Wednesday, January 11, 2012

How the NYT Can Wreck Yoga

Objective reporting at it's finest.

If you practice yoga even casually, then I'm sure ten people have already forwarded you the recent New York Times article, "How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body." If you haven't read it, allow me to summarize: it turns out, yoga can hurt you. Especially if you allow your ego to take over and push yourself to do poses that you are not ready for. In very rare cases, people who practice yoga have suffered strokes, needed spinal surgery, and/or required extensive rehabilitation after yoga-related injuries. Yoga can cause more harm than good, and only a select section of the population should even attempt it.

A few things.

1. The article is an excerpt from a book by William J. Broad, titled The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards, due out next month. It's only fair to note that this excerpt focuses solely on the risks, without even touching on the rewards. This leads me to think the NYT chose the most controversial section of the book in order to drum up interest and increase their page clicks. People love reading about how things commonly believed to be good for you (yoga, running, spinach) can actually kill you. It helps them rationalize their unhealthy habits and sedentary lifestyles.

2. OF COURSE YOGA CAN CAUSE INJURIES. Especially if you have a bad instructor (they're definitely out there), if you turn yoga into a competition, and if you force yourself into poses you have no business being in. I have been practicing for years and in downward dog, my heels still don't touch the floor. My hips are always tight and I can't hold Warrior II for as long as the rest of the class. So you know what I do? I come out of it. I make adjustments. It's not rocket science.

3. And then there's this quote from Glenn Black, a yoga instructor who is interviewed extensively for the piece: “My message was that ‘Asana is not a panacea or a cure-all. In fact, if you do it with ego or obsession, you’ll end up causing problems.’ A lot of people don’t like to hear that.” Those people, who don't like to hear that? Those are (mostly) the people getting injured. The majority of people who practice yoga, who have found solace on their mat, mental clarity from the poses, relaxation in savasana, compassion for themselves and others in their practice? Those are the people who have been healed by yoga, in ways that go beyond the mere physical.

Plow pose. Not my friend.

This is not to say that I have never hurt myself in yoga. Plow pose in particular is one that I know my body doesn't like. Even though I can get into it, my lower back is sore for hours after and my muscles seize up in a way that makes it hard to lie flat on the ground or bend forward at the waist. When the rest of the class flips into Plow, I have to remind myself that it's not my pose and do something that is kinder to my body. Sometimes it's a struggle to stay put, but that's part of yoga - knowing your limits and respecting them. 

Last year, I went to an Ashtanga workshop with Ricky Tran, a fairly well known yoga instructor in Texas. He said, over and over, to the point where it was nearly a mantra: "Yoga can cure anything, except injuries caused by yoga." I'm paraphrasing, but not by much. While there are some people out there for whom yoga is not the right exercise, I am of the belief that the majority of people would benefit from some time on the mat, under the guidance of a well-trained and knowledgeable instructor.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this - do you practice yoga? Have you been injured on the mat? Has yoga helped you get over any physical ailments? How many times have you been forwarded this article? Personally, I credit a regular yoga practice with keeping me injury-free through two marathon training cycles. It was only when I stopped practicing as often that my ITB began acting up. For me, yoga cures, and I trust my own experience more than a slanted article in the New York Times.

25 comments:

  1. I had a bad knee problem and once I decided I need to do something for it. A doctor friend recommended yoga as a way to heal my knee. She advised that I listen to my body and not push too far or too hard. Guess what? Poses are getting easier slowly and my knee healed rapidly! It was amazing. But I can very easily see how if I had pused it too far too fast, I would have ended up in more pain and doing more damage. I know I will never be the best in class, but I know when I go- I contribute all of what I can in there. And that alone means I can smile during it.

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  2. I had signed up for a month of Bikram almost a year ago to try it out.  I ended up hurting my back so bad it took several months to recover.  I blame it on a pushy instructor and my desire to do well.  Usually in yoga I can overcome my urge to get that hard to reach pose, but this instructor was kind of aggressive. "Push. push. push. push. PUSH." he'd yell.  And I would.  And I messed up my back. Now I enjoy nice restorative yoga and avoid instructors who even hint that I should challenge myself as I know I will try.

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  3. I have practiced yoga since 2007, mostly Iyengar and Anusara styles, though with other variations thrown in. The vast majority of my practice has benefited my body and mind. Like you, my heels still don't touch the floor in downward dog. But I don't do things that will hurt me. Yoga helped me deal with sprained ankles and helped me heal after a bad car accident. Not only that, I learned to work within my limits.

