How just being alive can wreck your body

This week my yoga students and the greater yoga community have been all a-buzz over a New York Times Magazine article titled “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body”. I’m generally a fan of the New York Times. Frequently the newspaper and magazine have positive things to say about yoga. After all, it’s helped loads of people physically, mentally, spiritually: myself included.

But sensationalism ruled this recent piece to the extent that I hesitate to even respond. The examples of yoga injuries in the article would be laughable if presented at, say, a scientific conference with n=1. Foot drop (aka debilitating nerve damage) from sitting on your heels for 6 hours a day? When did this person’s sense of self-preservation take a backseat to what he read in a book (he was not told to do this by a teacher)?

Another example was of a 28 year old yoga student who had a stroke after performing plow pose. Clearly, her underlying condition (likely vertebral artery sclerosis or foraminal narrowing) made her a ticking time bomb. The reason I consider her experience irresponsibly blamed on yoga is because the same thing could have happened had she slept funny on a couch / airplane, craned her neck to unclog a pipe under her sink or propped too many pillows beneath her noggin to try and read a book in bed.

The estimable Kelly Morris responded with something like this: If you are a skier and you fall down and get injured, you don’t get angry at the mountain.

That’s it. The article’s other examples include hip replacements, lumbar stenosis — these are consequences of not just of the dangers of over-pushing your body in yoga, but of genetics and of being alive. The patients I treat with these conditions usually got them from plain old living life.

The statement that I posted on my facebook page.

Yoga is extremely diverse, and is not the sum of the poses. The poses are a fraction, a microfraction even, of the totality of yoga. Any pose can heal. Any pose can hurt. I mean that: any. Take any other physical endeavor (i.e. running) and you will find injury, even death…much more commonly. Overwhelmingly, yoga has helped vastly more people than it has hurt. It’s popular for a reason. If it was a trend, it might have peaked in, say, 2005. Instead, every 3rd woman has completed teacher training, and it’s still growing. However, if you approach yoga like gymnastics, or cheerleading, trying to “master” a pose for the visual pleasure of someone else, or if you value the opinion of one person (“teacher”) over the honest opinion of your own body, you are in for trouble. It’s not so complicated. But get a good teacher.

The simple truth is that you can hurt yourself from standing still.

Full disclosure: I have also hurt myself in a yoga class. When I hurt myself, I wasn’t practicing satya, or truthfulness. The hard cold fact that my ego didn’t want to face was that I was not strong enough to repeatedly or properly perform chaturanga dandasana (btw, most yoga students are not) like you will in most vinyasa classes. I wasn’t being honest about my own limitations. Satya is an essential element of true practice of yoga. Yes, I was in a yoga class, but I was not practicing yoga.

Group classes, with their sometimes unconscious, sometimes overwhelming sense of competitiveness, not to mention overflowing endorphins, are very good recipes for injury. But they are also like a gateway drug to massive growth, freedom and healing. If taught well, a good yoga class can change your life, as well as your body, for the better.

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What would you add? I’d love to read your thoughts on yoga and injury in the comments below.

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