When Yoga Hurts

ashtanga yoga pose
Photo Credit: IYC Kudanshita

Yoga is really popular, wouldn’t you agree? As with most things, along with soaring popularity comes a fair amount of skepticism and critique. A recent article in Time Magazine very briefly explored the casualties of the current yoga surge. According to the article, entitled “When Yoga Hurts,” 13,000 of the current 14 million practitioners are winding up with injuries directly linked to Hatha Yoga. By my calculations this is less than one percent (0.09285% to be exact), and I can’t speak for everyone, but to me this seems to be a vote in favor of the practice, its practitioners, and its teachers. Imagine if any other physical activity maintained such a low occurrence of injury.

Now, I should add that I’m biased. I have been practicing yoga for over a decade, and teaching for half of one. And admittedly, I have suffered an injury or two as the result of an overzealous practice coupled with a lack of respect for the state of my body at the time. Yet I’m a fanatic believer in the power of the practice. Yes, injuries do happen, and the spectrum of fault is about as wide as the injuries themselves. In my experience, injuries occur most often as a result of our tendency toward the extreme activity and stimulation, known as rajas in some yogic circles. And yes, sometimes injury occurs as a result of an improper adjustment from the teacher. In fact, I just returned from a five day training with my teacher, who led off with the statement that “teaching yoga is one of the most under regulated and overly invasive professions around.” In many ways this is true. It is not required that you complete dozens of trainings or years of study to teach this practice, and indeed there are probably thousands of “yoga teachers” out there who know very little about the safety and risks of yoga asana. In the years since I received my 200 hour certification I have run the gamut of adjusting from very hands on to very hands off, and I have definitely ended up on the conservative side. From the perspective of a teacher, I do my best to approach the class experience as individual to each student. So, with the exception of safety and the occasional deepening, I do not feel that it is my place to alter their experience of asana simply because I might have a toolbox of techniques and experiments. As practitioners, we all know how much we love a good smoosh in child’s pose or a crank in prayer twist. But as we begin to bring awareness to the subtleties of the experience instead of expectations of an observer, we begin to deepen our sense of what Yoga can accomplish both on and off the mat.

However, if yoga injuries are on the rise, even a fraction, then we as students, practitioners, and teachers might do well to reevaluate our intentions for the practice and reframe our experience as the process of deepening our awareness of our bodies, our minds, and our selves. In addition, maybe we as students should take more responsibility in choosing a qualified, well trained teacher. We can consider our role in the shift from a one on one, teacher student driven practice to an aerobics class that has been edited for content and renamed Hatha Yoga.

Finally, the Time article states that the practice of yoga does not offer a “comprehensive way to get fit,” though it seems to point to the fact that a dilution of the practice could be the culprit. In contrast, there are many studies, such as the one on the Mayo Clinic website, that have shown that the practice of Hatha Yoga has a significant effect on the levels of the stress hormone, Cortisol, in the body. And as you probably know, so many of the illnesses and disorders in today’s world are a result of or intensified by our current levels of stress. If we can manage to keep that little monster under control, so many of the other issues like diet, exercise and rest, begin to take care of themselves. So, my recommendation would be, choose your teacher wisely, understand that there is a lot more to the practice than breaking a sweat or stretching your hamstrings, and be respectful of your body, no matter what anyone else may suggest.

Comments 6

  1. I agree with Kelly that less than 1/10 of one percent is a VERY low injury rate, and for Time to use this as a negative fact is rather skewed. It seems strange that they did not compare this to injury rates of other exercises. But injuries do happen in yoga by poorly trained teachers and by inexperienced or overzealous students.

    My advice for students is on par with Kelly: choose your teacher wisely and practice with acute awareness of your limitations, not overriding the wisdom of the body.

    My advice for teachers is to always teach with Ahisma (non-violence) as your primary intention. When giving assists learn to listen with your hands. Start with a gentle light touch and slowly apply more pressure. If you feel any tension from the student or feel they are at the end range of their joint movement, stop immediately! Listen with your hands and stop if anything doesn’t feel right. Always error on the side of safety and never push your students to where you think or want them to be.

