the great yoga injuries debate & the “dangers” of yoga

Illustration by Bob Al-Greene, via

Illustration by Bob Al-Greene, via

Get ready: the great yoga injuries conversation has risen from the ashes. The great debate was initially ignited in early 2012 after an infamous article in the New York Times, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.” In the past few months, we’ve seen a new rash of articles and blog posts from author William Broad, in support of the paperback version of his book, The Science of Yoga. This was followed by a rebuttal of some of Broad’s claims by Timothy McCall, M.D., Yoga Journal’s medical editor.

While some believe that the yoga community has actually benefited from increased dialogue about the dark side of the practice, the great debate has left many practitioners, and teachers, confused about what is safe and unsafe. Yoga U Online, an educational resource for yoga teachers and therapist, is attempting to open the conversation even more with a free online telesummit, April 10-14.

In advance of this event, Yoga U Online’s Eva Norlyk Smith interviewed Dr. McCall about the complexities of the yoga injury debate, and how to discern fact from fiction. Here is an excerpt from their conversation, originally published on the Huffington Post.

Eva Norlyk Smith: You yourself have been writing about yoga injuries and how to prevent them for years. So why the strong reaction to the claims made in the New York Times articles and the accompanying book?

Dr. Timothy McCall: While the coverage in the New York Times has been overly sensational, all the controversy it generated got the yoga community talking about the risk of injuries and how they can be lessened, and that’s a good thing. As with any other serious physical activity yoga, of course, can lead to injuries. But Broad goes out of his way to argue that yoga is a particularly risky — and even sometimes deadly — and that this has long been the dirty little secret of the yoga community.

Those are strong contentions, and there’s little evidence to support them. Indeed, most of the evidence we do have contradicts them. Further, little differentiation is made between more vigorous and acrobatic yoga classes, in which injuries appear to be more common, and which are clearly not suitable for everyone, and styles that are gentle and restorative. In addition, in yoga therapy tailored to the individual, injuries are very rare.

I’ve been diplomatic in my responses to these inaccuracies in the past, but the recent claims about yoga being “remarkably dangerous” for men were for me the straw that broke the camel’s back. As astronomer Carl Sagan once said “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” These are extraordinary claims about yoga, but they are backed by little if any good evidence.

Can you give an example?

Well, first off, the claims that yoga is dangerous to life and limb strangely omit data on the actual rates of yoga injuries. You can’t say that yoga puts people at great risk for injury without comparing it to the injury risk from other physical activities.

Indeed, when you look at the actual injury rates compared to other physical activities, yoga appears to be comparatively low risk. For example, in 2007 numbers, the injury rate for yoga was about 3.5 people out of every 10,000 practitioners. Compare that to the injury rate for weight-training and golf of around 15 and 39 respectively out of every 10,000 practitioners. So compared to other common physical activities, yoga appears to be much safer.

Yes, in a recent New York Times blog post, the author acknowledged that the injury rates are higher for golf and weightlifting than for yoga. But in that same post, it is argued that the injury rates matter less, because the injuries from yoga are far more serious, even life-threatening.

And that of course refers to the most disturbing claim of all: That yoga may cause strokes in some people. You take issue with the science backing up this claim as well?

This is probably the best example of an attention-grabbing claim that is not backed up by any solid scientific evidence. At issue is a relatively rare type of stroke that results from minute tears to the vertebral arteries. The vertebral arteries are linguini-like blood vessels that run along the lateral aspect toward the back of the cervical vertebrae. Strokes due to vertebral artery tears are uncommon, but they are known to occur and sometimes due to trivial trauma, such as when people move their head suddenly and abruptly, e.g. while sneezing, driving a car, or swimming the breast stroke. They can also occur if people lean their head way back, such as when painting a ceiling or when an elderly woman drops her head back into a hairdresser’s sink for a shampoo.

These are activities that millions of people do every single day without problems. So it may be that these strokes have more to do with an underlying physiological weakness, such as connective tissue abnormalities in the blood vessels, than with the precipitating event itself. It’s similar to someone with osteoporosis incurring a vertebral fracture while sneezing. You can’t say that the sneeze itself caused the vertebral fracture so much as it revealed the underlying frailty of the bones.

Read the rest of the interview on the Huffington Post.

