Sunday, January 22, 2012

yoga

How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body

Danielle Levitt for The New York Times
Members of the Broadway cast of “Godspell” do their flexible best. From left: Uzo Aduba (doing the wheel), George Salazar (extended-hand-to-big-toe pose) and Nick Blaemire (headstand).
On a cold Saturday in early 2009, 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. He now lives in Rhinebeck, N.Y., and often teaches at the nearby Omega Institute, a New Age emporium spread over nearly 200 acres of woods and gardens. He is known for his rigor and his down-to-earth style. But this was not why I sought him out: Black, I’d been told, was the person to speak with if you wanted to know not about the virtues of yoga but rather about the damage it could do. Many of his regular clients came to him for bodywork or rehabilitation following yoga injuries. This was the situation I found myself in. In my 30s, I had somehow managed to rupture a disk in my lower back and found I could prevent bouts of pain with a selection of yoga postures and abdominal exercises. Then, in 2007, while doing the extended-side-angle pose, a posture hailed as a cure for many diseases, my back gave way. With it went my belief, na├»ve in retrospect, that yoga was a source only of healing and never harm.

Related in Opinion

Danielle Levitt for The New York Times
Salazar: I would say I’m a 7 out of 10 on the flexibility scale.
Danielle Levitt for The New York Times
Aduba: You know when people jump up into those crazy positions, like they stand on their eyeballs or something, while you’re sitting there just trying to figure out which side of the mat you used the last time? I envy them.
Danielle Levitt for The New York Times
Blaemire: The plow was the easiest position of the day — though it is quite a strange feeling having your face that close to your knees.

