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A Response to “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body”

The New York Times illustrated its article on yoga injuries with these clowning poses

This post is by John Schumacher, founder and director of Unity Woods Yoga Center.

Well, the recent New York Times article, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body”, has certainly created quite a stir. My inbox had over forty emails on the subject and I understand the Times had over 700 responses within the first week. (Use the link above to connect to the article in case you haven’t seen it so you know what all the hoo-ha and this comment are about.)

First, I think we should remind ourselves that the Times is in the business of selling newspapers. Since there are an estimated 20 million yoga practitioners in this country alone, what better way to grab a lot of attention than to tell those millions of people that what they are doing could very well seriously injure or even kill them. And why not splatter some pictures of clowns in funny positions around the page just to be sure to catch their eye.

Second, let’s keep in mind that the author of the article, William J. Broad, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer for the New York Times, has a new book out. I bet he’s interested in selling copies, too. (I think it worth noting that the book itself has the much less sensational title The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards.)

Mr. Broad extensively quotes Glenn Black, a yoga teacher, who Mr. Broad says, “has come to believe that ‘the vast majority of people’ should give up yoga altogether.” Why we should put a lot of store in Mr. Black’s opinion, aside from the fact that he has been teaching yoga for nearly forty years (as have I and more than a few others), is not clear, other than that he holds controversial views sure to get everybody all fired up. Furthermore, Mr. Black has recently undergone surgery to have his spine fused and screws inserted into his lumbar. He attributes the need for this to his practicing extreme backbends and twists for those forty years. I have to say that listening to Mr. Black’s opinions on the dangers of asana practice strikes me as being akin to receiving advice on the advisability of riding motorcycles from Evel Knievel.

Not only that, several responses to the article cite factual errors regarding the anatomical and physiological statements Mr. Broad makes. I include a link to some of those responses for folks interested in delving into these more technical aspects raised in the article.

Nevertheless, some of the issues the article raises do warrant further examination and discussion: For whom is yoga appropriate? Just what IS yoga? What role does the current approach to training teachers play in the possibility of injuries occurring? (A topic with which readers of this website and our newsletter are very familiar.) What is dangerous and what isn’t? I plan to address some of these in more depth than is possible here in the upcoming spring newsletter as well as responding to the specifics of the article point by point.

But one thing I do want to say is that, OF COURSE, you can hurt yourself doing yoga. You can injure yourself tying your shoes, for God’s sake. If you’re in a body (and all but a few of us are), then ANYTHING you do – or don’t do, for that matter – can have insidious effects. Which strikes me as a good reason for current and prospective yoga students to think seriously about where and from whom you are receiving your yoga instruction.

Oh, and by the way– B.K.S. Iyengar (who is referred to repeatedly in the article) is thriving at age 93, still standing on his head for up to half an hour at a crack, and a bunch of us fogies who have been practicing yoga for forty years or more are doing quite alright, thank you.

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23 responses to this post.

  1. yogalena says:

    thank you for this, i’ve been trying to craft my response for a week! WELL SAID.

  2. I’ve been practicing yoga for over 50 years and I’m a graduate of the Integral Yoga Institute, which, according to a survey run by “Yoga Journal” holds the record for the safest yoga school in the U.S.

    I have accrued untold mind/body benefits, but a few sore spots too- like my Achilles tendons- so I baby them and take care of my 67 year old body by paying attention and giving myself what I need.

    I know how to protect myself; but often the people who need yoga the most are also the least knowledgeable and most liable to injury. They are likely to take “open classes” which are billed as OK for everybody. They are not. If you’re new to yoga take a class for beginners, or study privately with a competent teacher.

    What everyone needs to remember is that yoga is not only exercise. Yoga is a philosophy and a psychology that stresses mindfulness and compassion to oneself and to others.

    This means:
    1. Pay attention.
    2. Be open to learn.
    3. Don’t force yourself or let yourself be forced into anything.There is no place for coercion in yoga.
    4. There isn’t any room for competition, either.
    5. Follow your breath. If you’re breathing is ragged, take a rest.
    6. Bring a refillable bottle of water with you. A small sip of water might be helpful at times.
    7. If something hurts, don’t do it.
    8. Leave your ego outside the yoga room.

