Sadie Nardini Responds to “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.”

Via on Jan 18, 2012
Photo: Vanity City Buzz.

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:

http://blogs.yogajournal.com/doctorsorder/2012/01/10/yoga-injuries-the-bigger-picture/

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 confused.

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.

Photo: Webner House

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.

Photo: Collectic Life

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:

Eating

Having Sex

Running

Walking

Lying Still in Your Bed

Sleeping

Crossing the Street

Drinking in a Bar

Going to Work

Kissing

Playing with the Dog

Shoveling Snow

Dancing

Ice Skating

Exercising with the Wii Fit

Sitting at Home

Shopping

Traveling

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.

http://www.forumgarden.com/forums/did-you-know/2390-strange-true-facts-about-death.html

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.

Photo: Fitness Goop

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.

Bottom line:

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?

About Sadie Nardini

Sadie Nardini, is the founder of Core Strength Vinyasa Yoga, an anatomically-optimized flow style that gives you more results and benefits for every minute spent on your yoga mat. She is a holistic anatomy geek, healthy hedonism advocate, yoga expert, author, and TV host who travels internationally bringing empowering tools to yoga teachers and students everywhere. Her new book, The 21-Day Yoga Body: A Metabolic Makeover, Life-Styling Manual to Get You Fit, Fierce and Fabulous in Just 3 Weeks! (Random House), is out now, and her TV show, Rock Your Yoga, is playing across the country on the new Veria Living Network. With Sadie, you'll sweat, laugh, learn, and come away transformed, informed, and inspired anew. Learn more at www.SadieNardini.com.

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40 Responses to “Sadie Nardini Responds to “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.””

  1. Tanya Lee Markul Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the Elephant Yoga homepage.

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  2. kathik says:

    Black COULD NOT POSSIBLY KNOW that asana caused his spinal issues. To quote my very own spine surgeon: "I see this in sedentary people every day. Stop beating yourself up." If you're over 40, your discs are degenerating. You have bulges. They might herniate, might not.

  3. sadieyoga says:

    Sorry, Kathik, but as rational human beings, we actually can tell that when one does severe spinal movements, repetitively over years, that it's probably that that causes severe spinal injury. Maybe some sedentary people get a disc problem here and there, but screws in your spine and multiple disc issues that require surgery? I'd bet on the too-deep back bends and twists any day.

  4. Joanne Ozden says:

    Sadie I could not wait to read your count on this story and I really think Black should of thought about this story before he wrote it. Hi spine has obviously been a issue for many years but he has not been mindful at all other wise he would of worked with his body not to make it worse to the so as surgery would be needed.
    I think he could benefit from a Anatomy refresher course.

  5. Kim Zehnder says:

    Way to go Sadie! Great article…taking your teacher training led me to Kaminoff's anatomy training. I will be using his training for my YTT students! I do want to be mindful and send them out into the world with this indispensable knowledge.
    Kim Zehnder E-RYT 500

    • Madelain Burgoyne says:

      I am also a fan of Kaminoffs anatomy book, wish I could do an inperson training immersion with him. Better yet… the one that sadie assisted in would have been wild!
      I also like Ray Long bandha yoga series: http://www.bandhayoga.com I love the fact that he incorporates Proprrioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) as well as talks about recruiting muscles in the body. some good stuff.

      i really am blessed to have all these resourses at my disposal: Sadie nardinis TT and other courses, Leslies book, other awesome books as well as other great mentors… now all i need is to get my hand on Mike Meyers anatomy trains.

      Loved this Sadie!

  6. I just wanted to post an FYI.

    Mr Black is Jill Miller's teacher and she holds him in very high esteem.

    • sadieyoga says:

      Is he her anatomy teacher?

      • sadieyoga says:

        PS: As I said in the above article, I don't throw the baby out with the bathwater, and I'm sure Mr. Black has some amazing insights on life and the yoga practice. We are each skilled in some aspect (s) of teaching. However, the way he came across in the piece was anatomically misinformed or mis-practicing anatomically. Perhaps he will weigh in here and explain more about his philosophies or training in that arena. All I can comment on is what I have seen in print. I find Jill Miller to be fantastic, and my intention is not to disrespect any teacher, only to call any person on their misinformation if and when it's going to affect thousands of readers ideas of what yoga is, or could be for them. I would only hope people would do the same if I came out speaking about a subject that I do not seem to have a contemporary grasp of.

  7. laurie mayper says:

    Great article.

  8. Alison Nichols says:

    Great comments Sadie! The article had serious shortfalls from a journalistic perspective. Couldn’t understand the Times, even the NY Times Magazine publishing such a slanted piece. The author has a book coming out that’s shot up in pre-orders since the article. Makes you go hmmmm . . . Rock on!

  9. Jami Q says:

    As always, I find your thoughts timely……….well structured……….and your homework done. As someone new to yoga practise, i applaud your professional and enlightened stance. Thankyou.