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At Sankalpah Yoga, the room was packed; roughly half the students were said to be teachers themselves. Black walked around the room, joking and talking. “Is this yoga?” he asked as we sweated through a pose that seemed to demand superhuman endurance. “It is if you’re paying attention.” His approach was almost free-form: he made us hold poses for a long time but taught no inversions and few classical postures. 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.
Not just students but celebrated teachers too, Black said, injure themselves in droves because most have underlying physical weaknesses or problems that make serious injury all but inevitable. Instead of doing yoga, “they need to be doing a specific range of motions for articulation, for organ condition,” he said, to strengthen weak parts of the body. “Yoga is for people in good physical condition. Or it can be used therapeutically. It’s controversial to say, but it really shouldn’t be used for a general class.”
Black seemingly reconciles the dangers of yoga with his own teaching of it by working hard at knowing when a student “shouldn’t do something — the shoulder stand, the headstand or putting any weight on the cervical vertebrae.” Though he studied with Shmuel Tatz, a legendary Manhattan-based physical therapist who devised a method of massage and alignment for actors and dancers, he acknowledges that he has no formal training for determining which poses are good for a student and which may be problematic. What he does have, he says, is “a ton of experience.”
“To come to New York and do a class with people who have many problems and say, ‘O.K., we’re going to do this sequence of poses today’ — it just doesn’t work.”
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. Many come to yoga as a gentle alternative to vigorous sports or for rehabilitation for injuries. But yoga’s exploding popularity — the number of Americans doing yoga has risen from about 4 million in 2001 to what some estimate to be as many as 20 million in 2011 — means that there is now an abundance of studios where many teachers lack the deeper training necessary to recognize when students are headed toward injury. “Today many schools of yoga are just about pushing people,” Black said. “You can’t believe what’s going on — teachers jumping on people, pushing and pulling and saying, ‘You should be able to do this by now.’ It has to do with their egos.”
When yoga teachers come to him for bodywork after suffering major traumas, Black tells them, “Don’t do yoga.”
“They look at me like I’m crazy,” he goes on to say. “And I know if they continue, they won’t be able to take it.” I asked him 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.” He said he had seen some “pretty gruesome hips.” “One of the biggest teachers in America had zero movement in her hip joints,” Black told me. “The sockets had become so degenerated that she had to have hip replacements.” I asked if she still taught. “Oh, yeah,” Black replied. “There are other yoga teachers that have such bad backs they have to lie down to teach. I’d be so embarrassed.”
Among devotees, from gurus to acolytes forever carrying their rolled-up mats, yoga is described as a nearly miraculous agent of renewal and healing. They celebrate its abilities to calm, cure, energize and strengthen. And much of this appears to be true: yoga can lower your blood pressure, make chemicals that act as antidepressants, even improve your sex life. But the yoga community long remained silent about its potential to inflict blinding pain. Jagannath G. Gune, who helped revive yoga for the modern era, made no allusion to injuries in his journal Yoga Mimansa or his 1931 book “Asanas.” Indra Devi avoided the issue in her 1953 best seller “Forever Young, Forever Healthy,” as did B. K. S. Iyengar in his seminal “Light on Yoga,” published in 1965. Reassurances about yoga’s safety also make regular appearances in the how-to books of such yogis as Swami Sivananda, K. Pattabhi Jois and Bikram Choudhury. “Real yoga is as safe as mother’s milk,” declared Swami Gitananda, a guru who made 10 world tours and founded ashrams on several continents.
But 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. In one case, a male college student, after more than a year of doing yoga, decided to intensify his practice. He would sit upright on his heels in a kneeling position known as vajrasana for hours a day, chanting for world peace. Soon he was experiencing difficulty walking, running and climbing stairs.
Doctors traced the problem to an unresponsive nerve, a peripheral branch of the sciatic, which runs from the lower spine through the buttocks and down the legs. Sitting in vajrasana deprived the branch that runs below the knee of oxygen, deadening the nerve. Once the student gave up the pose, he improved rapidly. Clinicians recorded a number of similar cases and the condition even got its own name: “yoga foot drop.”
More troubling reports followed. In 1972 a prominent Oxford neurophysiologist, W. Ritchie Russell, published an article in The British Medical Journal arguing that, while rare, some yoga postures threatened to cause strokes even in relatively young, healthy people. Russell found that brain injuries arose not only from direct trauma to the head but also from quick movements or excessive extensions of the neck, such as occur in whiplash — or certain yoga poses. Normally, the neck can stretch backward 75 degrees, forward 40 degrees and sideways 45 degrees, and it can rotate on its axis about 50 degrees. Yoga practitioners typically move the vertebrae much farther. An intermediate student can easily turn his or her neck 90 degrees — nearly twice the normal rotation.
Hyperflexion of the neck was encouraged by experienced practitioners. Iyengar emphasized that in cobra pose, the head should arch “as far back as possible” and insisted that in the shoulder stand, in which the chin is tucked deep in the chest, the trunk and head forming a right angle, “the body should be in one straight line, perpendicular to the floor.” He called the pose, said to stimulate the thyroid, “one of the greatest boons conferred on humanity by our ancient sages.”
Extreme motions of the head and neck, Russell warned, could wound the vertebral arteries, producing clots, swelling and constriction, and eventually wreak havoc in the brain. The basilar artery, which arises from the union of the two vertebral arteries and forms a wide conduit at the base of the brain, was of particular concern. It feeds such structures as the pons (which plays a role in respiration), the cerebellum (which coordinates the muscles), the occipital lobe of the outer brain (which turns eye impulses into images) and the thalamus (which relays sensory messages to the outer brain). Reductions in blood flow to the basilar artery are known to produce a variety of strokes. These rarely affect language and conscious thinking (often said to be located in the frontal cortex) but can severely damage the body’s core machinery and sometimes be fatal. The majority of patients suffering such a stroke do recover most functions. But in some cases headaches, imbalance, dizziness and difficulty in making fine movements persist for years.
Russell also worried that when strokes hit yoga practitioners, doctors might fail to trace their cause. The cerebral damage, he wrote, “may be delayed, perhaps to appear during the night following, and this delay of some hours distracts attention from the earlier precipitating factor.”
In 1973, a year after Russell’s paper was published, Willibald Nagler, a renowned authority on spinal rehabilitation at Cornell University Medical College, published a paper on a strange case. A healthy woman of 28 suffered a stroke while doing a yoga position known as the wheel or upward bow, in which the practitioner lies on her back, then lifts her body into a semicircular arc, balancing on hands and feet. An intermediate stage often involves raising the trunk and resting the crown of the head on the floor. While balanced on her head, her neck bent far backward, the woman “suddenly felt a severe throbbing headache.” She had difficulty getting up, and when helped into a standing position, was unable to walk without assistance. The woman was rushed to the hospital. She had no sensation on the right side of her body; her left arm and leg responded poorly to her commands. Her eyes kept glancing involuntarily to the left. And the left side of her face showed a contracted pupil, a drooping upper eyelid and a rising lower lid — a cluster of symptoms known as Horner’s syndrome. Nagler reported that the woman also had a tendency to fall to the left.
