The recent article by the New York Times, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” (William Broad, Jan. 5, 2012)–nothing like a good ol’ sensational title to sell papers–cited cases, some decades old, of a few people who were freakishly injured from doing yoga.
It went on to highlight the stats, something that Dr. Baxter Bell covered in his refreshingly rational coverage of the issue in Yoga Journal:
46 yoga injuries? OK, so a lot of yoga injuries don’t bring people to the ER, but neither do many cycling injuries, which chalk up around 580,000 emergency room visits a year, according to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission. I’m still waiting to see a “Can Cycling Wreck Your Body” story, one that would be more appropriate for more readers.
The Times article quoted other people and professionals who had been injured in yoga or who have patients coming to them with yoga injuries, even though doing a little research shows that statistically, injuries in a more mindful exercise form such as yoga are far lower than exercise injuries in general.
Add to this doomsday scenario the centrally quoted figure in the story, Glenn Black, who the Times calls a master teacher, who is on faculty at Omega (full disclosure: so am I), yet who was just getting out of spinal surgery from years of severely overdoing his spinal movement in poses. Black thinks yoga is not healthy for the majority of practitioners, a statement I would perhaps have him qualify with the additional words: my style of yoga.
In a recent Huffington Post article, he reveals the causes of his recent surgeries, which left him with ‘spinal fusion and screws in his lower lumbar spine to stabilize herniated discs and spondylolisthesis’ as “Extreme backbends, and twisting coming up from my hands on my ankles. I overstretched my ligaments and destabilized my spine”.
He goes on to say that people should not do Shoulder stand or Plow Poses, or Headstand, then says that one of the “great” yoga teachers he knows is Kofi Busia. Black goes on to say. “(he) is one of best asana teachers around. Whether his students get hurt, I have no idea. But he is holding headstands for a long time, and people don’t say anything.”
I’m sure Mr. Black has some important things to teach, and I would never throw the baby out with the bathwater. But I don’t care how many times the word “master” appears before a teacher’s name: I certainly would not take class from any instructor who wrenched their spine so badly in his own practice for decades that they now needs surgical help, or whose favorite teacher teaches postures he would never teach, and who constantly contradicts himself when it comes to issues of safety.
All of those postures can usually be done, with the proper modifications, for just about every practitioner. For example, shoulder stand, which can so easily flatten the cervical (neck) spine, can be done with a block under the hips, legs in the air, shoulders and head resting in natural alignment on the floor. It gives you most all the benefits of the more intensive posture without the risks. When one understands how the body works, and doesn’t more completely, it usually becomes a question not of whether or not one can attempt a pose, but how to adapt it to suit their needs.
Yoga Safety Tip:
CORE YOGA TIP: TWIST, NOT TORQUE: Did you know that your sacrum and lumbar spine should never twist in opposite directions, or you can put your SI out of joint and cause spinal compression? Yet this happens all the time in revolved poses, when teachers say things like “twist from your belly”, or students push with their arm strength and take the twist any lower than the mid back or higher (mid-ribs, chest and neck), which all twist more easily. Start your seated (or any) revolved poses without using your arms. Recruit your side (obliques) and back muscles (instead and only use the arms lightly for balance and to LENGTHEN the lumbar spine–not twist it.
From what I’ve seen, so many of our yoga instructors at every level could use a refresher course in the anatomy of yoga and movement, say, from a credible–and anatomically correct–expert. Not an expert in classical pose shapes, but in actual human anatomy and the anatomy of movement. In my opinion, there are way too many teachers out there with way too little anatomy experience.
I know–I not only meet hundreds of them every year in my own workshops, but I used to be one of them.
I taught for many years not knowing the answers to my students’ deeper alignment questions and feeling like my dirty little secret was about to be revealed at any time: that I knew more about yoga shapes than the body itself.
For Mr. Black to tell the Times that he “never injured himself or any of his students” in yoga class, then reveal the complete opposite as the article moved on, leads me to wonder not only how many people will think this guy is the gatekeeper of yoga safety, when he obviously is not, but this:
Where were the voices of reason, telling readers not to panic, that there are plenty of qualified instructors out there, naming some of them, and letting people know that the health benefits of yoga far outweigh the risks?
