Wow! Yoga not as safe and low-impact as you might think — New York Times article, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body”, adapted from forthcoming book “The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards” by Broad

How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” by William J. Broad, dated January 5 2012, New York Times  (page last viewed January 10 2012, no subscription required as of that time).

Very interesting article. I’ve practiced some yoga poses very intermittently over the last 15 years — I found Iyengar’s book Light On Yoga in the college bookstore & started working out of that.

Based on Iyengar’s suggested workout schedule, which covers more than 50 weeks of practice, I am still . .  ummm . . . not all the way through week 1 and barely into a bit of week 2, if I remember right.

No, I am not naturally flexible — but I am more flexible now, especially on side bends, than I was when I first started. And every time I start regularly practicing the standing poses, within two weeks I’ll get compliments from others saying I look really good or asking if I’ve lost weight,  so clearly there’s some visible muscle toning results from the standing poses.

I also quickly realized there’s a lot of stances & poses that I will never be able to do. According to this New York Times article, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Broad has written a good article, I’d recommend reading the whole thing. But in case it’s behind a subscription firewall by the time you read this, here are some sections I found to be especially noteworthy. (And yes, I do intend to read Broad’s book The Science of Yoga: Risks and Rewards once it is published later this year.)

(For those wondering what an “asana” is, that’s the term yoga uses for poses, stances or positions.)

Glenn Black, a yoga teacher of nearly four decades, whose devoted clientele includes a number of celebrities and prominent gurus, was giving a master class at Sankalpah Yoga in Manhattan. Black is, in many ways, a classic yogi: he studied in Pune, India, at the institute founded by the legendary B. K. S. Iyengar, and spent years in solitude and meditation. . . . Throughout the class, he urged us to pay attention to the thresholds of pain. “I make it as hard as possible,” he told the group. “It’s up to you to make it easy on yourself.” He drove his point home with a cautionary tale. In India, he recalled, a yogi came to study at Iyengar’s school and threw himself into a spinal twist. Black said he watched in disbelief as three of the man’s ribs gave way — pop, pop, pop.

After class, I asked Black about his approach to teaching yoga — the emphasis on holding only a few simple poses, the absence of common inversions like headstands and shoulder stands. He gave me the kind of answer you’d expect from any yoga teacher: that awareness is more important than rushing through a series of postures just to say you’d done them. But then he said something more radical. Black has come to believe that “the vast majority of people” should give up yoga altogether. It’s simply too likely to cause harm.

I thought this part about lifestyle outside the yoga studio contributing to injuries inside the yoga studio was interesting. Sitting for long amounts of time on a regular basis is starting to be seen as a health risk all by itself. And speaking from personal experience, I’ll notice a loss of flexibility & an increase in stiffness if I start spending a lot of time at the computer without regularly getting up & moving around.

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.

The whole article was full of cringe-inducing stories about self-inflicted injuries that had resulted from too much yoga. Strokes, compressed nerves in the neck, shoulders, and hips, compressed arteries in the neck & shoulders (in some cases those compressed arteries were what caused the strokes), torn muscles & connective tissue . . . ouch.

As is pointed out by Black numerous times in the article, on a philosophical level yoga is about letting go of ego.

If you bring your ego onto the yoga mat with you & try to push yourself (or a student) farther today than yesterday just to show you can, you wind up with things like this:

I asked [Black] about the worst injuries he’d seen. He spoke of well-known yoga teachers doing such basic poses as downward-facing dog, in which the body forms an inverted V, so strenuously that they tore Achilles tendons. “It’s ego,” he said. “The whole point of yoga is to get rid of ego.”

More injuries.

a growing body of medical evidence supports Black’s contention that, for many people, a number of commonly taught yoga poses are inherently risky. The first reports of yoga injuries appeared decades ago, published in some of the world’s most respected journals — among them, Neurology, The British Medical Journal and The Journal of the American Medical Association. The problems ranged from relatively mild injuries to permanent disabilities.

Years ago my sister gave me the book Relax Into Stretch by Pavel Tsatsouline as a birthday gift. I didn’t agree with everything Tsatsouline wrote, but he did come at stretching from a different viewpoint than many other books I’d read. Relax Into Stretch was one of the first books I’d seen where the author went to great effort to emphasize the difference between stretching muscles & stretching joints — because some of the things you stretch when you stretch joints stay stretched out for good (and that can result in a weaker or less stable joint).

Tsatsouline specifically pointed out & strongly criticized certain kneeling yoga positions as things that cause irreversible (and probably undesirable) stretching of connective tissues in the knees. The “specialist” noted in the 2nd paragraph below is unnamed, but it sounds like they had similar concerns.

These cases may seem exceedingly rare, but surveys by the Consumer Product Safety Commission 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. These surveys rely on sampling rather than exhaustive reporting — they reveal trends rather than totals — but the spike was nonetheless statistically significant. Only a fraction of the injured visit hospital emergency rooms. Many of those suffering from less serious yoga injuries go to family doctors, chiropractors and various kinds of therapists.

Around this time [2000 to 2002], stories of yoga-induced injuries began to appear in the media. The Times reported that health professionals found that the penetrating heat of Bikram yoga, for example, could raise the risk of overstretching, muscle damage and torn cartilage. One specialist noted that ligaments — the tough bands of fiber that connect bones or cartilage at a joint — failed to regain their shape once stretched out, raising the risk of strains, sprains and dislocations.

In 2009, a New York City team based at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons published an ambitious worldwide survey of yoga teachers, therapists and doctors. The answers to the survey’s central question — What were the most serious yoga-related injuries (disabling and/or of long duration) they had seen? — revealed that the largest number of injuries (231) centered on the lower back. The other main sites were, in declining order of prevalence: the shoulder (219), the knee (174) and the neck (110). Then came stroke. The respondents noted four cases in which yoga’s extreme bending and contortions resulted in some degree of brain damage. The numbers weren’t alarming but the acknowledgment of risk — nearly four decades after [prominent Oxford neurophysiologist, W. Ritchie] Russell first issued his warning [in a 1972 paper about possible injuries from yoga] — pointed to a decided shift in the perception of the dangers yoga posed.

Anyway, really good article, anyone who finds the excerpts interesting should please read the whole thing, and if you’re practicing yoga please be careful.

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