Her doctors found that the woman’s left vertebral artery, which runs between the first two cervical vertebrae, had narrowed considerably and that the arteries feeding her cerebellum had undergone severe displacement. Given the lack of advanced imaging technologies at the time, an exploratory operation was conducted to get a clearer sense of her injuries. The surgeons who opened her skull found that the left hemisphere of her cerebellum suffered a major failure of blood supply that resulted in much dead tissue and that the site was seeped in secondary hemorrhages.
The patient began an intensive program of rehabilitation. Two years later, she was able to walk, Nagler reported, “with [a] broad-based gait.” But her left arm continued to wander and her left eye continued to show Horner’s syndrome. Nagler concluded that such injuries appeared to be rare but served as a warning about the hazards of “forceful hyperextension of the neck.” He urged caution in recommending such postures, particularly to individuals of middle age.
The experience of Nagler’s patient was not an isolated incident. A few years later, a 25-year-old man was rushed to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, in Chicago, complaining of blurred vision, difficulty swallowing and controlling the left side of his body. Steven H. Hanus, a medical student at the time, became interested in the case and worked with the chairman of the neurology department to determine the cause (he later published the results with several colleagues). The patient had been in excellent health, practicing yoga every morning for a year and a half. His routine included spinal twists in which he rotated his head far to the left and far to the right. Then he would do a shoulder stand with his neck “maximally flexed against the bare floor,” just as Iyengar had instructed, remaining in the inversion for about five minutes. A series of bruises ran down the man’s lower neck, which, the team wrote in The Archives of Neurology, “resulted from repeated contact with the hard floor surface on which he did yoga exercises.” These were a sign of neck trauma. Diagnostic tests revealed blockages of the left vertebral artery between the c2 and c3 vertebrae; the blood vessel there had suffered “total or nearly complete occlusion” — in other words, no blood could get through to the brain.
Two months after his attack, and after much physical therapy, the man was able to walk with a cane. But, the team reported, he “continued to have pronounced difficulty performing fine movements with his left hand.” Hanus and his colleagues concluded that the young man’s condition represented a new kind of danger. Healthy individuals could seriously damage their vertebral arteries, they warned, “by neck movements that exceed physiological tolerance.” Yoga, they stressed, “should be considered as a possible precipitating event.” In its report, the Northwestern team cited not only Nagler’s account of his female patient but also Russell’s early warning. Concern about yoga’s safety began to ripple through the medical establishment.
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, 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 Russell first issued his warning — pointed to a decided shift in the perception of the dangers yoga posed.
In recent years, reformers in the yoga community have begun to address the issue of yoga-induced damage. In a 2003 article in Yoga Journal, Carol Krucoff — a yoga instructor and therapist who works at the Integrative Medicine center at Duke University in North Carolina — revealed her own struggles. She told of being filmed one day for national television and after being urged to do more, lifting one foot, grabbing her big toe and stretching her leg into the extended-hand-to-big-toe pose. As her leg straightened, she felt a sickening pop in her hamstring. The next day, she could barely walk. Krucoff needed physical therapy and a year of recovery before she could fully extend her leg again. The editor of Yoga Journal, Kaitlin Quistgaard, described reinjuring a torn rotator cuff in a yoga class. “I’ve experienced how yoga can heal,” she wrote. “But I’ve also experienced how yoga can hurt — and I’ve heard the same from plenty of other yogis.”
One of the most vocal reformers is Roger Cole, an Iyengar teacher with degrees in psychology from Stanford and the University of California, San Francisco. Cole has written extensively for Yoga Journal and speaks on yoga safety to the American College of Sports Medicine. In one column, Cole discussed the practice of reducing neck bending in a shoulder stand by lifting the shoulders on a stack of folded blankets and letting the head fall below it. The modification eases the angle between the head and the torso, from 90 degrees to perhaps 110 degrees. Cole ticked off the dangers of doing an unmodified shoulder stand: muscle strains, overstretched ligaments and cervical-disk injuries.
But modifications are not always the solution. Timothy McCall, a physician who is the medical editor of Yoga Journal, called the headstand too dangerous for general yoga classes. His warning was based partly on his own experience. He found that doing the headstand led to thoracic outlet syndrome, a condition that arises from the compression of nerves passing from the neck into the arms, causing tingling in his right hand as well as sporadic numbness. McCall stopped doing the pose, and his symptoms went away. Later, he noted that the inversion could produce other injuries, including degenerative arthritis of the cervical spine and retinal tears (a result of the increased eye pressure caused by the pose). “Unfortunately,” McCall concluded, “the negative effects of headstand can be insidious.”
Almost a year after I first met Glenn Black at his master class in Manhattan, I received an e-mail from him telling me that he had undergone spinal surgery. “It was a success,” he wrote. “Recovery is slow and painful. Call if you like.”
The injury, Black said, had its origins in four decades of extreme backbends and twists. He had developed spinal stenosis — a serious condition in which the openings between vertebrae begin to narrow, compressing spinal nerves and causing excruciating pain. Black said that he felt the tenderness start 20 years ago when he was coming out of such poses as the plow and the shoulder stand. Two years ago, the pain became extreme. One surgeon said that without treatment, he would eventually be unable to walk. The surgery took five hours, fusing together several lumbar vertebrae. He would eventually be fine but was under surgeon’s orders to reduce strain on his lower back. His range of motion would never be the same.
Black is one of the most careful yoga practitioners I know. When I first spoke to him, he said he had never injured himself doing yoga or, as far as he knew, been responsible for harming any of his students. I asked him if his recent injury could have been congenital or related to aging. No, he said. It was yoga. “You have to get a different perspective to see if what you’re doing is going to eventually be bad for you.”
Black recently took that message to a conference at the Omega Institute, his feelings on the subject deepened by his recent operation. But his warnings seemed to fall on deaf ears. “I was a little more emphatic than usual,” he recalled. “My message was that ‘Asana is not a panacea or a cure-all. In fact, if you do it with ego or obsession, you’ll end up causing problems.’ A lot of people don’t like to hear that.”
This article is adapted from “The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards,” by William J. Broad, to be published next month by Simon & Schuster. Broad is a senior science writer at The Times.
Editor: Sheila Glaser

