
To confirm for you that Ida actually said this in the book, here, again, is more from the article at www.rolfing.org.au/:
At the time, Rolf was cautious about referring her students to yoga. … "If the teacher was not good then it could do serious damage in the long term."
"Dr. Rolf always investigated what was new and was never afraid to take what she learned and use it," says Rosemarie Feitus, Certified Rolfer, in the introduction to her book, “Ida Rolf Talks About Rolfing and Physical Reality.” "In those years of practicing and discussing the principles of yoga; [Dr. Rolf] was establishing the basis of her future work; that bodies need to lengthen and be balanced, and that a balanced body will give rise to a better human being," says Feitus. "Slowly she realized that the asanas did not achieve length and separation of the joints, that in too many cases there was actual contraction of the joint surfaces. Something else was needed." Sometime later, Rolfing was born.
So here was the Great Ida Rolf, revered by many bodyworkers and yoga practitioners across the nation and even the world, saying she had, over the years, and based on much observation, changed her mind about the benefits and now dangers of yoga, at least for enough people that, as a result, she moved away from yoga. …
Rolf Movement® was eventually created by some of her early students of Structural Integration, in part to replace yoga. …
But, the operative phrase in the quote above is “… in too many cases.” Apparently, Ida observed at least some cases in which the joints do NOT compress! … That means, of course, not ALL cases. …
You and I need to explore the difference between “in too many cases” versus “in ALL cases,” and what makes the difference? Why did some compress their joints, and not others? … So, what IS the difference?
That is the crucial element of her statements, and of evaluating how valid her arguments were, or not.
Was Ida Rolf Right About Yoga? …
Does Yoga Compress the Joints? …
Now, my very first reaction to all this was: This can’t be right! In my mind, if yoga was compressing their joints, they must be doing it wrong! But, what is “wrong”? What would "right" or "wrong" yoga look like?
I had — by the time of my visit on Laguna Beach — been doing yoga for many years, and often 3 to 4 hours PER DAY, 5 to 6 days per week, for extended periods of time. In both my personal and professional experiences, yoga had been doing wonders at DE-compressing my structure, my muscles & joints, and my mind, too! I could literally feel my joints becoming more mobile, with less grinding and stiffness, less "clunking" and "popping."
(Maybe there was too much de-compression of my mind, but that’s another topic!)
And my Private Clients in my yoga/bodywork therapy practice felt they were getting exceptional results, as well.
So my first, immediate, emotionally driven impulse was to disagree and discredit Ida’s observations. But I immediately — like within seconds — realized I did not get good at doing what I do by being closed minded. I had to be open to new points of view if I wanted to stay on the leading edge of yoga, bodywork, and whole health practices, even if they contradicted my then-current beliefs and experiences.
I also knew Ida had a lot of experience, skill and insight, as well as a lot of scientific knowledge, even if I disagreed with some of her conclusions and techniques. (Especially the degree to which she focused on fascia, and how much pain many people endured from her therapy. Her son and many of her early followers were notorious for that, as well.)
So, what could I learn from Ida? I started to think about …
What Others See & Mental Yoga
As I examined the issue, I considered the suggestion of Joel Kramer, the man I originally learned most of my yoga from. He said, when someone has a point-of-view that doesn't seem right to us, we should ask ourselves: What must be true for that person to think that way? Or as Joel phrased it, Where must their head* be at, to have that point-of-view?
* In case you've not been around a lot of hippies or beatniks lately, the "Head" meaning perspective or mind.
This is a basic premise of mental and relational yoga, which Joel and his partner, Diana Alstad pioneered and developed, taught and wrote about many years ago, and continued doing so for many years.
Since I could not ask her — Ida had already been dead for over a decade — I tried to figure out for myself: How could Ida be right? What was she seeing taking her to this conclusion? How could yoga actually compress the joints? …
So I began to rethink the question by putting myself in the perspective of someone who did conclude that yoga compressed the joints. What would I be seeing if I had already come to that conclusion? … It did not take long.
Joel Kramer Meets Ida Rolf …
(Well, Not Really … Only In My Mind)
Back in 1976, and based in great part on Joel’s hatha and jnana yoga teachings (an unique integration of physical, mental & relational yoga), I had learned a very different approach to the process and practice of yoga than was, at the time, commonly taught in America. I thought about my experiences of yoga from Joel Kramer, and my subsequent practice, versus what many people had told me was their experience of yoga (including many Private Bodywork Clients, some of them long-time yoga teachers whom had been damaged by yoga).
I thought about what I experienced when attending other teachers’ classes, or what I read, heard or saw in countless books, articles, tapes and DVDs on yoga — and more recently confirmed on various webpages — especially as compared to what Joel taught.