  3. Kate says:

    Thank you, John, for responding to that article. My own irritation with the article started with the title. Scare tactics? Really? Seat belts can kill you, but I don’t see the NYT publishing articles warning people off seat belts. And, indeed, it is still common sense to wear a seat belt because they do more good than anything else. Speaking of common sense, why wasn’t the author and his references encouraging use of common sense? The intelligent selection of teachers? The development of ones ability to listen to ones body and figure out which poses should be done when and with what modifications?

    Perhaps the UWYC Community and Intro classes can be advertised as a chance to prove the New York Times wrong.

  4. Donna Pointer says:

    Right on, John! “I have to say that listening to Mr. Black’s opinions on the dangers of asana practice strikes me as being akin to receiving advice on the advisability of riding motorcycles from Evel Knievel.”

  5. Kim weeks says:

    Great post, John! I especially liked the link to ayny. Thank you and looking forward to your longer comment in newsletter.

  6. […] Yes, I have injured myself doing yoga.  One of my yoga teachers, John Schumacher, said the following in his own response to the NYT: […]

  7. Debra Lauren says:

    Well said . From reading your newsletters, I knew you would have an eloquent response.

  8. Charlotte says:

    Hi John! Thanks for your post, a continuation of a discussion that I think has been a long time coming. I was surprised that a science writer would rely so heavily on anecdotal evidence—from 40 years ago!—to make his point, and that he really only interviewed one source extensively. As you say, many of us have been practicing and teaching for decades. You allude to the inadequate teacher training as one of the major issues. I couldn’t agree more. 200 hours? 500 hours? 5,000 hours might begin to qualify someone to teach. I’ve written several posts on what I see as the root cause of the rise in injuries. Here are the links, in case you are interested: http://www.huggermugger.com/blog/2012/yoga-injuries and http://www.huggermugger.com/blog/2012/yoga-injuries-2
    I plan to post a continuation of the second post today.

    Thanks again for all you do!

  9. Thy Tran says:

    Thank you Mr. Schumacher for this post!!
    When I first read Broad’s article, I laughed. The most dangerous area in this era is the Media itself. So often, moneymaking is the main reason, contorting the truth is a problem to the news reporters.
    I believe everyone should take his or her health seriously. In addition, if they practice Yoga to improve their physical health – They should take Yoga SERIOUSLY. They should do their research to find the best teachers and make Yoga part of their life.
    I consider myself blessed to know Unitywoods. Why so? Because IT IS 1 OF A VERY FEW THE PLACES around here TO LEARN YOGA PROPERLY. I learned so much within a year being here. I do believe the progress a person could make in his/her practice not only depends on how diligent he/she works on perfecting it, but also greatly depends on whom the teacher is. Not all Yoga teachers are made equal. If we were to spend time, money, and most importantly to put our health in a Yoga teacher’s hands – Wouldn’t it be wise to learn from the very best?

  10. Thy Tran says:

    I mean to write “contorting the truth is NOT a problem to the news reporters.”

  11. Winnie Dollear, r n, mph says:

    Mr. Black should have contacted his doctor long before the need for bone fusion and surgery to insert hardware. As a practitioner from the age of 60 years ( now 70) I know that my quality of life is much better. I still consult my md as needed. Practicing yoga requires us to recognize our body response to activities. I would like to emphasize as a public health nurse to take care of yourself. Mr. Iyengar has been at it at least 7 decades.

    My hope is the publicity will be a time to get people active and give yoga a chance. Certified yoga teachers are well trained and listed in local directories. Also know there are more advanced teachers for people like me with some health issues. For me it is arthritis in my r knee which limits my ability to do squat poses, my teacher is patient and aware of my issues

    Good luck and good health to all!

  12. Flacco , you be one cogent doot ! Dang ! I just got “carpal tunnel syndrome” typing this comment !!!

  13. A teacher I studied with years ago used to remind us in class: “If it hurts, it’s not yoga.” To pull back from painful places and not overdo it, since it’s a moving meditation, not Marine calisthenics or some kind of showoff competition, some “can you top this?”

  14. Stephanie Evans says:

    Thank you John for writing this response! Like many yoga students, I have had to learn (and am still learning) my limits and becoming aware of my own ego. I’ve always appreciated how Unity Woods and the Iyengar method in general encourages students to practice within their own safe zone. I hope to attend the talk on Saturday night in response to the NYT piece!