    I briefly tried Bikram yoga, but quit when I felt the atmosphere of the classes was setting me up for injury. I felt like the instructors required me to try to power through positions I wasn't ready for. I've definitely never regretted leaving. I'd hate to have been injured from a practice that has brought so much benefit to my life.

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  4. Megan-

    I mentioned this in my comment, but it seems the attitude of your instructor isn't unusual in Bikram practice. That aggression was the exact reason I did Bikram for two weeks, quit, and never looked back.

    I'm sorry you got injured, and I'm glad you've found other ways to benefit from yoga. Restorative practice is one of the most wonderful things in the world.

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  5. I read this article too! I think it had valid points, but it did seem one-sided. Sort of a downer to be honest. I giggled when I read your line, "People love reading about how things commonly believed to be good for
    you (yoga, running, spinach) can actually kill you. It helps them
    rationalize their unhealthy habits and sedentary lifestyles." Ha!

    Yoga has been extremely helpful for me, especially when I'm training for a race. I'm always thinking, "I need to do this more often." And, like you, I am wary of plow pose and shoulder stands.

    My friend practices yoga about five times a week, and she hurt her lower back a few months ago (from something else) and it was exacerbated in yoga. Here she was doing a few of the poses a little wrong (and if she's doing them wrong...I'm sure I am too!). So she went to a therapist in her yoga studio and they helped her with alignment. I think having a good instructor and not pushing yourself into poses is key.

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  6. "I know I will never be the best in class, but I know when I go- I contribute all of what I can in there." I love this! Yoga is not only a physical workout - it's a mental exercise and emotional journey as well. I think that when we remember this, it makes it a lot easier to appreciate what we can do and enjoy the journey - no matter how slowly we make it. :)

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  7. I've been to a few Bikram classes, and I agree with Allyson - the instructors can be pushy and aggressive. I thought I liked Bikram at first, but after trying Ashtanga and some hot vinyasa classes, I realized I actually just liked the heat. :) Though you have to be careful with that too - the heat has fooled me into thinking I'm more flexible than I am and causing me to push too far.

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  8. I agree with this! Ashtanga is similar to Bikram, but not quite as pushy and there are more modifications to the poses offered. (In my experience.)

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  9. This is a great point. Yoga is so varied, with so many styles and practices. In this article, the NYT lumps them all in together, which is unfair to yoga and to its readers.

    Yoga has also taught me to work within my limits. I feel like yoga always has something new to teach me, and it's rarely about how far I can twist or how long I can hold a headstand.

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  10. Glad I could make you smile. :)

    I think a good instructor is key. When I worked at my last college, I opted for a local studio with certified instructors, rather than going to the college rec center classes, which were free but were mostly taught by undergrads majoring in kinesiology. No offense, but I don't really trust a college student with no real yoga training to guide me through my practice. ;)

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  11. Wow, I feel out of the loop because nobody forwarded me the article!

    It seems like a "No shit, Sherlock!" way to view yoga.  I think a huge part of yoga is learning to listen to your body, to be able to distinguish *stretching* your limits from injuring yourself.  I practice yoga at home, and it definitely helps with everyday soreness and tightness, especially in my back.  I also have tight hips, and I noticed when I was trying to do yoga every day, it seemed to exacerbate my tight hips (it's that damn pigeon pose--ouch!).  So now I think if I engage in another yoga project, I won't do hip-stretching poses every day.

    Great post, Chrissy :-)

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  12. I am actually shocked that no one has posted this on my FB wall, though of course it has been making it's way through twitter and FB and I saw it but didn't actually have time to read it. I take modifications because I know that I am not strong enough or flexible enough for some asanas. At first my ego didn't like that, but I got over it. I also have sought out instructors that recognize that their students have different bodies and abilities and are adept at giving modifications or suggesting when and how to use props. 

    Per some of the other comments, I've heard some pretty negative things about Bikram - pushy instructors, etc., and I have a friend who breaks out everytime she goes to a Bikram class. I've always avoided it for those reasons.

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  13. Ashtanga is really not at all like Bikram, and I've never seen an instructor push students too hard in a primary series class or a mysore session. 

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  14. Ah, I meant similar because both practices complete the same set of poses each time. But really, Ashtanga has six series (I think) whereas Bikram only has routine, so I am still wrong.

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  15. I feel like the messages he's sending are true for almost all exercise. Too hard, too much, too fast is a recipe for disaster. A good attentive and thorough trainer and professional guidance is key. I do very basic yoga, purely for mobility, and don't push past to where my body tells me to stop. 

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  16. I only do yoga maybe 3 times a week. I want to do it more but don't fit it in. 


    I saw this about yoga on NBC Nightly news (the risks. no benefits like you aid above) and thought similar things to you. I thought if you do it wrong, you'll injure yourself just like if you run poorly then you will end up with injuries. Or if you lift weights with poor form you might end up injured. 