YogaUOnline, an online educational resource, will broadcast free of charge from April 10-14, 2013 a telesummit on Yoga Injuries — Facts and Fiction, featuring Dr. Timothy McCall, Judith Hanson Lasater, Dr. Loren Fishman, Roger Cole, Jason Crandell, Leslie Kaminoff, Ellen Saltonstall, Dr. Baxter Bell, and other leading yoga teachers.

  1. Thanks again for keeping us all informed, Roseanne.


  2. This was double-posted, here and at Huff-Po. I guess the yoga mullahs are really feeling the heat? It would be funny if it weren’t also so scary – and depressing.

    The reason the issue of yoga injuries is zooming to the fore is because yoga injuries are becoming so widespread. It’s as simple as that. Go out and start reporting on what’s actually going on in the yoga world, as experienced by yoga teachers and students, rather than simply serving as marketing platform for the yoga industry. Okay?

    Last year’s so-called expert panel was largely a William Broad bitch-fest. This year’s promises to be just as ridiculous. If Leslie Kaminoff has been added, there will be one more loud voice in the room telling us why the free market in yoga — and everything else — works perfectly fine, thank you very much. No need to regulate, monitor or reform a thing. Let er rip – your ligaments included.

    We need to get to a new place in this debate, and McCall et al. have no interest in getting us there – and apparently you don’t either.

    People should be concerned if the yoga injury threat is being sensationalized. Certainly. They should be just as concerned is yoga’s healing potential is being sensationalized — and transformed into a miracle medical cure — based on junk science.

    There is a lot of good science investigation going on, but we are only at the beginning. It is raising a lot of issues about how we validate “science” when it comes to yoga.

    Yoga can heal AND yoga can hurt — badly in fact, and not just extreme injuries. The extreme injury issue is a bit of a red herring. There are plenty of everyday injuries that are becoming chronic over time through repetitive motion.

    We really don’t know what some of the research will show – over time. There is no longitudinal study out there for the masses of people who started practicing yoga over the past decade, for example, and where they might end up in another10-20 years. We are already seeing dangers signs, however. Talk to yoga teachers all across the country.

    What we really need to know is under just what circumstances, in what settings, with what yoga regimens, and with what kind of quality controls in yoga training and instruction in place, yoga’s healing potential can be maximized.

    That might be a much better starting point for discussion..

    At a minimum, we now have a pretty good idea of what yoga poses are flat out risky, and probably not needed to boot, and what yoga poses need to be modified or abandoned depending on your pre-existing condition to be reasonably safe.

    It would be nice if yoga teachers, 80-90% of whom are poorly trained, already knew these things. They should be required as part of a much deeper and intensive teacher training. Right now, because most yoga teacher training is held hostage to yoga studios seeking to make a buck, we don’t get the kinds of quality teachers we need.

    McCall, Evca Nordlyk really need to go back and read William Broad’s book — because you have completely lost perspective
    There is a backlash here from the self-appointed industry chieftains whose only interest is in keeping the yoga gravy train flowing.

    Yoga consumers — and your readers — deserve more thoughtful and informed insight about a pressing issue. We have never had so many people practicing yoga on a mass scale in such unregulated and superficial circumstances, so naturally there are real concerns about the consequences. Try to address those from here on out? Please.

  3. Thanks, Pamela, the industry just keeps rolling along, with the blithely hypocritical support of the yoga blogs that pretend to serve as honest watchdogs but only feed off of – and indeed eagerly cheerlead– the very same expanding capitalist market, most of which isn’t even comprised of expanding yoga “consumers,” just more “stuff,” really.

    Every industry that has grown to this size is in need for regulation, either stronger self-regulation, which is preferable, always, or even more intrusive regulation by public authorities.

    People piss and moan about abusive teachers but if they were licensed and regulated, they could also be fined, their business licenses suspended or revoked, and possibly subject to criminal penalties also.

    There is such a need for professional development in the yoga community, but when you only live inside your own narcissistic bubble, delude yourself daily with New Age psycho-babble, and are psychologically “enabled” by organizations like the Yoga Alliance and YAMA, you barely notice there’s even an issue.

    The truth is, though, there’s a silent majority out there comprised of teachers and students who don’t relate to the entire promotional clique at the top of the yoga industry food chain. It’s a matter of giving them a real voice. It’s happening, slowly and that’s why you see a backlash setting in also.

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