Where was the Times when it came to finding and quoting experts like Leslie Kaminoff, Jill Miller, Amy Matthews, Paul Grilley, Julie Gudemestad or any of the other competent teachers out there?
Where was the counter-voice to say that most, if not all of these injuries could have been avoided had the students been studying with instructors who had solid anatomy training to match all their time spent on the Yamas and Niyamas.
Where were the solutions for students and resources for teachers beyond the scare tactics of the piece? Why raise awareness about an issue and then do little to solve it? Being a practical, action-oriented teacher, I feel the desire to offer of my own a few tips below, and seize the opportunity I feel the Times woefully missed.
But first, I’d like to pose the question: Should you shy away from yoga because it could possibly, somehow tweak your body? My educated answer to you would be: Absolutely not.
Thank God I didn’t–it literally saved my life after a central nervous system disease struck me down in my teens. I can walk, move, breathe, live, and love myself more completely because of yoga. When I didn’t know anatomy, I was starting to strain my joints. Once I learned it and corrected my practice, my injuries disappeared. I’ve practiced strong yoga for a decade with no injury, though I did hurt my shoulder last year by mindlessly lifting a microwave onto the top of my refrigerator.
I loved the Yoga Journal doc Baxter’s rebuttal to the position the Times took in almost solely warning readers about the myriad dangers of yoga:
“Then I suggest they also mention all the rewards one can anticipate, in including improved range of motion of the joints and improved physical strength and stamina. Plus there are mental-emotional benefits of being more grounded, peaceful and centered, just to name a few”.
Where was this doctor to balance out the piece?
I agree with Baxter. The life-transforming beauty and power of a conscious practice like yoga, which includes physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and relationship benefits too numerous to list here should not be disregarded because someday you might break a toe coming down from handstand.
What shouldn’t stop anyone from doing, or starting a yoga practice is the fact that you might get injured in yoga. People can get hurt anytime they move, and sometimes even if they don’t. For example, other proven causes of injury, stroke, nerve damage, and death (involving many more cases than yoga, by the way) are:
Lying Still in Your Bed
Crossing the Street
Drinking in a Bar
Going to Work
Playing with the Dog
Exercising with the Wii Fit
Sitting at Home
Driving Your Car
Riding in Cars
Taking Public Transportation
Standing in Line At the Bank
Working in a Bank
Taking a Bath
I haven’t yet found a juicy NY Times piece on the dangers of being killed by donkeys, which, by the way, is even more probable than dying in a plane crash–something that gets regular news play. More people, in fact, are killed by coconuts each year (150) than by yoga.
Look, I agree that more people are getting hurt in yoga than is necessary. But that’s a lot different than saying that you shouldn’t do yoga because it’s this scary, pitfall practice where you’re always one moment away from your sacrum popping out of your pelvis like a Pez.
It’s not just yoga. Any movement done with poor body knowledge, when we as students or teachers approach it either uninformed or unconscious, has a greater potential for injury. Yoga asana is physical movement. People doing what their teachers told them to, or going beyond that, then getting nagging muscle pulls, joint pain and more is always going to exist in any discipline, and it is also present in yoga.
Students hurting themselves, either in one class or, more likely, through repetitive stress from misalignments done over time can be an issue, one that people like me, who revere human anatomy and safety run into again and again as we watch teachers without an in-depth grasp of anatomical realities unwittingly teaching in injurious ways, and unsuspecting students following along, until a hamstring pops or a rotator cuff is blown.
Rather than scaring you about it, though, I’d prefer to examine what we can do about it, and how to change it for the better.
So what can be done about it? Two things: both the teacher and student can take more responsibility to know what they’re doing, and do it in a way that–though injuries happen whenever you move–make them much less likely to occur.