  2. I agree with Kelly’s rebuttal. I started very basic Hatha Yoga when I was 15 years old (self-taught) and practiced off and on until the past year when I have been doing key basic poses very consistently and mindfully. I am now 52 years old and feel absolutely fantastic – better than ever, actually! I do combine Hatha Yoga with aerobics – rebounding on a trampline for a complete workout. Yoga tones and stretches me and gives me a sense of oneness and the rebounding on the trampoline gives me an aerobics outlet.. From my personal experience – at least in doing Hatha Yoga (I’ve only delved a little bit into Vinyasa), if one uses common sense like starting each new pose very gradually and gracefully – no jerky movements, no pushing one to pain, I believe that one will not suffer any injuries. I have never had an injury from Yoga nor any soreness – probably because I have been deligent in moving carefully and progressively. No rushing – no straining. In this area I agree with the author in that people may rush into Yoga too fast too soon. Regarding comprehensive health, I do believe Yoga positively benefits one’s internal organs, especially the inverted poses (which again must be approached cautiously and carefully at first) and can help regulate one’s metabolism. The past six months I have made a point of practicing with the intention of rejuvenating and massaging my body (as opposed to in the past – when I did the poses less mindfully and more just as “exercising” the physical body). The diference in how I feel is astonishing. I feel so energized in the morning after my practice and I have to admit that it certainly can rev up one’s libido! (and I’m post-menopausal too..)

    While the Time article was accurate in saying that some problems may have emerged because of Yoga practice being diluted, I think the author did not do a comprehensive enough job in her research. For me, though, doing Hatha Yoga with aerobic rebounding provides maximum benfits.

    Laura Rodriguez

  3. I agree with Kelly all the way. I have just recently started practicing Yoga a couple months ago and it doesn’t take long to realize that I am moving my body in ways that I normally don’t, so it is not used to these positions and stretches that I am now doing. Anytime you start anything new with your body, you have to be careful because again, it’s new. Yoga is also a fairly new practice, so I do think that it is very important to know some background information on who you are learning from. Another thing that I agree with Kelly on is it seems a bit strange that Time Magazine made the number of people getting injured while practicing job a negative fact. Although a person getting injured is never a good thing, compared to any other physical activity, it is quite a low number. Yoga has been one of the most relaxing things I have ever experienced! Even when my body is in some crazy positions, it feels absolutely fabulous and it is definitely something everyone should try. But, like any other physical activity, you should always be careful and stop if your body doesn’t like it.

  4. Personally, I tore my body apart with yoga . . . and then rebuilt it. As a practitioner of more than 20 years I have studied, practiced and taught several styles.

    One of the key dis- agreements I have with the norm is “just do the practice – it will take care of your injuries and pain”. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    There are contra-indications for each general and specific injury. Most well intentioned students and teachers attempt to stretch the pain and injury out of the body, instead of listening to the body and the breath.

    To feel, heal or bring an area of the body more fully alive, you must breathe into the area. Your breath determines your bodies boundaries.

    It will tell you at what rate to move into the posture and how deeply to go – if at all.

    Attitude is important. Do you have a healing and loving attitude towards yourself in your practice?

    Adjustments – unless you are a gifted healer – keep your hands off of me.
    A teacher needs to watch, listen to and synchronize with the students breath if they are to adjust them at all. Adjusting if and only when the breath and body tell you to – and let them go deeper themselves, it’s only natural.

  5. Richard,

    Your insights are beautiful and invaluable. I have also sustained quite a few injuries from my yoga practice, and healed myself with the practice as well. I know that my injuries have been my greatest teacher, and my greatest asset as a teacher.
    I agree that all teachers should know and honor the contra-indications help make students aware and safe. And adjustments should be used sparingly.
    Your sensitivity to the importance of the breath is invaluable, and is true in life in the world as well as on the mat.
    Thank you.
    bless, kelly

  6. With muscoskeletal issues I feel in love with vinyasa yoga where I found I could move again, and then I got certified in a pscho/phsical hatha and this conflict leaves me feeling inconsistant with my students. I stumbled into low impact arobics AMA, and I began to understand the hatha I was teaching my students was as is for intermediate; but for beginers they needed a better warm- up… a better warmup for beginners.

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