    Also when I have been injured from overuse training, YOGA HELPED!

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    1. I really do think it comes down to having the right instructor - someone who can help you push when you need to push, and let go when you need to let go. I'm glad yoga has helped you, too! It makes my body very happy. :)

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  17. I too, have read this article. I have practiced yoga since I was about 15 years old. I am now 28. I have never harmed myself in my practice. But in all honesty, I was not really involved in the physical practice of yoga, but more the spiritual, meditative practice...breathing, and some stretching. As I grew older, I focus more on the asanas, but would not call myself a yogi and cannot do any of the "impressive postures." That tends to be more of the goal for many. But see, that is were I believe the western world get's yoga and asanas confused. Stretching is not yoga, and so many of the classes I've been to primarily focus on that-stretching. Pushing. I have MAJOR issues with Bikram, but I will not begin to go into that.
    I am HAPPY that the NYT changed pace from most other articles online and such in that they actually did dare talk about the disadvantages of the [physical] aspects of yoga.
    We are too conditioned to reading and/or hearing nothing but soaring praise about yoga. Yoga is a business. Yoga is a spiritual path. Yoga is exercise. Yoga is so many things, but America certainly seems to take advantage of that business side of yoga. And in a country where there are so many sports-oriented people, and the popularity of yoga is on the rise, it often is the case that the individuals who are attracted to yoga are very competitive people!
    Hence, one more reason I can avoid Bikram and his "let's go farther, harder, push, push and push..." because normal yoga isn't difficult enough?
    I have practiced with many instructors that (big surprise) were athletic competitors in one or many areas of sports prior to finding yoga.
    I finally found an instructor that FORCES her class to stop and focus on what the body is telling you. "What are you accepting, what are you defending against."
    I agree, instructors matter. And with yoga being so hip and popular, it's possible to become a certified yoga instructor in little time if one can afford to.
    Here's a link to help clarify why I am upset with Bikram:

    http://www.details.com/culture-trends/critical-eye/201102/yoga-guru-bikram-choudhury

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    1. Anonymous, thanks for such a thoughtful and informative comment!

      I agree with you on one level - that it's important for to discuss the dangers of yoga as well as the benefits. You're right in that too many outlets praise yoga, with no discussion of things that might go wrong. Yet I still think the NYT is off the mark with this particular article. The article doesn't really say anything about the spiritual aspects of yoga, or the importance of slowing down, and I don't think it mentioned breathing once - and breathing is the backbone of yoga, not flexibility! And we can ALL breathe.

      I'm glad we agree about the importance of a good instructor - I think it's vital to a healthy, holistic yoga practice. I've read that article about Bikram and while it's not the reason I avoid that particular practice, it certainly didn't make me seek it out.

      Thanks again for your comment! I really do appreciate it.

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  18. i think it speaks volumes that people have become so upset by this they send this yogi death threat emails.
    yes,...this is America. Do any yoga teachers elaborate on Karma at all? lol

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/eden-g-fromberg-do/yoga_b_1202465.html

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  19. Thanks for this link! I just skimmed it but already this line stands out: "It is important to acknowledge the true damage on all levels that yoga can do when ego surpasses awareness and wisdom, when asana and goals trump deeply listening to the body, when yoga styles and methods are uncompromising, and when inexperienced or misguided yoga teachers lead bodies living modern lifestyles into places they are not prepared to go."

    I'm eager to read more when I'm not rushing off to class, but I think it's safe to say that every sub-culture has kooks and assholes, yoga included. I certainly hope death threats were a minority of the mail this man received.

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  20. Flow classes have left me with significant shoulder issues. Too much repetition without focus on alignment. :( month five of physical therapy.

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    1. I'm sorry to hear that. Again, though - you say there wasn't enough focus on alignment. Is this because of your instructor? Alignment is so important! There really should be more stringent qualifications for yoga instructors.

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  21. This discussion is a perfect reflection of the mess that some approaches to promoting yoga has resulted in. It is also indicative of the awareness of the spiritual aspect of yoga as compared to the physical fitness aspect of it. I wrote something in response to the recent trends to project yoga in ways that yoga was not meant to be projected. Thought it might be of benefit to you and your readers.

    http://subhorup.blogspot.com/2012/01/warm-up-exercises-for-yoga.html

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  22. Yoga is generally good for the health. It’s a great antidote for stress. A particular yoga pose called “asanas” actually acts as a form of meditation which calms the mind. Because of the concentration required and stress-reducing techniques applied, whatever troubles the mind seems to fade away.

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