“how yoga can wreck your body”: the NYT takes on yoga (again)
It’s yet another article about yoga in the New York Times. And since it addresses yoga and injuries – specifically, yoga-induced injuries – it’s sent a shockwave through yoga social media channels. My Facebook feed is ablaze with links to the article, which is an excerpt from Pulitzer Prize winning journalist William J. Broad‘s upcoming book, The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards.
In the article, he focuses on the experience and observations of yoga teacher Glenn Black, who is apparently “the person to speak with if you wanted to know not about the virtues of yoga but rather about the damage it could do.”
According to Black, a number of factors have converged to heighten the risk of practicing yoga. The biggest is the demographic shift in those who study it. Indian practitioners of yoga typically squatted and sat cross-legged in daily life, and yoga poses, or asanas, were an outgrowth of these postures. Now urbanites who sit in chairs all day walk into a studio a couple of times a week and strain to twist themselves into ever-more-difficult postures despite their lack of flexibility and other physical problems. Many come to yoga as a gentle alternative to vigorous sports or for rehabilitation for injuries. But yoga’s exploding popularity — the number of Americans doing yoga has risen from about 4 million in 2001 to what some estimate to be as many as 20 million in 2011 — means that there is now an abundance of studios where many teachers lack the deeper training necessary to recognize when students are headed toward injury. “Today many schools of yoga are just about pushing people,” Black said. “You can’t believe what’s going on — teachers jumping on people, pushing and pulling and saying, ‘You should be able to do this by now.’ It has to do with their egos.”
When yoga teachers come to him for bodywork after suffering major traumas, Black tells them, “Don’t do yoga.” (via NYT)
William J. Broad provides further quotes from Glenn Black about the state of some high-profile yoga teachers and cites “growing medical evidence that many commonly taught yoga poses are risky for certain people.” He also details a history of shocking yoga-induced injuries: otherwise healthy people suffering strokes and severe vertebral damage. “Surveys by the Consumer Product Safety Commission,” he writes, “showed that the number of emergency-room admissions related to yoga, after years of slow increases, was rising quickly. They went from 13 in 2000 to 20 in 2001. Then they more than doubled to 46 in 2002.”
The article ends with a final quote from Glenn Black, after back surgery to treat spinal stenosis, from a conference at the Omega Institute. “My message was that ‘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.’ A lot of people don’t like to hear that.”
Oy! What to think! Of course, this is an excerpt from a soon-to-be-released book, and it feels unfinished, part of something else. There is no final conclusion or take-away, and parts of the story are missing. And the title is more than a little hyperbolic. As someone who struggles with a chronic back condition, who has been told by my chiropractor to stop practicing asana (then told it was okay to practice), I am in a constant process of listening and self-education. But I’m concerned that an article like this, which stirs up melodrama but doesn’t offer readers an empowering alternative, may serve only to frighten and confuse newer practitioners.
However, it also stimulates some much-needed discussion about safety and integrity in the yoga teaching community. After I posted the article on the IAYB Facebook fanpage, a lively discussion ensued.
“Is that article ever going to cause a yoga backlash or what?” commented California-based yoga teacher and author Sandy Blaine. “Pretty scary and alarmist… and missing what I think are the main points: It’s not usually the asanas themselves that are the culprits, it’s that yoga has become such a profit-driven business, so the norm is large group classes where students don’t receive personal attention; poses are typically taught without proper attention to preparation, technique or individual need;, there is a proliferation of poorly-trained teachers (which the article does mention), many of whom started out as dancers and have little understanding of the limitations of less flexible bodies.”
Charlotte Bell chimed in by reminding us all that “asana was not developed to be practiced by itself. The system of yoga (the eight limbs) provides the tools to get a handle on the ego, which for me, is the most important quality required for teaching yoga safely. If you are truly investigating your relationship to the yamas and niyamas and integrating them into your life, you will eventually realize at a very deep level just how unimportant achieving “advanced” asanas is.”
In this excerpt, William J. Broad has done a wonderful job of giving us the risks of yoga – I look forward to reading the rest of the book and seeing how he explains the rewards.