How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body? A Response.

Via Hannah Siegle
on Jan 7, 2012
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If you are paying attention in the yoga world you have probably come across the recent article from The New York Times, How Yoga Can Wreak Your Body.This article outlines the dangers of the practice of asana as it has evolved in the West. Yoga in our culture has become much about the postures, rushing quickly or straining from pose to pose in what could better be described as calisthenics, bearing only a minor relation to the true roots of the practice and virtually ignoring the integrity of the postures. While the occasional class in this manner shouldn’t cause many problems, a repetitive practice like this will slowly reveal underlying physical weakness and cause problems later down the road.

The main yoga teacher cited in the article, Glenn Black talks of the tradition of yoga and that it wasn’t designed for classes en mass or people who sit in front o their desks everyday. Bodies such as these says Black aren’t made to jump into physically demanding classes once or two a week, straining to get into pretzel like contortions. Yoga isn’t about pushing people or forcing a student into the pose.

Several descriptions of extreme cases of injury follow, some temporary and some permanent.  Yikes.


So what is my reaction to this article? The author, William J. Broad, who has a book coming out next month, The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards, and Glenn Black are correct in their words and I remind the reader that they need to look at the first word of the title. HOW. Yoga does have enormous potential to cause injury and it frightens me at times to see students put their trust in teachers who have little or no training especially in areas such as anatomy, assisting, and sequencing.  I shudder looking back at my first months of teaching when I hardly knew what I was doing or the potential for harm that could have happened in my classes after just a basic 20-hour weekend training, which was allowed by Yoga Alliance. I had only my own body and practice to go off of. Thank goodness that nothing ever happened and that I had my background in studying anatomy and physiology in school as well as teaching it to fall back on.  Still should I have been teaching yoga then? No.

Something that is not often discussed is the need for awareness of the body in space in yoga. It is essential for a new yoga student to develop this before they can really move on with their physical journey. A lack of this knowledge is what contributes to injury. Ask a student to flex their foot and you will see many variations of what this means. It isn’t about the way the posture appears but rather the movement to get there and then once there the alignment to remain safe. There is a learning curve is stepping into this. Students need to be patient and willing to  strength and integrity in their joints and muscles before forging ahead with too advanced or too fast of a practice.

Teaching to large classes makes it difficult to really serve each student and mixed levels also presents an issue.  So what is the answer? It is up to the student to be responsible for themselves and their body. They need to know when to push and when to back off.  Yoga is more about cultivating this tool than the actual postures themselves. Don’t try to get into a pose more deeply just because the person on the mat next to you is. The practice isn’t about them, it is about you. What will you gain by matching them? Perhaps a pulled hamstring?

I’m not saying that yoga can’t be used in a more superficial way for those wanting to change their body; It doesn’t have to be a deeply intense personal journey for everyone. I am however advocating that the approach towards this needs to shift in order to remain safe, strong and healthy.

What are your thoughts on this article? What is the power of yoga to harm?

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About Hannah Siegle

Hannah Siegle began to do yoga four years ago initially for the physical practice, however she quickly discovered that the yoga began to do her in ways she never anticipated. The mind, body and spiritual connection that yoga cultivates has helped Hannah through the ups and downs of life, both large and small. She regularly blogs at Balancing on Two Feet on topics such as yoga, mindfulness, eating disorder recovery and all those things people don't like to talk about. She was trained at the RYT 200 through Laurel Hodory and is currently working towards becoming a Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapist. She teaches yoga throughout Central Ohio with GoYoga ,yogaServe, and also works as an Assistant Editor for the elephant journal!


19 Responses to “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body? A Response.”

  1. Zach says:

    As a teacher, I really don't think it falls on the student to know when to back off. Ultimately, yes that is the goal. But until students are taught where it is safe to work and where it is not, we cannot place it on them to back off when the time is right. The real responsibility lies on the teacher, how do I teach in a way that encourages students to push their limits in safe way, and back off from too much intensity, pain, and injury when that is appropriate?

  2. Hannah says:

    I think it is up to the teacher to create a safe environment, but ultimately still up to the student to be empowered to protect their own body.

  3. […] How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body? A Response. ( […]

  4. I agree Hannah. As a teacher, I can only keep the student as safe as they will let me. Ego takes over or competition sets in. Or , worse yet, the student "forgets" to tell me about an injury or issue I should know about. When I read the NYT article I thought well duh, of course yoga can cause injury. Just like baseball, running, step aerobics – anything physical. Which is why it's so important to stress awareness. It's not about who has the best pose, but rather being the most mindful in the pose.

  5. In terms of yoga as a "sport" I have had fewer injuries from yoga than many others I have tried (soccer, basketball, ultimate frisbee, running, climbing.) But I know I've had days where I push further than I should. Good teachers are a help here. And the other parts of yoga besides our asana practice are a big help too. Tame that ego…less desire to out-do or out-perform.

  6. Tanya Lee Markul says:

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

  7. Ben_Ralston says:

    I taught yoga full time for 10 years. Thousands of students, not a single injury. As far as I'm concerned if you're teaching properly no one gets injured, because Yoga is simply not a sport…

  8. ValCarruthers says:

    Excellent article, Hannah. The tendency many people have with Yoga, as with golf, tennis, and total-body fitness crazes like TRX(r) (the one that leaves you with every muscle in your body quivering), etc. is that "if a little is good, more is better." We want so much from Yoga so fast that often we don't take allow our physical/mental/emotional systems the time to integrate the effects of practice. Some days a walk in the park at sunset or a swim may actually be more the Yoga we need than a third or fourth boot camp Yoga class that week.

    Sure it's great to have those go-for-it days. And it certainly helps to have a teacher well versed in anatomy and assists who almost intuitively knows when we're ready to push beyond our current perceived edge and can guide us there and back, both turned on from the thrill and utterly safe. With or without said teacher, it is indeed YOUR practice and only yours and learning to listen to your body is one of the greatest Yogas of all.

  9. Jenny chung says:

    I experienced injuries when I 1st started yoga. At the beginning, like most yoga beginners, i thought that I need to push my body to achieve certain poses, and that's really this wrong mindset that causes the injuries. Right now, I still practice, but I try to listen to my body and try to ease off when something just doesn't feel right

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  11. Zach says:

    Hannah, I think I get where you're coming from, because at a certain level yoga teachers are powerless to stop their students from "bad" habits. But I think that as a teacher, my job in creating a safe space is to empower my students to protect their own body rather than rely on them to empower themselves. As I look around the room, what can I say or do to connect with students who may be pushing their bodies too far? What tools can I use to teach them to tune in and feel their bodies, to listen to the messages they receive? As Jennifer pointed out, mindfulness is the key. I see it as my job as a teacher to be mindful about students who are not empowered to protect their own bodies and teach them how. Otherwise, I'm just leading a series of postures, instead of really teaching.

  12. Well said, Hannah! Thanks so much for sharing. – Jeannie

  13. Hannah says:

    Zach, I agree. I think we are saying the same thing, but using different words.

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