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.