This Just In: Yoga Can Wreck Your Body!

Via Bernadette Birney
on Jan 6, 2012
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News flash:  yoga poses can hurt you!

So says the NY Times.

Well frigging duh.

Listen up, peeps.  Yoga has always been about power.  Always.

Yoga is not just about yoga poses.  It is a technology designed for revelation:  revelation of your true face, your true name, your true nature. For most people, unflinchingly and lovingly knowing yourself requires a great deal of power. Although we tend to mistrust power as corruptive, I learned from my teacher years ago that, if I want to do something good in this world, I damn well better be powerful.

Asanas (yoga poses) are powerful.  The very word Hatha, as in Hatha Yoga–which describes every kind of yoga which requires a yoga mat–means “to strike”.  Asanas are like scalpels.  The strike of a scalpel can heal or harm.  It is the application that determines whether the strike of a scalpel is salubrious or injurious.  The same applies to asana. 

To claim that yoga is so dangerous that all people should give it up is, in my opinion, sensationalist and irresponsible. Yes, yoga can injure.  That’s why you should practice it with a really well trained teacher.  That’s not NY Times newsworthy.  It’s just common sense to be filed under duh.

Yoga can also heal.  It’s a lot like medicine. Medicine should be prescribed by someone who knows how–a doctor with years of training and practice under her belt.  Medicine can cause harm–even death–when taken incorrectly.  Should my dad stop taking his heart medicine because it is just too dangerous?

People, please don’t chuck out all your prescriptions because if taken incorrectly they might kill you.

Anything taken to its unchecked extreme is probably going to be a bad idea.  What I want to know is–why was that kid in the article sitting in Vajrasana for hours upon hours every day?  Why the heck was he doing that?  It was dumb.  If he were practicing with a seasoned teacher he wouldn’t have been doing that.  He wouldn’t have been sitting in Vajrasana for more than about a minute.

Do I sound flip?  If so, I apologize.  You probably can’t imagine how much I care about the safety of the people in my classroom.  Over the last decade three people have been injured in my class. All three injuries occurred when yogis spontaneously did something I didn’t instruct.  I have developed eyes in the back of my head a result. I have gotten good at anticipating when people might be tempted to go off the ranch and do something erratic and irresponsible.

I am very stern with students who do not follow my instructions to back off.  I have to be.  Safety hangs in the balance. In all the years I’ve been teaching, I have invited only one student to never return to my class, and that was because she refused to follow my safety instructions.

As far as people having strokes from hyperextending their necks, we don’t do that in Anusara Yoga™.  We have something called Skull Loop to prevent unbalanced backbending of the neck.  We also have levels of initiation.  With a good teacher, a practitioner will have demonstrated strength and ability before being allowed to move on to more powerful intermediate and advanced poses–Headstand and Shoulderstand, for example.

All that said, I will share something that I have believed to be true for some time.  There are different reasons to practice the physical form of yoga.  If you are practicing to heal your body, or simply to keep it strong and limber, there is a tipping point.  You do not need to do advanced asana for that.  You do not need to do Power Yoga.  Maybe you shouldn’t.

I practice asana for a constellation of reasons.  Strength and agility factor in, definitely.  Healing my body has factored in too, as well as healing for my heart, mind and spirit.

I also like to do advanced asana sometimes.  It’s joyful.  It’s challenging.  It’s fun.  I don’t do it to stay strong and limber. I do it simply because I want to, for the love of it.  Advanced asana practicioners are–among other things–elite athletes. Elite athletes sometimes get injured.

When I do advanced asana I do it with all the skill I have acquired to keep myself safe.  Alignment yoga is smart yoga.  Not only can lining up in a specific way generate a huge shift of consciousness–it’s like looking both ways before crossing the street.  It prevents most injury.

But even with good awareness of alignment, injury is possible.  There is nothing that I know of that prevents 100% of injuries 100% of the time.  The world is far less certain than that. Over the years, I’ve been injured a few times doing asana but I have also been healed. The healing has by far outweighed the injury.

Thank you for your attention on this matter.  End of rant.

Read more of Bernadette’s rants here.


About Bernadette Birney

Bernadette Birney is a dyed-in-the-wool, freedom-loving tantrika. When she’s not busy conquering the world, taking hostages, feverishly freelancing, working on her book, and posting on-line essays, you can find her practicing the art of life-on-purpose, and teaching in Connecticut. / Bernadette has had the good fortune of studying with the great ones: she’s a certified Anusara yoga instructor, and has long pestered her Rajanaka Yoga mentor, Douglas Brooks. Known for her poetic and precise articulation, she insists that you can maintain a hard-core yoga practice and a sense of humor, too. Her classes, immersions and trainings are steeped in a life affirming philosophy that will invite you into the exploration of your own potential. / Bernadette was one of the earliest Certified Anusara yoga instructors in CT, and continues to mentor the local teaching community, leading trainings and retreats. She has contributed to Yoga Journal, Fit Yoga, Elephant Journal and Srividyalaya Amrta. She is also a Lululemon ambassador, and the author of the quirky, award-winning blog .


21 Responses to “This Just In: Yoga Can Wreck Your Body!”

  1. […] the People. More recently, this week was the controversy about the New York Times article labeling yoga as “dangerous.” That one kicked up quite a firestorm! And most recently, the one that is currently swirling […]

  2. Tanya Lee Markul says:

    Loved this. Thank you Bernadette!

