One morning, a well-meaning swimming buddy called out for all in the Y locker room to hear: “I can’t believe Jane Brody doesn’t do yoga!”
She was right: I didn’t do yoga and, not knowing what it might offer me, I was loath to try it. I also feared that the meteoric growth of yoga had outpaced the training of quality teachers able to protect my aging body parts.
Now, it seems, my thinking and schedule may be due for a change. After reading my colleague William J. Broad’s new book, “The Science of Yoga,” and observing a class at my local Y, I see there may be a lot more to this centuries-old activity, more to its benefits and its risks, than I had ever imagined.
And if the science recounted in this book is correct (knowing Mr. Broad, I have every reason to think it is), my creaky joints and muscles may reap some important rewards from an individualized yoga prescription. I’m especially concerned about my back, which is riddled with narrowed vertebral spaces and prone to spasms and sciatica.
Mr. Broad said decades of yoga has helped protect his back from excruciating pain initially caused by a ruptured disc. Yet in 2007, even he succumbed to a yoga-induced back injury as he was coming out of a pose called the Extended Side Angle.
“Recovery took weeks,” he wrote. “But the humbling experience gave me a deeper appreciation for yoga safety.”
Not all yoga poses are beneficial or safe for everyone, and enthusiasts are hard put to know whether the teacher and class they select are more likely to help than to hurt them.
What I need is yoga therapy, and I can only hope to benefit from it if the teacher is well-qualified. And therein lies the rub.
As I learned from Mr. Broad’s book, “the United States has no regulatory body for yoga therapy. The field is, on the whole, completely unlicensed and unregulated. There is no such thing as a Registered Yoga Therapist. Applicants for registration usually face no requirements to establish their education credentials, to pass national exams, or to show other evidence of expert proficiency. Registration, in short, bears no comparison to the rigorous world of health-care certification.”
Anyone who chooses to can hang out a shingle and call himself a yoga therapist. Licensing requirements exist for beauticians and hairdressers, but not for yoga therapists.
The Yoga Alliance, a national organization for yoga in the United States, fills in this gap with specific training standards that, if met, earn the title registered yoga teacher. The standards involve either 200 or 500 hours of instruction and supervised practice, with specialized training for children’s and prenatal yoga.
To be sure, the yoga world is rife with true believers, many of whom bombarded Mr. Broad with complaints about an article he wrote in The New York Times Magazine last month chronicling a raft of devastating yoga-induced injuries. But he was also deluged with dozens of personal injury stories that included strokes and ruptured discs.
Among them was that of a 39-year-old man who said in an e-mail that he’d “always been very active,” having “skied, boxed, climbed, surfed, etc.” The man began practicing yoga in 2000 and said he reveled in the meditative aspects of it, in contrast to his more “brutal sports.”
Then, in 2010, he enrolled in a new class and developed “severe spinal stenosis” with debilitating back spasms when the teacher “literally forced me into maintaining an extremely painful Downward Dog.” This is a classic pose in which hands and feet are flat on the floor, knees are straight (though not locked) and the body is bent at the waist at a right angle.
In a more serious injury resulting from the Downward Dog, a woman in Washington, D.C. suffered a spinal cord infarction, a blockage that caused sudden leg paralysis. She has since regained only partial use of her legs.
Mr. Broad concluded, based on his research, that the benefits of yoga “unquestionably outweigh the risks. Still, yoga makes sense only if done intelligently so as to limit the degree of personal danger.”
Thus, it is critical to choose your class and teacher carefully. Grace Grochowski, a registered yoga teacher at my local Y who has been teaching for 20 years, recommends that prospective students ask about an instructor’s formal training, tell him or her what they hope to get from the discipline, and report any injury, ache or health condition that might affect their participation.
The teacher should be willing to suggest changes in the moves you attempt or even say that the class may not be right for you.
“A good teacher listens and makes appropriate suggestions,” Ms. Grochowski said. Though her popular class is large, she regularly walks among the participants, correcting and modifying their poses and suggesting alternatives.
Most important, Randi Baker, one of her students, told me, is to “never go for the burn. If something hurts, don’t do it.”
Many of the oft-touted virtues of yoga have yet to be established in well-designed clinical trials, Mr. Broad wrote, and some popular claims have been shown to be bogus, like the belief that yoga breathing suffuses the body with extra oxygen or that it revs up metabolism and can foster weight loss. (Yoga actually slows metabolism, though its relaxing effect may reduce stress-related eating.)
Good scientific studies, including many supported by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, an arm of the National Institutes of Health, have demonstrated that regular yoga practice can improve cardiovascular risk factors like elevated blood pressure, blood sugar, bloodcholesterol and clot-inducing fibrinogen, and it can raise blood levels of protective antioxidants.
Yoga was shown to improve balance in elderly women and thus may reduce their risk of falls, a leading cause of injury-related death in older people. And, I was pleased to learn, perhaps by enhancing blood flow and the production of growth factors, yoga can counteract the deterioration of spinal discs, a plague of millions of Americans, young and old.
Possibly through its stimulation of the vagus nerve, yoga appears to counter inflammation throughout the body, and may reduce the effects of diseases likelupus and rheumatoid arthritis. And by relieving physical and mental stress, which can erode the tips of DNA, which are called telomeres and program cell death, yoga may slow biological aging and prolong life.
A more immediate benefit, to which Mr. Broad devotes an entire chapter, is yoga’s apparent ability to revitalize a person’s sex life by producing surges in sex hormones and the brain waves associated with sexual arousal. Just don’t try to act on this stimulation in class.