And I was familiar with how much, if not most, physical or postural yoga from India was taught. …
… VERY Aggressively
It all quickly came together for me. It was easy to see that Ida had, to a great degree, been correct.
The way yoga is taught in many, if not most, classes and programs around the United States, and Europe and India too, yoga does, VERY much of the time, compress the joints. Maybe even most of the time. And in many cases, enough to lead to pathological problems, ranging from minor to major.
Ironically, some of the systems claiming to be the most "structurally sound" approaches to help insure "safety" in postures are the very systems most likely to create joint compression. Many people experience great results from such practices. But some percentage end up suffering. And a few of those sufferers are indeed world-class yoga teachers, considered to be experts in those very systems of yoga.
And tragically, the internet (as well as in one-on-one, in-person conversations) is scattered here and there with stories of people who've been pushed or pulled around, verbally and/or physically, sometimes forced or even Beaten, Kicked or Slapped, to the point of damage by some of these world class "yoga masters," or their lesser known but no less aggressive, sometimes more so, teacher trainees or disciples.
Yet most of Ida's early yoga exposure had been from these Yoga Masters from India, and their (usually) far more aggressive & compressive approaches (however unintentional) to yoga. Beign "kind" toward their body was not a very common element of their yoga practices.
Even Krishnamurti, the man raised by the Theosophical Society to be the New Christ on Earth (a position he eventually rejected), was exposed to the very best yoga masters in India and the world. Yet he became disillusioned with one of these VERY well-known teachers and their all-too-aggressive behavior. … And being exposed to those communities, it's no wonder that's most of what Ida saw.
How joint compression happens might be more subtle than other more aggressive forms of exercise, but it is clearly there to see, once you know what to look for, and what to FEEL. But sometimes, what we THINK we feel and see, compared to what is really going on, are two different things …
You can see a graphic description of joint compression in Part II of this article.
As you'll read elsewhere in this website, I believe Joel Kramer was a primary driver of moving yoga toward a slower, more introspective and meditative way of doing physical/mental yoga here in America.
UPDATE: Well, this is not good. According to a third party (Michaelle Edwards, LMT, at her YogAlign.com website), the word is that even Joel Kramer, along with several other well-known, world-class instructors, ended up having hip, knee or other joint replacements! Even Joel — apparently spending too much time, too deep, too intensely, into his postures — over-stressed his joints, too! He, the man I modeled my Low Intensity, Minimum Edge theories off of, ended up with hip replacements as well. …
From Michaelle Edward's article at: http://yogainjuries.net/twists_turns.html …
Famous yoga teachers such as Beryl Bender, Patricia Walden, Dharma Mittra, and Joel Kramer have all undergone surgery for double hip replacements and Judith Lasater has had one hip replaced.
This is truly a bummer.
My Big Question is, did he (or the others) REALLY need the surgery? Or was there another, less invasive solution?
I do know that my approach to yoga, while in many ways derived directly from Joel's principles, has been far more toward the Minimum Edge approach, meaning far less intensity and depth of stretching, than his. Joel often appeared to me, when doing his yoga, to be pushing his maximum edges as far as he could, for as long as he could, with a lot of intensity, while I had a much more laid back approach.
I thought maybe I was just being lazy?
Yet it might be because I had so much trauma, injury and pain from heavy construction work, and injuries from racing (and crashing a lot in) motocross, before I got into yoga, that I could not do yoga very aggressively at all anyway.
And my "edges" were no where near the potential range-of-motion of joints with fully relaxed muscles. I had to focus far more completely on the relaxation & decompression aspects of yoga to relieve my injuries. So as a result, I believe, the possibility of stressing my joints was far less.
But it's ironic that the very principles I learned from Joel to prevent such things apparently didn't work in his case. Or rather, it appears to me that he did not take certain of his principles far enough? Or rather, while I got the idea of the Minimum Edge from him, he much preferred the Maximum Edge (understandable), while I had to stay much closer to the Minimum Edge to facilitate my healing process.
One question for a Competent & Compassionate Yoga Educator or Therapist (or any therapist or coach using stretching of any kind):
How do I encourage my Students or Clients to NOT be so tempted to push their limits — their Maximum Edge — so far that they risk endangering their joints and other tissues?
How do I encourage them to NOT spend so much Time & Intensity at their Maximum Edges?
How do I get them to become more interested in their Minimum Edges, the land of less intensity, so they become far more Sensitive & Competent at Feeling & Controlling their nerves, muscles & joints?
And is it better for a practitioner to spend more of their time at the Moderate Edges, that range of Movement & Sensation in between the extremes?
The Anatomy & Physiology How Joint Compression Happens.
Thanks for Reading,
David Scott Lynn (DSL*)
* DSL: Your Hi-Touch Up-Link to the Inner-Net.
Inner-Net: Your Psycho-Neuro-Musculo-Fascial System