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Ann Pizer

Much Ado About Yoga in The New York Times

By January 9, 2012

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How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body, an article in The New York Times by science writer (and yogi) William J. Broad appeared online late last week, in the Sunday Magazine yesterday, and continues to ripple across the yoga community, though this is not the first time The Times has trod this ground (see When Yoga Hurts, July 2010). The message of Broad's article, which is excerpted from his upcoming book The Science of Yoga, is supported by many, though just as many are critical of its delivery and use of anecdotal evidence. (Keep an eye on YogaDork if you want to watch the back-and-forth.) Yes, yoga can be hazardous to your health. Since this practice is often touted as a panacea, it's not a bad idea to stop and point that out occasionally.

Early in my practice, I pulled a hamstring attempting to do a handstand my body wasn't ready for. More recently, I tweaked my shoulder pushing for one more chaturanga. Another time, I injured something in my forearm while carrying my heavy toddler a few blocks too far. And, years ago, I sprained a toe when I ran my foot into a table leg. That one still comes back to haunt me. What, those last two don't count because I wasn't "doing" yoga at the time? All four injuries were painful, took a long time to heal, required the adaptation of my practice, brought a new awareness of how to be careful with myself, and came about while doing something in a less than mindful way.

So while yoga injuries are no doubt on the rise, it's important to take a look at why this is happening. Two factors leap to mind: more people doing yoga and more people teaching yoga. Yoga itself is not getting more dangerous, but it can be taught, and learned, in a manner that is more likely to bring about injury. Finding a good, experienced teacher is going to go a long way toward preventing injury, but, ultimately, you are responsible for yourself. One of my first teachers did me a great favor by often repeating that letting go of striving after achievement and competition are important tenets, more important than where you can put your leg (I'm looking at you, Lululemon video). You hear a lot of teachers say "listen to your body," but seriously, listen to your body. It's the most important thing you learn to do through yoga.

  • More info on How To Prevent Yoga Injuries.

  • Comments
    January 10, 2012 at 6:45 am
    (1) Joe Friderg says:

    Dear Ann,

    You are grossly misreprsesenting the article, which seems have flown over your head by the way, by using tired old rhetoric.

    You claim that people are critical of the article’s delivery? Come again? What delivery? The fact that someone is being critical of yoga is not good enough delivery I guess for you. You then claim it uses anecdotal evidence? What did you expect? A double blind placebo large scale study? The benefits of yoga are themselves anecdotal. At least the article mentions quite a few case studies and published articles on medical journals. That’s something at least.

    Then you go one saying that, well, yoga or not people can have accidents to their bodies. So? If a certain yoga pose lends itself well to people injuring themselves should people do it? And hitting your foot on a table leg is a bad example, just because accidents happen anyway people should subject themselves to ANY form of exersice that is endangering them? Great logic…

    I am with you on the non striving advice your teacher gave you but the crux is that a lot of people who are teaching yoga aren’t into not striving (in actuality not in how they view themselves) and because certain yogic poses are inherently demanding and dangerous they hurt people. Time and again I ‘ve been to a yoga class where I had to steneously resist doing a pose I considered risky, for example the headstand, to overly pushy yoga “teachers”. Actually the pushy ones imh experience far outweigh the laid back ones, it scares me to think how many people have been coerced to do something that would hurt them by yoga teachers. This of course is not inherent to yoga, gymnasts are most of the times pushy, but yoga does have quite a few poses that are dangerous unlike some other types of exersice such as mild stretching.

    The NY times article should have been used as an incentive for you to become more aware of the dangers of the practise, not get defensive and fall back into the same tired “arguments”.

    January 10, 2012 at 11:19 am
    (2) Melinda L Toumi says:

    A teacher, of any discipline, does not coerce. Teachers instruct, invite, offer, but do not force. Anything else, is less than a teacher. Yoga, Chemistry, literature…

    January 10, 2012 at 11:29 am
    (3) Jeannie says:

    Thank you. I am not sure what Mr. Friderg was reading, but I didn’t feel you misrepresented anything. I feel that you are giving ample attention to the article by making your readers aware of it. I also appreciate you pointing out the book that it came from. I didn’t feel you were being defensive and, as a yoga teacher of six years, I appreciate the points you made. It reminds me of the fact that I need to continue to point out to my students that they need to adhere to what their bodies are telling them. I already constantly remind them that “we are not in competition…do what is most advantageous for your body.”

    Mr. Friderg, maybe if you re-read it after your yoga class you will see the positive I saw in Ann’s article…just a thought.


    January 10, 2012 at 11:35 am
    (4) Carol Marden says:

    So many people are so competitive they will do anything to look better than others. Many people do the same thing in yoga. They are trying to push themselves to do things too fast. They are look better than the next person. They are trying to burn calories. If this is what you are looking for go to a gym with a bunch of fit college kids and go for it.
    If you are looking to calm the mind and center yourself, connect with a higher power then practice yoga. If you attend a class that makes you feel pain of any kind, no matter how little, attend a class with a different yoga instructor.
    I started yoga at 60 years young and have practiced for over 2 years. Best thing I ever did. Feel great. Started trying to be the “top dog” ( it is the lawyer in me) and realized I wasn’t even a puppy. I am so much stronger, more grounded, and look at life in a new way. Interestingly, instead of hurting myself, I became so strong, I was back to yoga 1 month after major back surgery. My back surgeon was thrilled I was so strong and said it was do to the work I did before the surgery.
    If you do it right, yoga is joyful not painful. Good article on both sides.