  10. Sadie, great response! The first time I joined a gym someone took me around showed me the machines and that was that. Two weeks later I had an injured rotator cuff and a pulled thigh muscle. Do I blame the gym or the machines? No. That was the gym's policy & I knew that when I joined. I realized that I had no idea how to move my body with awareness. That, the fact that I could not breathe and was on ALOT of asthma meds is what led me to yoga. It was a huge wake up call and a turning point in my life. However, it's not to say it was all a big yoga romance…the first yoga class I took the teacher gave me such a harsh assist that she lifted me literally off the ground. I was lucky that I had a friend with me who told me that this was not the right teacher for me. She took me to a local gym and I the class I took rocked my world. It was as if I felt my breath for the first time. Through yoga I have cured asthma, stomach issues and developed a meditation practice. & As a yoga teacher, I agree with you…a quick anatomy course in a 200 hour training is not enough. BTW, I give props to you Sadie & Jill Miller who have taught me more about my own body & human movement than I ever thought possible. Next step…Leslie Kaminoff. ROCK it out sister!!

  11. Christian says:

    There actually was a "Cycling can wreck you body" type hatchet job about 15 years ago and the NYT yoga article reminds me of it greatly. The article was in Bicycling magazine and the premise was that cycling will make men impotent. If you happen to know anyone in the cycling industry that was active in the mid/late 1990's, they would have definitely been impacted by it. Of course it was for shock value and the author used himself as an example (being impotent) but he left out the part where he was riding 20,000 miles a and was in the middle of a divorce. It didn't really matter to the readers though… all the news outlets grabbed the article and ran with it.

  12. Hannah Siegle Hannah says:

    Great response Sadie. I couldn't agree more!!

  13. Graziano Galati says:

    It's true; yoga is an experience which is greater than the asanas but the way through to the personal transformation is through the asanas for me. However, proper training with a teacher who understands the whole of the process is critical. Nevertheless, the teacher is within you too, and you eventually do learn to listen to it. That's your awareness expanding. As Krishnamurti said, the teacher points the way, but it is ultimately up to you to find what that way will be for you. Knowing this, why would anyone want to avoid yoga?

  14. Gert says:

    Wow! 25 years ago when i started to practise, no one gave a damn about a few freaky yogis in Toronto, or the West in general..now it's HUGE…naturally with the good, comes the bad. Yoga is ,in essence, a good thing; a good body awareness, mindful practice. In the wrong hands…the over-zealous, the wrongly or poorly informed, the extremists, it can become dangerous, and lead to problems, and injuries. Let's have a little perspective here; yoga is as good as the people who teach and the people who practise. Reason, caution, and wisdom help teachers provide the best path , in yoga for their students.

  15. Pitta Fire says:

    Pitta type folks like me will inevitably injure themselves. It is the nature of fiery practitioners to go to,and exceed, their limits. Ego or nature? Perhaps injury is our best teacher to cool down the flames and find some moderate balance of tai chi's philosophy of only going to 70 percent of your capability and "no pain, no gain".

    Also, for Pitta folks, whether a teacher has a lot of anatomy training or not, may not guarantee an injury-free practice as their will can be the dominant factor.

  16. sharonkcormier says:

    Great response to Black's article. You offer common sense in place of sensational journalism. Thank you.

    And I believe, as you do, that our best teacher is our own body but we have to listen to it. My mantra as a yoga teacher is: Be in your body, not in the pose.

    Yoga will bring you to greater understanding of your body and your mind if you listen carefully.

  17. [...] Sadie Nardini Responds to “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body”. | elephant journal. [...]

  18. jenni_rawlings says:

    RIght on, Sadie! Thanks for your insights and for your refreshing modern perspective on yoga. The practice of asana is first and foremost a bodily practice – we're aiming to transform and grow on multiple levels, but we start this process by working with our bodies. As teachers, we can only offer responsible, informed, and helpful asana teaching when we've studied anatomy – and for more than the 20 hours offered in most teacher trainings. Thanks for taking the time to write this – you rock, man! :)

  19. Megan says:

    With all the uprising this past week, there have been some good outcomes, and I love David Vendetti’s synopsis here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l2XJruvEb18&sns=em

  20. [...] Yoga instructor Sadie Nardini points out that more people get killed every year by coconuts than yoga. [...]

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    This blog does not display correctly on my iphone 3gs – you might want to try and fix that

  22. [...] Sadie Nardini Responds to “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.” [...]

  23. Aurelio Manual says:

    This judge should be impeached, stripped of his citizenship, and deported.

  24. [...] up and become available to you. That is right—it will come to you, without you having to push to “make it happen.” You do not have to force your will here. You can simply allow yourself to experience the essence of [...]

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  27. Brenda says:

    Wow pretty ridiculous. You seriously can hurt yourself doing any of those other activities listed.. It's unfairly attacking Yoga.

  28. [...] Discussion in the yoga community is reaching fever pitch about how yoga can wreck your body. [...]

  29. Madelain Burgoyne says:

    Yep… My Yoga training could have used more updated anatomy too.

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