734 Comments

Share your thoughts.
    • AmyTK
    • Montpelier, VT
    I am appreciative that this article brings potential yoga asana injuries to our attention and reminds us that yoga is not about competition. However, I am appalled by the lack of research and comparative studies as well as the sensationalism and the misleading photos . In a former life, I worked for the flagship news show of a major network and, although, often the research did not reach the TV screen, it was always there to back it up. In a print article of this length there is the space, and certainly there must be the editorial support (NYTimes, really?), to include supporting data. I now teach nonfiction writing and I am considering using this article as an example of what not to do.

    As an avid runner and Nordic skier, as well as small time farmer, I am grateful to the benefits that yoga asana practice has recently brought to my sport and work stressed body. As a mother of three teens running my own business, yoga brings calm, focus, and a positive attitude to each day I practice. My intention is to heal, not to damage, body and mind. I would be very interested in knowing how I can prevent yoga injury from a well researched, data supported, and multi-source paper.
      • Jonathan Boyce
      • Fairfield, CT
      In the comments here of those defending the practice of yoga, there is the argument that those injured by Yoga have themselves to blame. Nonsense. They also shroud their beliefs with the pseudo-religous aura that those injured simply were not spiritual enough, or true believers. More nonsense. (I've heard this argument from religious snake handlers: "you wouldn't have gotten bit if you truly believed").