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

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
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  3. Posted to Elephant Main Facebook Page, my Facebook page, Twitter, Reddit.

    Bob W. Editor, Elephant Journal
    Yoga Demystified
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  4. Hey Tobye. We're really not saying the same thing at all cuz I am saying that the benefits far outweigh the risks, and the article actually goes so far as to claim that yoga is so dangerous that the majority of people should give it up altogether. Not only is that throwing the baby out with the bathwater, it's reckless. The NY Times article is one sided to the extreme, and could effectively scare away people who would really benefit from yoga. I believe there to be few–if any–forms of physical activity that are less dangerous than yoga. Done intelligently, and with a good teacher, yoga is incredibly beneficial and far less dangerous than inactivity.

    Anyway, you rock. Thanks for the comment.

  5. __MikeG__ says:

    I am totally with you on this. Iyengar himself taught the use of blankets in shoulder stand as his teaching and practice matured. Vajrasana for hours? Eek!!! Any activity done without regard for personal/group safety may result in injury, including walking out your front door. I really enjoyed the sanity in this post.

  6. yogi tobye says:

    Oh yeah I agree with you for sure. I guess I'm lucky in the fact I was taught and trained in Karuna yoga which is where I learned my own mission statement "I bend Yoga to suit people and not the other way around."

    I did however read the article at 2 in the morning after coming back from the pub so, I could certainly be mistaken in my discrimination of it! 🙂

    Hopefully the article may not scare people off but rather, make them just a little more aware of their intentions when practising.

  7. Rustin says:

    Duh? – Not so much.
    First of all, little has been written about injury, so the NYT article was welcomed as a thoughtful and well researched piece.
    Second, I did not see "yoga is so dangerous that the majority of people should give it up altogether". Where in the article was that exactly?
    Third, yoga IS powerful medication! And "prescriptions" are basically NEVER given out in classes. Krishnamacharya taught one on one usually (except for demonstrations). He taught Mohan and Desikachar together but Iyengar and P. Jois basically had private lessons. Iyengar (Light on Yoga 1966) states that yoga should be done under the individual direction of a guru.
    Why is yoga taught in groups here? Because that is how Aerobics, Kickboxing and Spin are taught? Often in the same rooms but yoga is different? Or is it?
    Thanks Bernadette Birney for staring the dialog about this, let's examine carefully what we are doing, and more importantly – how.

  8. elephantjournal says:

    I loved the article. As I said in my… noting its appearance on the home page of nytimes, the article helped point out something we've "…been saying this for years: all yoga is not yoga. Yoga is not an exercise, merely. Without proper alignment, you will hurt yourself sooner or later. Without breath to relax and naturally align, you will hurt yourself sooner or later. Without drishti, without training by teachers who were themselves properly trained…yoga is bad for you."

  9. Provacateur says:

    I think perhaps the main import of the NYT article was misunderstood or just missed here? The majority of the references to injury were from individuals performing fairly "standard" and not "advanced" poses. The article questions whether or not the modern human body that is fixed in a static state for 8-10 hours a day can actually be at risk for serious long term damage from just a basic asana sequence practiced over time.

    Perhaps it would be wise to look look more critically at the research and determine whether or not the yoga community should be advising individuals perform certain preliminary practices ( Many Tibetan Buddhism lineages require such practices to prepare the mind for further development) that focus on alignment and flexibility….those that prepare the body of the individual for the power that you so passionately proclaim?

  10. Paul says:

    That's not what the article said at all. If you re-read it you would see that Glen Black sees yoga a different way since his injuries. It warns against very specific poses that twist and compress the vertebrae and are not suitable for the average person but are taught in the average class. It also shows the flaws in assumptions made in Yoga books like Iyengar's "Light on Yoga".

  11. Bernie, this is fabulous. Your writing is brilliant! Thank you so much for tackling this.- Jeannie Page

  12. Ben_Ralston says:

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

  13. […] This Just In: Yoga Can Wreck Your Body! […]

  14. laurie says:


  15. Pedro says:

    That's one controversial article, nothing really new, but I guess it had to see the light of day for the reasons we all know. One thing it failed to mention though is the quality of attention and level of consciousness and equanimity that we are supposed to bring to our practice, which is so essential and perhaps the most important aspect of yoga. Isn't the posture in our minds after all?

  16. Ariana says:

    Nice response! I understand how this is a touchy subject for so many people. I am just glad that the topic is getting attention and people are talking about it openly – whether they agree with the article or not. I agree the article was slightly sensationalist, however, it is absolutely true that you can hurt yourself doing yoga. It is up to the student to find qualified teachers and listen to their bodies -not their egos. And it is up to the instructors to educate themselves with qualified certifications and trainings.

  17. […] controversy after the next. This week the controversy was about the New York Times article labeling yoga as “dangerous.” That one kicked up quite a […]

  18. […] of our media, but let’s also learn from the stories being shared.I liked the responses from Bernadette Birney and Rachel Anne Scott, who both used the word “duh” to describe their reaction to the news that […]

  19. […] liked the responses from Bernadette Birney and Rachel Anne Scott, who both used the word “duh” to describe their reaction to the news that […]