  15. Katharine Norris says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful, beautifully written response. The NYT has been publishing far too many of this type of articles(trendy, sensationalist, poorly anecdotal) recently. I’m very proud of my yoga studio but very disappointed with my newspaper!

  16. […] who had back surgery after “decades of extreme backbends and twists.”  As one blogger [John Schumacher] said, learning from Black’s yoga experience is “akin to receiving advice on the advisability […]

  17. […] who had back surgery after “decades of extreme backbends and twists.”  As one blogger [John Schumacher] said, learning from Black’s yoga experience is “akin to receiving advice on the advisability […]

  18. Jean says:

    I am a yoga practioner AND a newspaper editor. I have no problem with the New York Times trying to sell newspapers, or with William Broad trying to sell books. The Times is probably the best newspaper in the world. Long may it thrive. I think a terrific result of this blatantly attention-seeking excerpt has been to generate discussion about important issues in the world of yoga, on and off the mat. Interested readers will learn about diverse perspectives, the importance of choosing a well-trained teacher, how to avoid injury, and on and on. I’m sure Broad’s book is more balanced than this one excerpt suggests. In any case, it’s really great that people are so passionate about yoga. I think the discussion is what’s important, and if the Times excerpt gets people thinking….Well, that’s what a good newspaper is supposed to do!

  19. Judy Allen says:

    I agree with all that John Schumacker says – I would just like to add that a good teacher is really important. I left one yoga class after 2 sessions because we were forced into extreme postures before we were ready and with no preparation and I am quite sure I would have been injured if I’d stayed. I now go to a qualified, experienced yengar teacher (details available if anyone wants to know!) who emphasises the importance of doing each posture correctly rather than striving to bend further, stretch harder, endure longer than anyone else. By the way, the only time I injured my back was putting rubbish in the bin.

  20. […] A Response to “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body”. Share this:EmailPrintFacebookTwitterStumbleUponDiggRedditLike this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

  21. Ashley says:

    I to found the original article annoying, however, there are some valid points in the article as well.
    As John has stated the author of the article has a new book and needs some form of marketing gimmick to kick start some interest. Two points. 1, shows the power the media can exert at the touch of a button. 2, how the medical profession (more so in the US) may want to push for more regulation.
    I think John Schumacher’s way of wording and tone of his response to the said article was a little childlike and that too is unfortunate and does not help in a reasoned debate in an open forum. It probably would be fine within a group that know him and how he may genuinely think.
    At the outset some of the claims go back to what Iyengar wrote in 1965. However, his practice and teaching have moved on considerably since that time. And asanas such as shoulder stand and plough have not been taught from the floor (no props) since I took up yoga. That does not necessarily go for other schools of yoga.
    As to whether many people should give up yoga or not start in the first place there maybe some mileage in that argument.
    A huge number of people are walking around the so called developed world with poor posture and de-conditioned musculo-skeletal systems. And to think taking a few yoga classes a week will seriously change that is unfortunately setting the student up for disappointment.
    Today students are like children in a sweet shop there are now so many Yoga classes to choose from the grossly overweight are signing up for Astanga Vinyasa classes and expecting the teacher to make them slim, bendy and calm after a weekend workshop. The huge popularity of Yin Yoga is attracting people who are already supple and not balancing there bodies with Yang yoga, why? Because its hard work and will take them out of their comfort zone.
    What’s needed is for a new student and probably many existing students to undertake a course in body weight conditioning calisthenics (kalos-stenos = beautiful body that will have a few of the Yogis shouting ego ego thats not what yoga is about) this will help restore muscle strength, tone and posture. Ideally the student would work with someone who understands the body and how the joints function for the body in the real world and not some sterile yoga studio ( or other exercise style studio YES that one) once the body is truly strong then the body can really enjoy the flow or stillness that Hatha Yoga conveys.
    Ashley is a Yoga practitioner and a teacher he is a qualified Osteopath (non practicing)

  22. […] of responses within the first week. I joined the fray, jumped on the blogosphere bandwagon, and posted my thoughts on the Unity Woods website and our Facebook page, which registered one of the biggest spikes in […]

  23. lola says:

    Your first two paragraphs are a good example of displaying fallacies (faulty arguments), specifically of being a vested interest argument. They have nothing to do with the conclusion of whether yoga harms the body. In other words, the first two paragraphs are irrelevant to the truth of the conclusion

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