Many yoga practitioners and teachers believe that yoga is good for us on all levels: spiritually, emotionally and physically. However, lately there is increasing evidence that yoga can be harmful as well as healing. Recent articles in Time Magazine (“When Yoga Hurts,” from 2007) and The Globe & Mail (“Trouble on the Om Front,” from 2009) are exploring the reasons behind statistics indicating an increase in yoga-related injuries. Between 2004 and 2007, approximately 13,000 people were treated for yoga-related injuries, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Kevin Khalili, a chiropractor based in California, has added another voice to this growing (and essential) conversation, with his self-published book, X-Posed: The Painful Truth Behind Yoga & Pilates. Here, he claims that common motions and positions in daily life – which are actually stressful and unbalanced – are duplicated during certain yoga exercises. He singles out improper lying down, sitting and bending/lifting from the waist as the most dangerous motions.
In his chiro practice, Kevin noticed that yoga (and Pilates, but I’m only focusing on the yoga here) are the source of many needless, painful injuries, and he was compelled to research and study how this could be prevented. The information in X-Posed is supported by plenty of studies and academic reports (listed in a six-page bibliography at the end of the book), as well as observations in his office. According to his research, the most dangerous classes of poses are seated, forward bends and inversions. He includes a chapter on each class, detailing the aspects of the poses that are hazardous for most body types, and including alternatives. A chapter called “Lost Treasures” lists the “hidden gems” that are beneficial for most bodies.
I find it interesting that Kevin notes that North Americans have approached practicing yoga in a “dangerously uncritical way,” and that the positive effects of yoga (including the “sense of elation” that many of us feel after practice) have clouded our judgement. As well, yoga is marketed as something that is innocuous and beneficial, leading us to believe that it’s all good. “Motion is motion,” he writes, “and just because we are performing a wrong motion in a tranquil healing environment, it doesn’t make it a right motion for your body.”
Yet, X-Posed is not an attack on yoga, and Kevin repeatedly says that he is concerned about the safety and health of practitioners. The tone of the book is reasonable and balanced, and the information is well-researched. Since the book was self-published, the writing and editing isn’t as rigorous as the research, but the information is there and the intention is clear.
It takes a lot of courage to speak out consciously *against* yoga. Luckily, Kevin can explain his reasons for writing the book better than I can. He graciously agreed to answer some questions for me.
What is your intention with this book?
My intention is to help establish safer standards of practice for yoga via valid scientific principles. In a nutshell: reduce risks and boost benefits of yoga practice.
What kind of research process did you go through to come to the conclusion that some poses aren’t safe?
I was compelled to write this book because I saw so many needless and preventable yoga injuries by both students and seasoned instructors. I spent nearly 5 years researching and writing this book. It’s primarily based in rigorous scientific medical literature because I knew my opinion and my 19 years of clinical experience would have little value on its own.
I understand that you aren’t “anti-yoga” and that you actually practice yoga yourself. Could you tell me a little about your personal practice? Why do you practice yoga?
I practice yoga about 3 times a week as part of a 75-90 minute home workout routine that I custom developed to specifically suit my body. I practice to achieve balance, strength, flexibility, and relaxation. Some of my favorite poses that best fit my body are mountain pose, upward salute pose, warrior 1 pose, bow pose, wheel pose, cobra, bridge pose, locust pose, pigeon pose, dolphin plank pose, corpse pose, reclining hero pose, reclining bound angle pose, and reclining big toe pose.
What is the purpose of yoga? What is the purpose of asana?
The purpose of yoga is open mindedness, balance, evolution, learning, harmony and the passionate pursuit of optimal health. Asana is a vehicle of yoga to help achieve balance, strength, flexibility and relaxation.
You imply that seated poses are among the most dangerous poses to practice. Yet, in the yoga world, seated poses are considered gentle and therapeutic for people who may not have the endurance for a class based in standing poses. For example, many classes for seniors incorporate seated poses (and often “chair yoga”). What do you think about this?
Unfortunately, the gentleness of seated poses has wrongly been assumed as being safe. Many seniors’ classes incorporate “chair yoga” because sitting in a chair is safer and better for you than sitting on the floor. Why do we understand that sitting all day at our desks is not best suited for our bodies but we don’t accept the scientific fact that sitting on a floor is a worse biomechanic ergonomic situation?
We assume it is okay just because it is “gentle” and labeled “yoga.”
I have seen many injuries to the lower back, hip, and knees from these sitting type poses, even from seasoned instructors. Most repetitive stress injuries are the result of repeatedly doing abnormal motions/positions that are “gentle.” I agree with you that we shouldn’t just do standing poses. In fact, the majority of poses that I recommend are not standing.
Another class of poses that you state is dangerous for spinal health are inversions (especially headstand, shoulderstand and plow pose). Should we not practice these poses at all? The yoga tradition tells us that these poses have many subtle benefits ~ do you think this is a viable reason to continue to practice these poses?
Due to the risk verses benefit ratio, I simply recommend avoiding these poses. My research suggests that there are approximately 1000 poses in yoga and by avoiding the inversion poses we can still have a very fulfilled yoga workout. Some of the worst injuries I have seen in my office are a result of these inversion type poses.
Some of your recommended “reformed yoga” poses don’t resemble anything that I’ve seen in a yoga class or yoga book. Do you think this comprises the integrity of the yoga tradition?
I believe the whole purpose of the yoga tradition is too be openminded and continually evolve oneself and the practice of yoga. Yoga deserves this and I believe it is our duty to apply this knowledge which only benefits the yogi for a enhanced practice with reduced risk. Knowledge is power and I am merely the presenter of scientific knowledge to help the yoga community. I recommend practitioners like myself worldwide have working relationships with yoga instructors in their community to offer them invaluable knowledge concerning practice optimization for their students.
I hope to never see a yoga injury in my office again. Prevention is my intention.