NY Times: “Yoga Can Wreck Your Health.” (Here Are 7 Ways To Avoid It)

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The recent New York Times magazine article “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” (William Broad, Jan. 5, 2012) has created an international controversy in the world of yoga. The article’s focus on reclusive yoga teacher, Glenn Black, a respected faculty member at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY, draws attention to the hazards of the body when ego surpasses care and wisdom.

In other words, the article is hard on those banging their egos and bodies too hard against the studio floor and walls. For us old enough to be from the pre-studio era, yoga is, after all, primarily a support system for long meditations and spiritual growth.

According to Glenn Black, yoga is not for the faint hearted: “Yoga is for people in good physical condition. Or it can be used therapeutically. It’s controversial to say, but it really shouldn’t be used for a general class.”

Echoing my teachers in India years ago, who prescribed only 4-5 simple asanas to beginners, he continues: “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.”

Indeed, yoga, for me, is not primarily a practice of postures on a mat. Only about 10 percent of my yoga practice takes place on the mat. (Typing this article, I am repeating my mantra; I am practicing yoga).

I still do my practice at home, not in a studio. I start with chanting, then a long morning meditation that includes traditional Asthanga yoga (or Tantra, as I am accustomed to call it) : pranayama (meditation on breath), pratyahara (sense withdrawal), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (deep trance) then asanas for about 20 minutes, then more mantra yoga of the heart and breath throughout the day. Then the same routine at night.

Since yoga has become a body-focused practice, it is natural that it causes injuries. Indeed, yoga may be bad for your health. Even to someone as outspoken and careful as Glenn Black. He ended up having spinal surgery recently. The cause? Four decades of extreme yogic back bends and twists.

Carol Krucoff reports in Yoga Journal that increasing numbers of yoga injuries are being reported to medical offices these days. Even insurance agencies are paying out an increasing number of yoga-related injury claims.

Krucoff herself is one of the practice’s many victims. She “felt a sickening pop in [her] hamstrings” after practicing Utthita Padangusthasana (Extended Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose).

“Hamstring tears heal slowly,” she writes, “and mine required rest and extensive physical therapy. It took me six months to be able to run again and more than a year to fully extend my leg in Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose.”

So, if yoga may be bad for our health, what can we do about it?

1. Easy does it. Practice yoga gently, especially in the beginning, and in coordination with the breath. The literal translation of the word asana (yoga posture) is, after all, “comfortably or easily held posture.”

By gently massaging and pressurizing the various endocrine glands in the body, the various yoga poses are balancing the chakras and the hormonal secretions from many important glands.

These glands include the prostate and perineum, gonads, testes and ovaries, adrenals, pancreas, thymus, para-thyroid, thyroid, pituitary and pineal, all glands that, when properly balanced, positively affect our physical health, mental mood and spiritual well-being.

Practicing yoga too energetically, or too forcefully, may not give the same physical, mental and spiritual health benefits as doing the poses slowly, in harmony with the breath, and with ease.

2. Combine yoga with a meditation practice. Yoga postures are of two kinds: 1. those primarily for physical and mental health and secondarily for spiritual elevation and 2. those primarily for spiritual elevation.

Hence, many yoga postures were clearly not just designed for the body. They were developed for the mind and spirit as well.

My own teacher emphasized that it is essential for optimum physical, mental and spiritual development to combine yoga exercises with meditation. Indeed, it is said in the scriptures that Hatha Yoga (physical yoga) should be combined with Raja Yoga (spiritual yoga).

3. Listen to the body. Pain is an indication that you should stop, take a deep breath and be gentle with yourself. Pushing the body too far may lead to injury.

4. Yoga is not a competitive sport. It’s not a sport at all. It’s actually more about balanced thinking than about balanced posture. Besides—showing off may not just increase your ego, it may lead to injury. Serious injury.

Here’s some sage advice from Carol Krucoff. “I learned the hard way that there is no place for showing off in yoga,” she writes.

So, don’t succumb to peer-pressure or to a zealous teacher urging you to perform a-next-to-impossible pose when you know in your heart you are not ready for it.

You may just end up on your back at the chiropractor’s office.

5. Pick an experienced teacher.  Yoga’s popularity has resulted in a shortage of teachers and sometimes teachers with inadequate training are being hired at a studio. “Even new graduates from highly reputable teacher-training programs often lack experience,” writes Krucoff.

This lethal combination—new student and inexperienced teacher—is one of the leading causes of “injury-overzealousness.”

6. Know the weakest links. The lower back, knee and neck are usually the parts of the body that are injured the most during yoga practice.

If you are a couch potato, trying to sit in lotus position or do headstand the first time you practice yoga is definitely not advisable!

7. Accidents do happen. A few years ago, I tore my meniscus while falling sideways in the bed of my friend’s pick-up truck when it jerked into motion.

For a long time I had pain in my meniscus when I sat in meditation. And too immersed in my mind and spirit, I did not listen to my body.

Then suddenly one day bending down to pick something up from the floor, my knee went out. The pain was excruciating, and the healing process took a painstakingly long time.

For nearly two years, I was unable to perform my asnana postures properly and also unable to sit in siddhansana during meditation.

Our bodies change with age, sometimes we sleep improperly, or we have slacked off on our practice and become less flexible. Suddenly the body says “pop.”

So, once again, listen to the body.

Listen carefully. Treat the body gently. One yoga pose at a time. And remember, you are not doing yoga for that mirror on the wall, not for anybody in the room, not for anybody but your own body, mind and soul.

