The idea that “real yoga is as safe as mother’s milk” is about to be seriously challenged in an upcoming book that details the shocking extent of yoga-related injuries among both yogis and the general population.
The New York Times featured an excerpt from William J. Broad’s book, The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards, which will be published next month by Simon & Schuster, in which he details the extent of the injuries that occur in yoga studios every day.
Broad, a senior science writer at The Times, was inspired to research the subject after suffering a yoga related injury of his own. Like so many millions of Americans, he took up the practice after rupturing a disk in his lower back and discovering that certain yoga poses and abdominal exercises minimized the pain – at least until 2007 when a pose hailed as a cure-all for many diseases made his back give way.
Broad interviewed a prominent New York yogi named Glenn Black who often teaches at the New Age hub known as The Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York. Black is an authority on yoga-related injuries and, after teaching yoga for four decades, has come to the counter-cultural conclusion that “the vast majority of people” should give up yoga altogether because it’s too likely to cause them injury.
Is it possible that the estimated 20 million Americans who regularly practice yoga are heading for a nasty injury? Yes, Black says, and warns that the average urbanite who comes to a yoga studio is just not flexible enough for the postures. For instance, Indian practitioners of yoga typically squat and sit cross-legged in daily life, he says, and yoga poses are an outgrowth of these postures; but Americans are not accustomed to these positions.
Even more concerning to Black are the throngs of sub-par teachers in the U.S. who lack the training necessary to recognize when a student is headed for injury. This is compounded by the fact that there is little or no national or state oversight of yoga instructor certification in the U.S., which leaves safety standards up-for-grabs.
“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.”
In his four decades in the business, he’s seen even the most well-known yoga teachers seriously injure themselves by performing positions that were too strenuous for them.
“One of the biggest teachers in America had zero movement in her hip joints,” he told Broad. “The sockets had become so degenerated that she had to have hip replacements.”
What makes Black’s testimony so compelling is that a growing body of medical evidence supports his conclusion that a number of even the most commonly taught yoga poses are inherently risky.
As Broad carefully documents, reports of yoga injuries have been published in some of the world’s most respected medical journals, such as the British Medical Journal (BMJ)and the Journal of the American Medial Association, and detail inuries ranging from mild to permanent disabilities.
One article discussed an injury which comes from sitting upright on the heels in a yoga position known as vajrasana which has become so common it has its own name – “yoga foot drop”. The pose can cause the deadening of a peripheral branch of the sciatic, which causes increasing difficulty in walking, running and climbing stairs.
The British Medical Journal published accounts of other yoga postures that caused strokes even in the young and the healthy. Brain injuries can arise from quick movements or excessive extensions of the neck, similar to whiplash, and some yoga practitioners typically extend the neck much further than they should. Even the famous B. K. S. Iyengar emphasizes this kind of hyperextension of the neck in the cobra pose in which he tells students to arch the head “as far back as possible.”
Iyengar also called the shoulder stand, which is considered to be one of the more dangerous yoga poses, as “one of the greatest boons conferred on humanity by our ancient sages.” It’s also the cause of serious injury. Such extreme motions of the head and neck can wound vertebral arteries, producing clots, swelling, and constriction, and generally wreaking havoc in the brain, according to the BMJ.
Willibald Nagler, a renowned authority on spinal rehabilitation at Cornell University Medical College published a paper on the case of a healthy 28 year-old woman who 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. While balanced on her head, her neck bent far backward and the woman “suddenly felt a severe throbbing headache.” She was unable to get up and was rushed to the hospital. By then, she had lost all sensation on the right side of the body, her eyes kept glancing involuntarily to the left, her eye lid drooped and she exhibited other symptoms known as Horner’s syndrome.
Doctors found that her yoga poses had caused the narrowing of her left vertebral artery and the arteries feeding her cerebellum had undergone severe displacement. During surgery, doctors discovered that the left hemisphere of her cerebellum had suffered a major failure of blood supply that resulted in dead tissue and left the site steeped in secondary hemorrhages. It took two years of rehabilitation to enable her to walk again, which she is now able to do “with a broad-based gait.”
Unfortunately, Nadler’s patient was not an isolated incident, and Broad goes on to detail other tragic cases of perfectly healthy people who suffered serious and sometimes permanently disabling injuries as a result of practicing yoga.
A New York city team based at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons published a worldwide survey of yoga teachers, therapists and doctors to discover the most serious yoga-related injuries that were disabling or of long duration. Lower back injuries ranked first, followed by shoulder, knee, and neck injuries, with strokes coming in last.
Reformers in the yoga community are finally beginning to address the problem of yoga injuries, such as Carol Krucoff, a yoga instructor and therapist who tore her hamstring and needed a year of rehab before she could fully extend her leg.
The editor of Yoga Journal, Kaitlin Quistgaard is also speaking out after reinjuring a torn rotator cuff in class.
Her colleague at the Journal, medical editor Timothy McCall, M.D., who suffered thoracic outlet syndrome as a result of doing headstands in yoga class, is speaking out about the move, saying it’s too dangerous for general yoga classes.
Swami Gitananda might believe “real yoga is as safe as mother’s milk,” but this belief appears to be far from universal in both the medical and the yoga community itself.
As for Black, he’s currently recovering from back surgery that was required after years of extreme backbends and twists led to spinal stenosis, a condition which causes vertebrae to narrow, compressing spinal nerves and causing excruciating pain.
Even though he knows the message he’s trying to convey is unpopular, it’s necessary.
“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.”