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Yoga and Injuries

Author: David
Publication: Youryogamn.com
Date: January 8, 2012
URL: http://www.youryogamn.com/blog/2012/1/8/yoga-and-injuries.html

The New York Times printed a controversial article last week about yoga and injuries. Various yoga teachers have penned responses, but I’ve yet to see one that I find fully satisfying (the one that came closest was by Michael Taylor of Strala Yoga, and I also enjoyed Eddie Stern's witty riposte). In my opinion, that is because the Times does something a little sneaky: it lays out what purports to be a scientific debate, but puts a provocative and even sensationalist spin on it. Presumably they did that so the article would create more of a stir. They succeeded in that regard. Unfortunately, their decision to court controversy also means that any yoga teacher trying to respond is forced into a defensive posture from which it is very difficult to emerge in a good light.

The Times article is predicated on several anecdotes of people getting seriously hurt while doing yoga postures. It cites a new book by a fellow New York Times columnist as evidence of the dangers of yoga (it also features a prominent direct hyperlink to buy the book, a fact which some have argued casts the whole article in a dubious light). It also cites Glenn Black, a yoga teacher, as saying that yoga as it is taught today is too dangerous for most people.

The dilemma for any yoga teacher trying to answer these claims is this. If you argue that yoga in general is very safe, you look like you’re ignoring the “evidence” contained in the article. If, on the other hand, you accept that much yoga is dangerous, but claim that your way of teaching it is somehow safer, you’re both undermining the yoga community as a whole and setting yourself up for a hubristic fall.

When the choice you’re offered is “would you like to be punched in the face or in the balls,” the most appropriate step is usually to figure out how you got tricked into such a lousy dilemma. Often, when you uncover the hidden assumptions or equivocations, you can dissolve the problem rather than attempting the impossible task of solving it.

Where the Times went wrong

In this case, I think the overlooked element in the Times article is a logical sleight of hand. The main complaint in the piece appears to be that there is a large incidence of injuries among yoga practitioners, ranging from relatively minor muscular-skeletal strains and pulls, all the way to debilitating strokes. There is also a thinly veiled insinuation that poorly trained and over-zealous teachers are largely to blame. These teachers are accused of lacking anatomical knowledge, fostering a competitive environment, and pushing their students to over-exert themselves (sometimes literally pushing them).

This argument conflates several legitimate points with a far more questionable one. The legitimate points:

1)    There are a lot of undertrained teachers, particularly with respect to physiology.

2)    There is a dangerously competitive environment at a lot of yoga studios.

3)    If people over-exert themselves, they are very likely to get hurt.

No one who understands the state of yoga in America today would dispute any of those points. But all these pretty obvious truths mask a huge leap in logic that is buried in the article. The author jumps from the above premises to the conclusion that you’re more likely to get hurt doing yoga than if you do other forms of exercise. And that, in my opinion, is completely unsubstantiated and probably wrong.

Let’s get this straight. Yes, you can hurt yourself doing yoga poses. To paraphrase Bryan Kest, any physical movement you do without paying attention is liable to hurt you. If you do it mindlessly, you can herniate a disk bending over to tie your shoe, or poke your eye out trying to brush your teeth. The question though, is whether you’re more likely to get hurt doing yoga poses than doing the alternatives. And there’s at least one excellent reason to believe that you’re actually far less likely to get hurt in yoga.

A revolutionary approach to fitness

In competitive sports, you’re encouraged to endure extreme physical strain. In many gym and personal-training environments, the emphasis is placed on aesthetics and short-term performance at the expense of long-term, sustainable wellness. And if you eschew physical exercise completely, you’re likely to suffer from far worse ill-health effects than any of the above.

In a yoga class on the other hand, you are actively encouraged to cultivate sensitivity, and to balance your ambition for change with an acceptance and appreciation for how and who you already are. That is a revolutionary approach to physical fitness, in which we cultivate wisdom while we work out. It also makes us far less likely to hurt ourselves.

Polluted practice

Certainly, where yoga has been polluted by prevailing attitudes about fitness (it’s about looking good or performing extreme feats), it is probably about as dangerous as other forms of physical exercise. Maybe there are even some circumstances where it is more dangerous, because it combines stretching with movement, which can make joints vulnerable if the teacher or student is careless. It’s also true that some of the contortions and inversions that have become popular in many mainstream classes put risky strains on the body if rushed into without adequate preparation, or if over-practiced even with the right preparation. However, the Times article presents a false dichotomy between the two extremes of recklessness and paranoia. Missing from that caricature is the yogic happy medium that combines caution with curiosity.

Ultimately, the Times article provides no evidence that yoga classes on the whole are any more dangerous than other exercise classes. I haven’t been able to find any statistics on the prevalence of injuries from yoga classes versus from running, lifting weights, P90X, CrossFit, step aerobics, Zumba, deep knee bends, silly walks, etc. But if those statistics have indeed been collected somewhere, my bet would be that yoga comes out among the safest exercise options, because of the point made above: only in yoga are you actively encouraged to practice mindfully and sensitively.