Here are my ideas:
Students: What I’d look for in any instructor is not what yoga lineage they’re from as much as how much anatomy training they’ve had, and from whom. It’s one thing to take 20 hours of basic movement and learn the main bone and muscle names in a teacher training, and quite another to spend, say, three semesters of intensive Yoga Anatomy training from Kaminoff.
Look for trusted anatomy of yoga resources like the following, and educate yourself. You don’t have to be a yoga instructor or advanced practitioner to gain the knowledge of how your body works–and doesn’t–in your poses. Some great resources are:
www.BreathingProject.org: Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews, perhaps two of the world’s top anatomy of movement geniuses, and they have a studio in NYC. Check out his online course. It’s pricey, but so is an ER visit. Make sure to get, and read the second edition of Yoga Anatomy, their brilliant book.
www.YogaTuneUp.com : Jill Miller teaches you therapeutics and yoga asana.
www.JulieGudemestad.com : The former anatomy columnist for Yoga Journal and physical therapist combines western medical knowledge with yoga posture and philosophy.
www.PaulGrilley.com : His 4-hour DVD on how everyone’s body is different in the poses will have you owning yours even more fully. Plus, Yin Yoga and eastern meridian teaching too.
www.yogajournal.com/for_teachers/anatomy: These articles, meant for teachers, are a great behind-the-scenes read for students too.
www.SadieNardini.com : Feel free to stop by my site and check out all my free YouTube videos, Facebook posts, trainings and more, to see how to put a more anatomically-based approach into a rockin’ Vinyasa (or any style) practice.
It’s your body–don’t trust it to just anyone. Ask any prospective yoga teacher what, if any yoga injuries they’ve had, and if, for example, they’re about to go into spinal surgery from years of severely over-expressing themselves in yoga posture, then move on.
In addition, each student has a responsibility to check themselves before they wreck themselves in class. You might not know everything about yoga poses or anatomy, but you do know the feeling when you’re pushing too hard. So when the urge to go all agro on a pose arises, whether it’s to strain toward strength or flexibility, it’s ultimately up to you to resist the ego’s siren song–something that leads even more experienced yogis to push their limits, then act mystified at the fact that this supposedly ‘healing’ practice hurt them instead.
Yoga isn’t healing if you refuse to act in balance whether on or off the mat. It can lead to your dysfunction just as easily. Yoga is there to reveal your current habits to you, and give you a chance to move toward health–or away–in every moment. How students and instructors choose to align–or not–with their individual needs, their integrity and common sense will manifest itself in the body as either greater equanimity, strength and freedom, or less.
Teachers: Do everything I suggested that your students do, including commit to a regular evolution of your anatomy knowledge. Study in person with some of the great anatomy minds, and ask questions about the poses you regularly teach.
Do your own personal yoga practice, consistently. So many of you practice less than your students, and it’s easy to fall out of connection with your own body and, therefore, stunt your growth and deeper understanding of the poses.
I did agree completely with Mr. Black when he said that teachers can’t ever learn as much from training as they can from direct experience. See? Never discount what you can learn from a teacher just because you disagree with some of their views–you’ll gain much more insight this way.
Question even what your main teachers taught you, especially if it doesn’t feel right in your own body. Remove aggressive language like “push” or “straighten” or “tighten”–and constant suggestions that the students go farther and farther in every moment. Sometimes progress means that they back off, or rest. The body has a point with both strength and flexibility when farther is too far.
And, in my opinion, don’t ever do a hard or forceful adjustment on your students’ bodies. They are where they are for a reason: strength and flexibility is a slow progression. A clear verbal instruction and light touch is all that should be needed. Any more than that is you taking over their process. We as teachers are here to empower, not enable.
In conclusion, yogis, know this:
When you think about it, basically, anything and everything you do could potentially kill or injure you. Life itself is a crapshoot, and yet if you want to reap its rewards, like loving more completely, moving your body, doing your life’s work and trying new adventures–you’re gonna have to risk it.
Be safe, educate yourself, trust your intuition, don’t push–only press–forward, and remember to act with truth and passion, and not from fear. After all…life’s a crazy ride. Better enjoy it while you can.
Let’s make this out new story, shall we?