      The various Yogas as practiced in this country can, and do, cause harm. I've taken yoga classes (two, but stopped) and was stunned at some of the ill-advised contortions and poses.

      Let's be clear: yoga can cause damage to the body; it can aggravate existing conditions, some to the point where surgery is needed; and it is not the fault of the unitnitated. It is up to the Yogis to prepare each new student for the rigors of yoga. Yoga is first and foremost a physical practice, not a spiritual one. It involves challenges to the body much the same as any fitness regimine or routine. Any good trainer that strives to change the body must evaluate the condition of each new participant before recommending any program.

      You cannot simply through someone into a one size fits all class or routine and tell each new student that it's up to them to interpret their body's limits. That's irresponsible and fraudulent. Yoga has a long way to go towards respecting those it attempts to teach the practice to.
        • Sharon
        • Beaufort, SC
        I read this article and the readers comments with keen interest as I am new to the practice of yoga. Even as a beginner I had sense enough not to try some poses as I knew my body was not ready for them yet. It took me 18 months before I could execute a wheel and I am only just now able to hold crow for more than a millisecond. If you carefully listen to your body and have patience yoga is safe. Yoga is not a sport but you must practice consistently and be mindful of what your body can and cannot do or you may indeed risk serious injury. That said, I still would encourage anyone who has thought about beginning to practice yoga to say "Yes!" and go for it. Your mind, body and soul will be most happy that you did.
          • Shaun
          • Virginia Beach
          I've tried yoga but never got too into it.

          This article makes sense to me though. Yoga is just like all other types of exercise it's possible to overdo it. Even though I fail to see immediate danger in light stretching, I can definitely see people going overboard with a few of the very strenuous poses that yoga has and seriously hurting themselves. Or trying to reach too far in some of the less strenuous stuff and hurting themselves.
          1. Glenn Black is promoting his book and himself. He is a charlatan. The article is deceptive and misleading and represents junk science.

            Anyone can injure themselves by incorrectly doing any type of exercise. But yogi is one of the safest ways to exercise.

            I have done Bikram yoga for years. The instructors are highly trained. It has helped me to maintain muscle mass and alleviated my back pain. I plan to do it into my 80s.

            Most people would benefit greatly from yoga taught by a skilled instructor. Do not let this drivel discourage you from exercising and doing yoga.
              • Joe Ballog
              • Melbourne, Australia
              One thing people should realize about hatha yoga is that asanas are a result of kundalini energy. If you have an active kundalini, you may well find yourself just getting into some yoga postures spontaneously, because the kundalini energy in your body will intuitively guide you to get into those poses, even if you've never had any formal yoga training whatever.

              When the kundalini energy is directing your asanas, that's when you really do them right because the kundalini knows what your body needs. And as your body is unique, one pose may be just the thing you need, and another no use at all or (as evidenced by this article) actually harmful. But if you don't have an active kundalini, then you are just *imitating* these asanas without necessarily having any insight into how they should be done.

