To Pose or Not to Pose: The Yoga Debate Revisited

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Whenever you stumble into a group of yoga practitioners and enthusiasts with rolled-up mats tucked under their arms, you hear the exercise praised as more than just a class at the gym. It’s characterized as a miraculous way to calm, to cure, to renew, reenergize and strengthen. Yoga will turn your life around with its ability to transform not just your body, but your mind.

Many Americans turn to yoga as a gentle alternative to more aerobic, high-impact sports or to rehabilitate their bodies after getting knocked around in one of those very sports. But these yoga newbies also spend the majority of their lives sitting (an activity that’s been shown to cause major health issues ). And even with little flexibility and other physical problems, too many people walk into studios and strain and twist themselves into increasingly difficult positions and postures. Is it any surprise that yoga has actually been found to cause major injuries? It’s a surprise to some people.

And yoga does clearly have real physical and mental benefits, which have been confirmed by studies time and again . The problem? Its burst of popularity has also precipitated a wild proliferation of yoga studios and yoga classes at local gyms, all aimed directly at cashing in on the trend. And these classes are often helmed by instructors who might be excellent at doing yoga, but lack the deep, intense, years-long training necessary for a guru to really understand how the body works, how the poses work—and most importantly, how to prevent injury.

Are You Risking an Injury?

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An article in the New York Times first raised the question about whether yoga is actually safe. William Broad, a reporter for the Times, wrote both an article and a book, The Science of Yoga, arguing that yoga had some major risks that were simply not being addressed. His claims were that while yoga has health benefits that can’t be denied, it also involves a far greater risk of injury than has previously been admitted by yoga enthusiasts.

He noted that there is a body of medical evidence that suggests that common yoga poses actually carry inherent risk in and of themselves. Reports of these injuries began decades ago, in world-respected journals including Neurology, The British Medical Journal and The Journal of the American Medical Association. And reports indicated everything from the possibility of minor injuries to the risk of serious and permanent disabilities. 

He pointed out a 1972 study in The British Medical Journal by an Oxford neurophysiologist, W. Ritchie Russell, which argued that while yoga strokes are rare, some postures actually dramatically increased the risks of strokes even in healthy and young people, due to rapid movements or over-extensions of the neck.

But damage reports flourish beyond the stroke risk. Reports a few years ago by health professionals found that the overwhelming heat of Bikram yoga could increase the risk of sprains and dislocations because of overstretching. In 2009, Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons published a worldwide survey of yoga teachers, therapists and doctors which revealed that even smaller, relatively minor injuries were increasingly common. The largest number of injuries (231) were to the lower back, with the shoulder (219), knee (174) and neck (110) following close behind.

These numbers are alarming—you’d think yoga was gentle and safe across the board and you’d never have to worry about the potential of damage. But before jumping into practice, and while in the midst of it, it’s important to note that some risk actually exists. This is true especially in settings where instructors are not nearly as well-schooled as they ought to be when it comes to yoga safety. 

The Response

Yoga community leaders were voracious in their response to Broad’s claims. A direct rebutal came from Yoga Journal's medical editor Timothy McCall, M.D., quickly followed by outcry from the yoga blogosphere. 

The argument? While Broad offers a number of implied connections that seem compelling at first glance, they claim he actually offers no solid evidence to back them up—and that his warnings about the possible dangers of yoga coincidentally coincide with the publication of his books, both the hardcover and softcover versions. 

Exactly as any other physical activity, yoga can clearly lead to injuries due to overexertion. But Broad’s article, they say, deliberately courts controversy, going out of its way to present a case that yoga is actually potentially dirty but no one has ever had the courage to admit it. 

The yoga community’s reply: right out of the gate, Broad is not differentiating at all between vigorous and acrobatic yoga classes (which are clearly not suitable for everyone but generally well-attended by new students) and the more gentle, restorative types. His claims also are not backed by the significant rates of injury that actually provide the evidence required for his claims. They also suggest his claims ignore the fact that you can’t suggest that yoga places practitioners in danger without actually providing context by comparing those numbers to the numbers on risks included in other physical activities.

In fact, when yoga injury rates are compared to the injury rates for weight lifting and golf, even, yoga is a dramatically lower risk exercise. In 2007, yoga injury rates were 3.5 out of every 10,000 yoga students. Compared to the injury rate of weight trainers and golfers (15 and 39 out of 10,000) yoga appears to be much safer.

The Final Verdict

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In the end, the rewards, most researchers and practitioners agree, far outweigh the risks. But the risks are important to note—and the discussion only sparks the debate about how to continue to improve yoga safety, increase instructor knowledge, and continue to develop yoga student knowledge of how to listen to their body.

In the long run, yoga has been proved to reduce stress and stress hormones, lower blood pressure, reduce inflammation and the tendency of blood to clot, and actually prevent more strokes, heart attacks and other serious ailments than it potentially causes because of these effects. Yoga has also been shown to equal or surpass other forms of exercise when it comes to lower anxiety and fatigue, helping students lift their mood and even improving sleep. 

In the end: Careful, conscious awareness of your body is far more important than rushing postures your instructor pushes you through. It is vitally important to stay very aware of the physical condition you’re in, and to limit yourself to the postures you can cleanly and accurately attempt, without pushing yourself through limits that are actually helping you prevent injuries.

Staying Safe

There is no formula for choosing an environment that is perfectly matched to your skill level, or way to determine if your instructor is smart, savvy, and injury aware. Unfortunately, every type of yoga has different criteria when it comes to teacher training, and every class is radically different when it comes to teacher skill and goals, as well as student ability.

But there are two essential guidelines when it comes to staying as safe as possible in your yoga class.

Credentials. Ask about your teacher’s credentials. You want to ensure they have at minimum 200 hours of training; most teachers are certified at 500 hours, minimum. Whatever the length of their training, ensure it is officially sanctioned and from a reputable school or guru.

Observation. Before you hand over your money and unroll your mat, ask if you can observe a class, or more importantly attend a trial class before you commit. You want to watch and make sure your instructor offers sensible adaptations to difficult poses, as well as the speed through which they move through them. A warning sign: if your instructor tries to adjust your position without asking permission, or urges you into a position that feels uncomfortable or too extreme. 

Yoga has a tremendous number of benefits, from the mental to the emotional to the physical. Make sure you’re prepared for the effort, fit enough before you attempt all the poses your instructor demonstrates, and dedicated to ensuring that your exercise routine is careful, well-thought-out, and never too strenuous for your current level of fitness.