Of course, there are studios where that’s not the case. And there are students who will ignore the teacher no matter how many times they emphasize listening to one’s body and not pushing on vulnerable joints and junctures. But a few scattered anecdotes prove nothing. It’s extremely sad that some people have suffered strokes that were triggered by a yoga pose. But I have also known young, healthy people who have suffered a heart attack and died while jogging. Nevertheless, physical exercise is clearly one of the most urgently needed remedies for our society’s current epidemic of obesity and general poor health. When done mindfully, exercise is not only more effective on a physical level, but can also begin to heal emotional and psychological problems, and be a gateway to incredible personal healing and growth. It can promote love and creativity, and a sense of community and responsibility.

My story

My own personal story is very different from those that are portrayed in the Times article. Years of competitive sports, followed by several more years of abusive weight training, completely destroyed my body. I had next to no range of motion in my ankles and hips, severely degenerated knee cartilege, and the beginnings of vertebral problems in both my lumbar and cervical spine. Since I traded a weight bench for a rubber mat, my yoga practice has healed me of all but a trace of these ailments. And the worst injury I’ve ever sustained from my years of yoga practice is a pulled muscle in my shoulder that hurt for a week. I know there are many others like me who have had physical health and the love of life that is our birthright restored to them through yoga.

I would like to close this post with some advice based on my own experience. This advice is for yoga practitioners, yoga teachers, and the New York Times, in order.

Yoga Practitioners

To paraphrase Bryan Kest again, the harder you are on anything, the quicker it will wear out. Exercise the principle of caution when you practice. And when the teacher says “listen to your body,” “back off,” etc., take their words seriously.

Remember that a one-speed practice is not going to enable you to adapt to your changing needs. That's one reason why we incorporate gyrokinesis-based movements in our warm ups at Your Yoga, and it’s also why we’re about to add a yin-style “Slow Flow” class on weekday evenings. Your body (and spirit) needs different things at different times, and you need to cultivate sensitivity in order to make the right choices in your practice.

The best way I know of cultivating that sensitivity is to start a home practice that incorporates a gentler approach than your typical sweaty vinyasa class. That practice might only last a few minutes, but that is plenty if you do it regularly. My biggest tip: make it easy to do. Commit to literally just one minute. You don’t need to unfurl your mat, or to change into your yoga gear. Do it on the floor in your jeans. Just one minute a day of one yoga pose. Probably what will happen is that once you get going you won’t want to stop, and will at least do a few minutes. This is the single biggest injury-proofing step you can take.

Yoga Teachers

(i) Accept your responsibilities.

You are guiding people through a challenging physical practice. It is up to you to make sure you are well educated about the body and what it can take. The Times is right to point out one issue that the yoga community has been sweeping under the rug for far too long, which is the widespread lack of anatomical knowledge among teachers. Most yoga training programs skimp on the anatomy and physiology, and it’s easy to see why. The fact is, there’s just way too much to cram into 200 hours or even 500 hours, which are the typical lengths of teacher training programs. Anatomy and physiology are technical and challenging subjects, so they’re the easiest ones to jettison. That means as a teacher you have to go the extra mile and learn on your own. Sign up for some seminars or workshops. Among the workshops Megan and I have found the most useful are those offered by Gil Hedley, Tom Myers and Amy Matthews.

(ii) Don’t try to claim responsibility for that which you cannot control.

In addition to making sure you know what’s up, you also need to communicate clearly to your students that they have an equal share of responsibility for their experience. Often, students will automatically trust you, since you’re an authority figure of sorts. The problem is, your students’ respect can tickle your ego until you feel like encouraging it to grow to an unhealthy degree. It can also be in your financial interests to encourage students to believe you have all the answers – a problem that is actively worsened by the reprehensible practice of compensating teachers based on the number of students who show up for their class; a practice which I urge all studio owners to abandon. You need to let your students know that what matters most of all is their practice. That’s why we don’t post individual teacher schedules: we want people to come for their practice, not for your class. Sure, you won’t get as much credit when a student has an amazing practice - but that credit didn’t belong to you in the first place. Empowering the student leads to a much healthier relationship all around.

The New York Times

Many of us in the yoga community appreciate your ongoing efforts to stimulate intelligent debate about the practice of yoga, which is becoming a major lynchpin of modern American culture. You are one of the most widely read and influential newspapers in the country. Perhaps you can bear those facts in mind as you make editorial decisions relating to yoga. Putting a sensationalist slant on articles may get you more quick hits in the short run, but in the long run it may undermine your reputation as a reliable source of information, and may even discourage people from making healthy choices — like taking up yoga.

- David
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