Can Yoga Wreck Your Body?

Can Yoga Wreck Your Body?
Photo by The Yoga People

A recent article by NY Times science journalist William Broad claims that “a number of commonly taught yoga poses are inherently risky,” following on similar sensationalist claims in recent weeks. As in the latter case, Broad’s assertions are poorly supported and fail to consider the broader context of yoga’s benefits.  In a possible effort to plug for his upcoming book, Broad takes a careless approach that may turn many off to a practice that has numerous proven benefits.

Despite being published in the Science section, the article fails to cite data that conclusively links yoga practice to greater injuries than other sport activities. Broad cites a few extreme case studies from several decades past and includes the statistic of yoga-related emergency-room admissions rising from 13 in 2000 to 20 in 2001, and more than doubling to 46 in 2002.  Considering the 5-fold increase in yoga practitioners from 2001 to 2011, according to The Times, this statistic is hardly surprising.

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However, injuries related to sports and injuries (for persons aged 35 to 54) totaled more than 365,000 in 1998 over 16 different activities, averaging more than 22,800 admissions per activity. Because yoga asana has not previously been classified as a sport, comparative data does not allow us to assess its safety and efficacy in relationship to other sports/fitness activities, although these data suggest yoga is not likely to have a higher injury rate. In fact, published studies investigating the benefits of yoga consistently report few injuries,  with one survey suggesting fewer than 1% of practitioners sustain injury during practice.

Importantly, research studies typically employ experienced yoga instructors and have specialized guidelines for classes and research subjects. Many community classes don’t afford adequate one-on-one attention, and postures executed without appropriate alignment may result in injury.  In Broad’s criticism of certain yoga poses as ‘dangerous,’ he thus fails to make any distinction between the safety of a pose in general and the safety of a pose done incorrectly.

Broad also makes the mistake of equating yoga with physical asana practice, a common Western misattribution. Yet yoga postures are only a single limb of yoga’s 8-limbed path. When properly taught, yoga incorporates key yamas and niyamas that help prevent against injuries.

This misrepresentation may be partially responsible for yoga injuries. Basic yoga postures were never intended to be practiced in isolation from the 8-limbed path. In the appearance-obsessed US, however, physical postures, which have more in common with gymnastics than yoga, have usurped yoga’s greater meaning. When practiced absent yoga’s greater context, these poses may lead to injury just as they can and do in any other strenuous physical activity.

Broad closes by citing the experience of yoga instructor Glenn Black, who sustained a spinal injury he attributes to decades of misaligned backbends and inversions. “Asana is not a panacea or a cure-all. In fact, if you do it with ego or obsession you’ll end up causing problems,” Black says. Therein lies the article’s fatal flaw. Yoga practiced in the context of the 8-limbed path is highly unlikely to wreck your body, but an unhindered ego pushing beyond one’s physical limits likely will. Broad thus unwittingly gives credence to the notion that the ego, not yoga itself, will cause yoga practitioners or participants of any sport to potentially experience injury.

Practiced with an attentive and experienced instructor who teaches the yamas/niyamas, breath/body awareness, and mindfulness, yoga poses are unlikely to “wreck your body” any more than would undertaking a beginning exercise routine in any other discipline. In fact, injury is probably less likely due to increased interoception (body awareness).

What are your thoughts on the safety of yoga and/or the ego’s role in related injuries?

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