Luci Gabel, MS
Swapan Mookerjee, PhD
Recently, (January 5, 2012) the New York Times magazine published an article titled, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body”. The material was based on a book that's about to be released, “Science of Yoga” by NY Times' senior science writer, William J. Broad.
The article attempted to highlight the risks of yogic exercises with extreme cases that border on the bizarre. For example, the article mentions how one woman had a stroke while doing a backbend. One man struck a side-angle pose and broke 3 of his ribs. Another incurred severe nerve damage by meditating, sitting on his heels for hours a day.
These disturbing incidents, even though they occurred while doing yoga, are not common consequence of performing these exercises or routines. A stroke, for example, is not induced by backbends. Side-angle poses don’t inherently generate enough pressure to break one’s ribs. These two practitioners most likely had pre-existing medical conditions that, sadly, manifested during their yoga practice. Further, prolonged sitting on one’s heels, in our opinion, is unnecessary and extreme. It’s no wonder this man couldn't walk properly afterwards.
Yes, exercise and physical activity can be potentially dangerous, and there are increasing medical reports of yoga-related injuries. In fact, an article like this may be just what some people need to wake them up to this fact. Yet most of these practices are safe (if you avoid extremes) and given the 20 + million people involved in yoga in the US, the injury rates are extremely low.
Like any other form of exercise, yoga postures and routines must be performed with proper form. By definition, an “asana” or posture is a comfortable position. If you are experiencing pain and discomfort, this defeats the whole purpose of these practices. Yoga is for growth and personal development, not for self-infliction of pain and misery.
Choose an instructor that pays attention to detail, especially during the more difficult, and dangerous poses. A skilled instructor will explain to a beginner how the muscles should feel and where the body should be in space when doing the postures correctly. Learning and mastering physical skills is often a gradual process and should be taught in stages. In the case of more complex poses, a good instructor will make necessary modifications based on the learner’s needs. For example, inverted postures (e.g. Sarvangasana – shoulder stand, Sirshasana – headstand) do subject the neck and spine to high levels of stress. Loss of control and an eventual fall from these positions may cause severe injuries. So those still perfecting their skill in these positions could use the support from the wall, blankets or cushions. Advanced level instruction also requires correction and feedback, and more time for set-up especially for these postures.
Yoga exercises need to be approached like any other exercise or sport:
- know your limitations
- practice common sense
- find a good coach and a good training environment.
Ultimately, your safety is your responsibility. Only you know how far your body can go. Only you know if something feels awkward or uncomfortable and when you should pull back or not do it. You aren't there to compete or compare.
- Don’t push too far too fast. When you do this, you increase the chances of incurring injuries. Newcomers to yoga need to learn the basics, then move on to intermediate and advanced levels. It’s like working towards a black belt in martial arts or training for a gold medal in swimming: You don’t get there in a week, or in a couple of months - it takes time, often years.
- Choose a studio that offers multiple levels of classes, so you can find the class that fits you best. If your studio doesn’t provide levels to choose from, make sure the instructor provides lots of modifications if needed, so that you always have options.
- Choose an instructor that cultivates the yogic atmosphere of non-competition. One that encourages you to become familiar with, and embrace, your individual strengths and limitations. He/She will help you to have patience with yourself, encourage you only to do what you’re comfortable with, and instill confidence that your growth and change will come with practice.
My Co-Author for this post is Swapan Mookerjee, Ph.D., a professor of exercise physiology at Bloomsburg University, PA, who specializes in strength and conditioning, Yoga, and aquatics. His yoga training began in India, and has continued to progress along with his professional development as a teacher and practitioner.