“how yoga can wreck your body”: the NYT takes on yoga (again)

Ouch - yoga's gonna hurt, if your practice is driven by ego and bad form (image via icanhascheezburger.com)

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.

Related: yoga: the painful truth book review + q&a
the IAYB review of ‘the science of yoga’
exclusive video interview with author, william j. broad

  1. Something that has been kind of bumming me out lately as both a yoga and pilates teacher is people who are injured and continue practicing yoga or pilates, attempting to do the full class without accommodating their injuries in any way. Oftentimes students come up to me at the END of class and talk about an injury they’re dealing with and ask me what I would recommend. The first thing I ask is have you asked a doctor/physiotherapist/osteopath/chiro about this? Their answer is usually no. I try to let them know that it’s probably a good idea to listen to their body, get it checked out and either modify or take a break from their practice. They are back in class the next day doing the full exercises… I know this is slightly off topic, but I have to say that it’s really hard as a teacher to watch people putting their bodies in jeopardy.

    • hi sasha ~ great observations, and i don’t think you’re off topic at all.

      i agree that people have to take responsibility for their own bodies and health. and it’s also difficult, as a teacher, to watch people push themselves. we can observe, give modifications and make recommendations (such as seeing a doctor, etc), but if people don’t listen then it’s beyond our control. we can only work with what we know.

  2. thanks for your take on this, Roseanne.
    all through reading the NYT article, I kept thinking “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”.
    yoga doesn’t break backs, or cause strokes. that these injuries can occur speaks to the massive energy available to us as yoga practitioners, and the responsibility required to practice with awareness and compassion.

  3. I think part of the problem is that there just are not enough gentle or therapeutic classes available. Is it because of the lack of training of the teachers? Possibly. But I also think that it is because of lack of interest on the students’ part. Whenever I have a physical therapy patient who wants to resume asana classes, I have to really sell them on attending a beginner level class for a while before jumping back into an intermediate or advanced flow class. I don’t know how many times I have tried to convince patients that a beginner class can be just as challenging when you have to hold poses, refine alignment, focus your breath, etc. It can be a hard sell.

  4. Thanks for your commentary, Roseanne. I always appreciate your willingness to dig under the surface. I read the NYT article when it blasted out all over the blogosphere. While I felt the title was just a tad incendiary, I do agree that asana practice, especially when practiced on its own without the tempering effects of the rest of the system, can be injurious.

    I’m a very careful practitioner. While I’ve only sustained one injury in 30 years that was directly related to my practice—and it was 25 years ago, I know that some of the ill-informed alignment instructions I followed early on exacerbated other non-yoga injuries. I’m not an overly competitive person by nature, but it has still taken me decades to get to the point where I no longer need to practice “advanced” poses that compromise the integrity of my body. I can’t imagine how hard it is for Type A’s.

    I agree with you, Sasha and Lisa that it is very difficult to convince people to partner with their bodies instead of trying to conquer them. This is where an emphasis on all the eight limbs is so important. If asana is seen as an end in itself, we will always be striving for “success.” If it is woven into the context of all the other aspects, many of which temper the need to perform or give us the tools to be more mindful of where we are coming from, I feel asana is less likely to be injurious.

  5. Reading the anecdotes, I couldn’t help thinking, “These people are NOT the norm!” Most students do not sit in Vajrasana for HOURS at a stretch, for example. And no decent teacher would force an upright Salamba Sarvangasana without blankets or Urdhva Dhanurasana if a student is struggling even with her head on the floor! I mean, we could take egregious cases in any discipline/activity and make a case for its riskiness.

    I admit that I sustain asana-related injuries from time to time, but they’re all my fault (ambition, overuse, misguided awareness, etc), not the asana’s!

  6. The real problem isn’t yoga—or weight training, jogging, paddling, carrying a heavy box, bending to tie your shoes—it’s HOW one inhabits the body while doing any of these things. Unfortunately, our cultural understanding of “good posture” is a wrong turn, and this structural misalignment is what causes so many people, including yoga teachers (of which I was one for 16 years) to injure themselves doing yoga and many other things.

    Yoga has become a “sacred cow”, and it can only be good to have an open discussion about why so many people get hurt doing this practice. This video gives a graphic explanation of how this works, and why REAL flexibility comes from aligned bones, not from stretching! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AECYId2n32c

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