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anonymous Sep 2, 2012 8:59pm

I do yoga, but not that extreme. My chiropractor melbourne advised me against contorsion like yoga that is not beneficial at all.

anonymous Jan 29, 2012 12:35pm

[…] NY Times: “Yoga Can Wreck Your Health.” (Here Are 7 Ways To Avoid It) […]

anonymous Jan 24, 2012 11:13am

Ramesh…thanks for calling the shadow of yoga out. I have been practicing for over 10 years and have all but stopped going to studios due the inexperienced teachers pushing people (using will and force) and expecting the student to just do as they say. It is so hard to find a good studio with a good teacher. I am actually moving to Asheville soon and wonder if you have any suggestions? I like vinyasa flow mainly.

    anonymous Jan 25, 2012 3:32pm

    Thank you so much for your kind comments, Susan. I am not much of a yoga studio person, so I do not have personal experience with any of the teachers in Asheville except Kaoveri Weber at http://www.subtleyoga.com whom I highly recommend. Otherwise Vinyasa flow are practiced at Asheville Yoga and a few other studios. Many of the teachers here have a great reputation. Stephanie Keach, Shala Worsley, Michael Johnson, Sierra Hollister, etc have all taught at the Prama Institute and are personal friends. Stop by to visit us when you arrive in Asheville!

anonymous Jan 24, 2012 5:53am

[…] […]

anonymous Jan 17, 2012 11:38am

Charlotte Bell commented on your link.
Charlotte wrote: "Thanks, Ramesh. These are very good guidelines. I just posted the first in a two-part series that will elaborate on the blog I wrote last week. Here's the link: http://www.huggermugger.com/blog/2012/yoga-injuri

anonymous Jan 17, 2012 10:09am

A beautiful reflection and well-advised counsel. Thank you for your eloquent expression.

anonymous Jan 17, 2012 9:47am

Yoga is pretty packed full of egos. There is such an underlying egotistic pompousness about yoga. I am a pro fighter and although yogis hide there lust for themselves well, there are just as many egos in yoga as there are in the cage. I was pushed in a pranayama yoga class so intensely that I suffered an intestinal strangulation from it. 60k and 6 months rehab. So now when I go to a yoga class and the arrogant and under talented instructor scoffs at me not being able to do some advance pose i think in my head "can you kick my ass!!?" everyone is great at something! Check yourselves fellow yogis.

    anonymous Jan 17, 2012 12:37pm

    Really sorry to hear about your injury, Onelegkahn. But I am glad to know you are not intimidated and still practicing!

anonymous Jan 17, 2012 7:04am

Great post, Ramesh. Just shared on the main elephant page. https://www.facebook.com/elephantjournal#!/elepha

anonymous Jan 17, 2012 4:00am

Carin Secrest commented on your link.
Carin wrote: "Your points are wise and precaution is important for those who are very competitive, are weak or have poor sense balance. However, I wonder if really so many people get hurt of whether this is a media hype from NT which lies all the time about political events. See, one can get hurt twisting an ankle walking down the road. I would much rather see some true research. I would like to find some other research from advanced Yoga Therapists to support this claim. Still, it is possible to get hurt."

    anonymous Jan 17, 2012 4:06am

    The statistics mentioned in the article and the way it was written did not seem to indicate this is hype but that injuries are happening more frequently and that it can happen to anyone if precautions are not taken. The increase in injuries has also been reported in Yoga Journal as quote in my article above. But, you are right, walking can hurt you, too…

anonymous Jan 17, 2012 12:37am

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

Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
Like Elephant Yoga on Facebook
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anonymous Jan 17, 2012 4:14am

Good point about sports. Soccer is one of the world's most popular sport and also the one with the most injuries. It is a known fact among soccer players that knee injuries are very very common. You are right, I don't think the point is to tell people not to practice yoga. That is certainly not my point, but rather to increase awareness and to take precautions whenever needed. Bikram yoga was mentioned as one possible cause of injuries if one overexert the body under the influence of the extra flexibility induced by the heat.

anonymous Jan 17, 2012 7:22am

I have the same experience as you, Carol–I have seen and experienced few injuries, but I also have little experience in the yoga studio world. I think the subtext is about the deeper goal of yoga. The more sports-like and physical yoga becomes, the more injuries are reported.

anonymous Jan 19, 2012 8:00am

Nandhiji, thank you so much for your kind reply… just one addition to your comment: the hybridization of yoga started in many ways already in India with Krisnamacharya and then later with his students Iyengar and Pathabi Jois since Krishnamacarya was heavily influenced by Western Gymnastics. As I mentioned in my article, I think that there are numerous reasons why there are an increasing number of injuries in yoga today, primarily because it is intensely posture based….

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Ramesh Bjonnes

Ramesh Bjonnes has traveled the world as a meditation teacher, Ayurvedic practitioner, author, and is currently the Director of the Prama Wellness Center, a retreat center teaching yoga, meditation, and juice rejuvenation. He studied yoga therapy in Nepal and India, Ayurvedic Medicine at California College of Ayurveda, and naturopathic detox therapy at the AM Wellness Center in Cebu, Philippines. He is the author of four books, and he lives with his wife Radhika and Juno, a sweet, gentle Great Pyrenees, in the mountains near Asheville, North Carlina. Connect with him via his website: prama.org and rameshbjonnes.com.