Can Yoga Really “Wreck Your Body”?

Hopefully, this boy will be OK. (Kristin Andrus: Flickr)

Hopefully, this boy will be OK. (Kristin Andrus: Flickr)

The New York Times Magazine hit a nerve earlier this month with its “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” feature. The piece outlined injuries including torn cartilage, herniated discs and even a stroke. Media outlets from Salon to Men’s Fitness have weighed in. The New York Observer says the story could be the biggest “Non-Controversy of the Year.”

Non-controversy or real controversy, the story has become a big story. Today on KQED’s Forum, no less than five guests debated and discussed the merits of yoga. Spoiler alert: four of the guests defended the practice of yoga, but with some caveats.

A big issue for yoga seems to be that many more millions of people are now “practicing” it. (“Practicing” being yoga-speak for “doing.”) On Forum, Kaitlin Quistgaard, editor-in-chief of the Yoga Journal, put the number at 15 million Americans, up from four million in 2001, according to the Times. That’s big growth and it’s meant a big change for yoga teachers.“Early on when I started teaching in the late 90’s,” said yoga teacher Jason Crandell, “there might be eight to ten people in class. Now, in a handful of circumstances, there’s closer to 30 to 50 people in class. So I have to be better and better, and many teachers have to be better and better at dealing with a larger number of students coming in with more pre-existing injuries.”

The guests agreed that students should shop for teachers, either by reviewing information available or relying on word of mouth. Crandell said the Yoga Alliance certifies teachers and has become the “industry standard.”

The best way for students to avoid injury is to slow down or rest completely if something feels wrong. But the guests mostly challenged the dire stories in the Times, and pointed out that injury can happen doing any physical activity. In particular, Quistgaard took issue with the article’s mention of 46 emergency room visits in 2002 due to yoga, saying that with millions of people practicing yoga, 46 is not a huge number.

But to be fair, the Times pointed out that the ER visits went from 13 in 2000, to 20 in 2001 and then to 46. The reporter said it suggested a trend.

Midway through the show, there was what seemed to me a surprise guest–the central character from the Times article, yoga teacher Glenn Black. In the TImes piece, he was quoted as saying the “vast majority” of people should give up yoga because it is “too dangerous.” He confirmed to Forum listeners that he had been quoted accurately.

“I’ve been teaching yoga for 40 years,” Black said, “and I’ve been doing body work for longer than that. There are very few people in the world that don’t have one or more problems in their body. By doing yoga, some of it is very repetitious, some of it is very vigorous, spending on how much you take care of yourself in the class, regardless of whether a teacher knows you, that teacher may not be able to assess your particular situation, especially in a class that has 30 to 50 people in it.”

What followed was about ten minutes of gentle conversation where the other guests continued to assert that yoga was safe, when practiced properly, with the right teacher, as long as the student was mindful of his or her body.

“There aren’t statistics that are hard that show in evidenced literature,” said rehabilitation physician Moishe Lewis, “that there are a specific number of specific injuries that are directly attributable to the actual practice of a yoga style. Without those numbers, doctors like myself … are going to feel comfortable when we send certain patients to yoga.”

More info:

Listen to the complete program.

Six Reasons to Ignore the New York Times Yoga Article.

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  • Classyoga

    Sadly, Yoga is already “wrecked.” Divorced from the factual Hindu roots, this “yoga” is another example of exploitation and discrimination against Hindus/Hinduism: the religion of (real) Yoga.

  • Anonymous

    Just listened to the interview w/Baxter Bell, Jason Crandell, etc.

    I was struck by the NYT writer/yoga practitioner of 40+ yrs. He’s never truly embraced the principles around listening to your body, accepting your limitations (& strengths), and using your yoga practice as a way to better maneuver yourself throughout all of your life endeavors. Interesting.

    Seems to me that it’s not so much that most people shouldn’t be “doing yoga.” It’s more like all of us need to integrate (ease?) ourselves into our yoga practices with acceptance, gratitude, intention, and self-love/honor. As much as teachers like Baxter Bell (I’ve taken a beginner series from him) and Jason Crandell (use his videos frequently) try to impart that knowledge to students, some will never “hear it.” I guess that’s part of MY acceptance. Gets me back to that place in my head that frequently expresses, in exasperation, “Why can’t you see this? It’s so obvious to me!”