Can the ancient discipline of yoga really be so dangerous?

January 13, 2012 by  
Filed under Green Living

I felt I had to comment on this article by Lisa Collier, itself a commentary on an article that appeared in the New York Times very recently. As always there are a plethora of opinions on whether yoga is really good for you. My experience, and mine is personal, is that yoga, when practiced wisely and when learned from a well trained teacher, is not only safe, it is potentially transformational in its benefits, if practiced diligently. It offers much more than just the physical exercise, which is very beneficial in itself. It also offers techniques that bring you a very good feeling of calm and peace, something so lacking in our modern fast paced world. What’s more it also has a side to it that works with the breath, using it to greatly improve your lung capacity. When you look at the ten well known codes of conduct in yoga; the Yamas and Niyamas, you find concepts that you will find in all of the most revered spiritual texts of the world. However, when yoga is mindlessly practiced as a sport instead of a transformational practice, in a spirit of competition rather than self development it can indeed be dangerous. It is at once dangerous and transformational. All depends upon how you approach it and who you learn from.

Hot controversy is raging in cyberspace about a New York Times article called “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” with medical practitioners and yoga devotees taking vehement stands for and against this popular workout. The article is being flamed on Facebook, and normally zen-like yogis are up in arms.

The Daily Beast quoted one yoga teacher describing the article as fear-mongering, while a yoga publication contended that The New York Times is trying to “wreck yoga” with an article that “cherry picks a few extreme events.”

The number of Americans who twist themselves into pretzel-like postures in search of mental and physical benefits has soared from 4 million in 2001 to 20 million in 2011. But is the exploding popularity of this ancient workout causing an epidemic of injuries and even disabilities? Or is William Broad’s article slim on science, as critics charge? Here’s a look at the debate.

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Is Yoga Harmful?

The article quotes a yoga teacher, Glenn Black, who advises “the vast majority of people” to give up yoga because it’s simply too likely to cause harm. Yet Black, whose clients include celebrities and prominent gurus, continues to train students in this supposedly dangerous activity, while warning that even celebrated yoga teachers “injure themselves in droves.” He cites two cases in which an Indian yogi broke three ribs during a spinal twist and a leading American teacher lost movement in her hip joints.

Black is also quoted as saying that clients often seek him out after being hurt in other yoga classes, due poorly trained teachers who have jumped on the yoga bandwagon and who push students beyond their physical limits, with increasingly difficult poses, such as shoulder and head stands.

Yet Black also acknowledges that he has no formal training himself in determining which poses are helpful or harmful for students.

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Is there any scientific proof that yoga causes damage?

The article claims that many commonly taught yoga positions are “inherently risky.” As evidence, Broad cites a 1972 “article” in British Medical Journal reporting that certain yoga poses might cause stroke in relatively young people due to hyperextension of the neck, as can also occur during whiplash. However, the “article” is actually a letter to the editor and not scientific proof.

Broad also describes several bizarre case reports from medical literature, including a 28-year-old woman who had an apparent stroke after doing a yoga pose called the “upward bow,” leaving her with harrowing disabilities. That calamity occurred in 1973. Broad also reports that ER visits due to yoga injuries are “rising quickly,” with the Consumer Product Safety Commission reporting 13 such visits in 2000 and 46 in 2002 (the most recent year listed). That’s actually lower than the number of Americans struck by lightning each year (about 270).

What are the health benefits of yoga?

Numerous studies have shown both short- and long-term benefits of yoga, with research presented at the 2011 meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine finding that people who practice yoga regularly have lower rates of joint pain, headaches, and stress compared to people who perform regular cardiovascular workouts or strength training. Other documented health benefits of yoga:

* Asthma relief. Several studies, including a randomized 2009 study of 120 patients, find yoga’s deep rhythmic breathing can improve asthma.
* Better sex. A study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that practicing yoga for 12 weeks improved women’s desire, arousal, satisfaction, and orgasms. Among the poses used in the study were triangle pose, snake, and half spinal twist. Doctors in India found that yoga outperformed medication in treating premature ejaculation in men.
* Non-surgical relief for shoulder injuries. A 2011 study by Loren Fishman, MD and other doctors found that a yoga-based maneuver (a chair-assisted headstand) can help people with rotator cuff tears recover—without surgery.
* Easing menstrual pain. Another randomized 2011 study reports that three yoga postures (cobra, cat, and fish poses) effectively reduced the severity and length of menstrual cramps in young women.
* Stronger bones. Another of Dr. Fishman’s studies found that a routine of 10 yoga poses helped improve bone density in older women with osteoporosis, the brittle bone disease that can lead to fractures.

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What’s the bottom line on yoga?

A few case reports from the 1970s hardly prove that yoga is inherently more dangerous than other types of exercise. In fact, many other sports have a far greater rate of injuries: Witness the millions of concussions that occur every year during football, soccer, and other team sports. To avoid getting hurt during yoga, Dr. Fishman advises finding a well-trained teacher and avoid overtaxing yourself as you gradually master the poses.

Unquestionably, overzealous students who are learning a new sport of any kind, including yoga, can risk injuring themselves if they try to do too much too soon. But given yoga’s many health benefits, with a few sensible precautions, there’s no reason why the 20 million Americans who practice yoga should give it up.

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