              I'm not saying you shouldn't do any asanas if you don't have an active kundalini, a little probably won't do any harm and will probably do you some good, but just don't go to extremes. In any case if you are looking for spiritual experiences or spiritual advancement, regular meditation is far more important IMO. Hatha yoga can assist meditation but you don't need a lot of it to get the benefits. The bottom line, as with most things, is to follow your intuition, don't get competitive about it, that's when your ego is getting in the way.
                • ggg
                • UK
                Why is this at all surprising? Doing any rigorous exercise can cause injury. You could have just as easily written about how weight training/running/tennis/basketball can wreck your body. Attempting any exercise too extreme (the definition of which changes with age, regardless of fitness), or beyond your fitness level makes injury more likely. This is as true with yoga as anything else, and is exactly what we should expect.
                  • Paul
                  • Boston
                  First I sprained my ankle and then I broke it and needed surgery. But I am not giving it up. Soccer is fun.
                  1. The best part of the article was: "there is now an abundance of studios where many teachers lack the deeper training necessary to recognize when students are headed toward injury. “Today many schools of yoga are just about pushing people,”...
                    1) I belong to a studio of which I love but sometimes there are instructors who play music too loud
                    2) If you are getting into yoga, you should do research first and learn what yoga is truly about and then you can decide which classes or instructors are right for you. If you feel an instructor is being pushy, don't do the pose or don't bend as far or push as hard
                    3) I have never come across an instructor who has said "you should be able to do this by now" but I have seen other students who don't know much about yoga and they push themselves way too much, or I can see they they are worried they can't keep up. With anything, yoga takes time and practice to get from good to great and your body is different from everyone else. Use your intuition, stop if it hurts.
                    4) I think this article is great because it does make people think and take caution. It is true too, there are a lot of instructors out there who have only been teaching for a few years and some who have been practicing and teaching for years. Do your homework and find out more about your instructors.
                    5) Remember why you chose yoga in the first place. if it's purely for getting a hot bod, you've missed the point.
                      • Justine
                      • Minneapolis
                      An interesting perspective from a yoga studio owner:http://www.youryogamn.com/blog/2012/1/8/yoga-and-injuries.html
                      1. I agree the title and the photos are really stupid, but I don't agree that everyone will stop doing yoga and revert to the couch. What I hope this new awareness does is stop yoga instructors from insisting on " helping" students by pushing them to do poses that their bodies simply will no do. Not letting ego get in the way was the best advice I ever heard in a yoga class and in this article .
                        1. I have practiced for more than 4o years and have found Bikram Yoga to be a safer alternative.
                            • Stacey
                            • Seattle
                            I think there is a lot in this article that is offensive to yoga teachers.
                            Having taught yoga in the Svaroopa style for 11 years, with hundreds and hundreds of hours of training (yes, clocking around 800 hrs), I cannot support nor condone this absurd article lumping all yoga as dangerous. Open your eyes and find a yoga class that goes beyond your desire for a gym workout. If you are experiencing pain, it’s not that yoga is bad but that you are in the wrong yoga class. Try Svaroopa Yoga
                              • polly schmid
                              • Jamaica VT
                              First of all yoga is for everyone, yoga is not just asanas! And second if you drink bad water you will get sick, well do bad yoga asanas and you can get hurt, as well with any thing in life.
                              Check out the teachers.
                                • Robin Feinberg
                                • Westport, CT
                                When I read this kind of stuff, it just makes me sad that people can be so ignorant as to distort what is meant to be a beneficent and healing practice into a monster feared for its propensity for causing injury. All of the illustrations in the article depict contraindicated movements in those poses. When practiced under the instruction and guidance of a properly-trained and compassionate yoga teacher, yoga should be a physically as well as emotionally and spiritually enhancing experience. I feel sorry for people who find the wrong teacher and never get to experience the benefits and joy of practicing yoga. As my teacher, David Swenson (www.ashtanga.net) writes in his book, Ashtanga Yoga, The Practice Manual: "Enjoy the sacred journey to inner harmony. Yoga is a divine gift and the opportunity to practice it is a blessing.” --David Swenson, from “Entering Savasana: 'The Death of a Practice', in Ashtanga Yoga: The Practice Manual”
                                Ashtanga Yoga Productions
                                www.ashtanga.net
                                  • Kathleen
                                  • Chicago
                                  I just completed my yoga teacher training under one of those "celebrated teachers," you refer to vaguely in your article. He was a student of B.S.K. Iyengar, traveled the world studying and doing yoga, and has now devoted his life to training teachers. He openly discusses the long-term effects of the acrobatic and contortionist poses that are often (and erroneously) associated with a serious yoga practice, and also openly denounces them. Those postures have no physiological benefit. Briefly, just because your body "can" do something (including something as supposedly "simple" as lotus pose), does not mean it should.