    January 10, 2012 at 11:37 am
    (5) EJ says:

    The article was a hatchet job that yoga bashers the world over are using to describe yoga as dangerous.

    January 10, 2012 at 12:43 pm
    (6) Erma says:

    Mr. Joe Friderg sounds so angry. He doesn’t sound ignorent about yoga but he still lets yoga teachers push him across his personal limits. Does Mr. Joe Friderg really understand yoga, does he listen to his body or to a teacher?

    Ultimately it is the student who makes the decision to either listen to their body or – perhaps out of false embarrassment – listen to their teacher.

    January 10, 2012 at 1:19 pm
    (7) kelly james says:

    I am a blind yoga teacher and Reiki practitioner, and teach my students to learn how to do yoga using their inner eyes. I have heard of students getting hurt trying to see the teacher. Learning how to do the asanas correctly can help prevent these issues. I tell them to watch me then close their eyes and do it without seeing me. I place my hands on them so they don’t feel apprehensive. Learning how to brieth properly can also help protect the body from injury. Namaste!

    January 10, 2012 at 3:40 pm
    (8) kalyani says:

    novice yogis, try a class for beginners. stay away from the agressive styles until you are comfortable with your limits, know your limitations and always honor them. no need to prove anything to yourself or others in your practice. note that the practice of yoga involves 6 branches (japa, bhatki, jana, hatha, karma and raja) if you are only practicing hatha–the physical form of yoga, try to incorporate the remaining 5 branches either through a knowledgable teacher or through self study. allow the ego to dissolve in your hatha practice. the ego prevents you from seeing your own nature. don’t be attached to the outcome. practice santosha- contentment- as a result of contentment there is purity of mind, one-pointedness, control of the senses, and fitness for the vision of the self. the transformative powers of yoga will come with a practice that is steady, without break (meaning practice a form of yoga every day) and continuous. be familiar with the yoga sutras of patanjali. with the right knowledge you will have a healthy practice that can transform your life. om tat sat, kalyani

    January 11, 2012 at 10:35 am
    (9) sundar kadambi says:

    dear ann
    i am in total agreement about what you said. a dedicated yoga instructor’s foremost concern will be learner’s well being
    and it is very true to say that each body is tuned to different yoga . yoga injuries can be easily avoided if you do not compete with yourselves. i don’t believe any good yoga instructor can ever be coerce. it is wrong to title it as the harmful effects of yoga- it is more like yoga not taken in the right sense. ‘ stiram,sukam,asanam. ( slow and steady poses ids yoga-the sutras emphasis .
    to the deicated yoga instructors !!!

    January 11, 2012 at 1:57 pm
    (10) Peggy says:

    I have always been kind of bewildered by yoga experts who refuse to face the fact that when you put a group of humans in a room there is going to be ego and competition. That is how we are wired. A good yoga instructor knows this and not only CONSTANTLY reminds their students to listen to their bodies but practices what they preach!
    I had a yoga instructor (only took her class once for obvious reasons) who corrected my pose by saying something like “it has to be pretty”. I remember laughing so hard that I came out of the pose entirely and said “I’m 50 years old and have a round body, honey, none of these poses are gonna look pretty on me!” The class cracked up but as I said I never took a class with her again. Another instructor there SAID listen to your body but in fact would encourage people to go beyond their limits. I remember one pose I sat out on and he asked me why and I told him that I was not comfortable doing that pose and he then gave me an alternate pose. Sure enough, at least 5 people in the group stopped trying to do that pose and did the alternate instead. Most people are not that comfortable sitting out a pose while all of the rest of the class is doing or trying to do the pose, so that they never learn there is an alternate pose they could be doing and worse, injure themselves in the process.I think the article is good if it gets one person taking a yoga class to stop and think before they do a pose they are not comfortable doing or staying in a pose too long (endurance takes time for some of us!).

    February 28, 2012 at 4:49 pm
    (11) Carol Sturm says:

    I have hurt myself in yoga class three times in two years. The last time left me with a knee injury of 4 months duration now and still in the healing process. In each case I was too new to the classes to comprehend what my limits were and, rather than being competitive, I was following the instructor’s instructions thinking that would be safe. I am much more wary now and don’t hesitate to substitute a pose for myself, especially when there is a mix of students of varying abilities which is when this most frequently occurs (understandibly, due to the instructor trying to make everybody have a satisfying and challenging experience). I now know to not attempt any of the poses that hurt me (or any similar poses) for at least another two or three years, depending on how I judge my strength to be coming along. I am almost 69 and in the second year of consistent yoga classes. I don’t care if I ever do the complex poses, because the simplest things do more good for my body, and I concentrate on correct positioning and breathing in those “simple” asanas (like cobra, locust, the bridge pose, reverse triangle or the chair pose, etc.) and I have gained more strength in my hands and wrists, arms and shoulder range of motion, as well as hip and torso flexibility. Now I do know what to listen to concerning my body. I do have a teacher who is not into being pushy and quickly suggests substitute ways to stretch or strengthen the same muscles another way.

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