                                  I learned NEVER to teach shoulder stand without the support you describe that is sometimes used. And resting on the top of your head before pressing up into Urhva Danurasana (backbend) is not only useless but, as your article indicates, extremely dangerous. For the same reason, yoga teachers should not allow their students to do sirsasana (headstand) with any real weight on their head, which endangers the neck.

                                  Your sensationalistic headline, and the photos of goons trying intermediate postures without teachers is far more dangerous to sedentary Americans than a yoga class would ever be. The problem is not the yoga. The problem is uninformed teachers who see their responsibility as the posture itself rather than the well-being that it brings to the body and soul.
                                    • Robin Feinberg
                                    • Westport, CT
                                    Hm, where to start? First, Glenn Black teaches in the style of BKS Iyengar in which there may not be a proper warm up (Sun Salutations) & poses are held for long pds of time (3-5' ). Enduring pain, as he says, is NOT what yoga practice is about! In the Yoga Sutras, Patanjali writes that in each asana one should find comfort & ease balanced with effort, not pain! The purpose of practicing the yoga asanas is to strengthen & open the body to sit peacefully & comfortably in meditat'n. A knowledgeable teacher will customize modifications for the poses for his/her students based on their age, past injuries &/or physical limitations (e.g. scoliosis). It is NEVER appropriate to pull or twist a student into a pose because achieving the pose is NOT the goal. This is counter to the practice of Ahimsa, "non-harming/non-violence." The purpose of yoga is to calm the body w slow, regulated breathing (which stimulates vagal activity, eliminating the "stress response") & to train the mind to pay full att'n only to what is happening at the present moment w acceptance &w/o judgment. A growing body of scientific studies shows that over time, this mental training causes the prefrontal cortex--the area of the brain responsible for self-regulat'n, decision-making, planning & problem-solving--to actually thicken. Thus, primitive emotional reactions (in the limbic system) are no longer dominant, which is what happens when people experience overwhelming feelings of anger, fear, anxiety & depress'n.
                                      • Noko
                                      • Washington, DC
                                      I have been doing Yoga since I was nine years old (n the 1960's) and had to learn out of books, so I was never subjected to the insistence of teachers who pushed me beyond a comfort threshold, nor to any atmosphere of competition in group classes.

                                      I've been amused and saddened in equal part to see Yoga become trendy and Yuppified -- just another realm in which people compete to be and have the coolest. Yoga pants, yoga mats, yoga blocks, whatever -- none of it seems to have anything to do with the practice, purpose and effects of asana as I learned it. This spate of injuries is a natural consequence, born of competitiveness, misinformation, impatience and naivete.

                                      Yoga is indeed healing and books have been written on this head. But nothing is healing if it is approached as an attempt to prove something or outdo other people. "When you compete, you injure yourself," said Arnold (the Governator). If only people listened.

                                      I used to lead small yoga groups at a neighborhood health club and my constant admonition was "Do what you can and don't worry about the rest -- the wonderful thing about Yoga asana is that anything you are able to do will help you." No one ever got hurt. Maybe people need to stop flocking to teachers and go back to learning from books.
                                        • Anne @ <a href="http://yogaspeak.blogspot.com" title="yogaspeak.blogspot.com" target="_blank">yogaspeak.blogspot.com</a>
                                        • DC
                                        I've been doing yoga for a little over a year. The instructors that I've had have always pointed out how to protect areas of the body in different poses, and I am always conscious of how a pose feels. Even so, I've gone overboard in Handstand before, and it's scary (seehttp://yogaspeak.blogspot.com/2011/10/overboard.html).

                                        Today's instructor told us to pay attention to our bodies beyond what she was instructing. She told us that we are smarter about our bodies than she and to NOT do what felt uncomfortable.

                                        Yoga has brought me opportunities to learn about myself on and off the mat. You can read more at http://yogaspeak.blogspot.com.
                                          • ccmorton
                                          • sharon, mass
                                          Glad to see this article. Yoga has saved my back from the aches and pains of a desk job and is great for other reasons, but it's weird how few people will acknowledge or address the acute and chronic injury issues with awareness or better training. I hope my recent collarbone dislocation is the worst of it. When I heard about the hip replacements of established yogis more than a year ago, I felt a little better about not being the most athletic and buff yogi in class.
                                            • Sheila Phillips
                                            • Northern Virginia
                                            At 51, I recently became a registered yoga teacher. I am teaching a class to friends, but have not yet sought a position as a yoga instructor anywhere. Why? Because I believe that, here in the US, yoga is viewed through the lens of the "fitness" industry, with its "no pain, no gain" mentality. As a person who struggles with a chronic neuromuscular disorder myself, I have a made a commitment to myself not to do harm to any individual I teach.

                                            It is possible to do yoga safely. Learn about good alignment and practice it. Listen to your body. Don't worry about "finding your edge" -- it is not a competition with others, or even yourself. Don't let yoga instructors try to "deepen" your pose -- if you are in good alignment, your body will only go where it is optimal for you.

                                            Yoga is about more than the asanas. It is about self-awareness. It is about self-acceptance, and honesty. When you take those elements out, and make it a "sport", with competition, ego, and pushing yourself to the edge as goals that you are likely to become injured.

                                            I believe we need to start making distinctions between yoga, and "yoga-based sports programs". When someone take up football, basketball, gymnastics, or most other sports, there is a reasonable risk of injury, and people assume the risk, in order to participate. Yoga-based sports would be the same.

                                            But yoga, as it is meant to be, should have minimal risk. It *can* be that way, but only if yoga teachers choose for it to be.
                                            1. Mindfulness is the key to practicing safely. I tell my students on a regular basis , "If it hurts, DON'T DO IT!". That said, one of the best parts about a PERSONAL yoga practice is that it is just that: personal. It is a journey. It is not supposed to be "goal oriented" which is very, very difficult for Westerners to understand. Your body will never look like another body. Thank God! And ego is the barrier to safe practice. The breath is the ultimate guide. It will always tell you when you are invited to experience a deeper portion of the practice and exactly when to back off. The breath is truth in the moment. It will never lie or derail you. It is your oldest, most faithful ally and will be alongside your journey on Earth as long as you have your body. I, too, am sorry to see NYT publish this bias. Money is always going to be money but the people who truly love yoga for the correct reasons have more to offer than money and it is tragedy to think even one soul could miss the bounty of a life affirming practice such as improved posture, clarity of thought, healthy internal organs, recognition of breathing patterns (healthy and unhealthy), and compassion they may never find from any sect of Religion. Raised Christian, it is my belief that we are seeing what was described in Revelations as the "end of the church age". We need to view our bodies as a temple and honor the decisions made by the body and not the mind (ego). The honest link between these two entities is the breath.
                                              1. I started Bikram yoga when I was 64, almost 2 years ago. My body has been transformed from being crippled and over-weight to feeling energetic, strong and thin. Bikram yoga is hot but that heat supports my body and allows me to move freely. I have not seen any yoga injuries, nor had any myself. We do the same 26 poses every time. These poses were chosen because they work on every part of the body from the bones to the skin, every gland and organ is stimulated. We do not do head or shoulder stands.
                                                My teachers have made sure that students are doing the poses correctly so they don't hurt themselves. I was taught to only go as far as I can while breathing slowly through the nose, that way I don't push my body beyond its capability.
                                                I am grateful to Bikram and to myself for continuing to practice and keep my body strong, limber and healthy.
                                                1. I love what yoga does for me, but I have also seen the risks. Yesterday I attended class with a new teacher. She told us to push our heels close to the floor while in down dog. I knew to ignore this instruction due to my own anatomical limits; but I feared for the people who don't know better. A snapped Achilles heel or hamstring is a high price to pay for a teacher's ignorance or ego.
                                                    • Bob Carl
                                                    • Marietta, GA
                                                    No doubt yoga, properly used and properly taught, is beneficial. The article ignores the mental and economic downside risks of yoga: getting caught up with yoga cults led by self-appointed gurus with no lineage who are mostly after your hard earned dollars.