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John’s Letter, Spring 2012: Can Yoga Wreck Your Body?

On January 5, 2012, the New York Times ran an article titled “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” that created a firestorm in the yoga community. Check out the link above in case you haven’t seen it so you’ll know what all the hoo-ha was about and why I’m writing this newsletter. My inbox had over forty emails on the subject in the first few days after the article ran, and I understand the Times had hundreds 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 visits in its history.

As I pointed out in that blog posting, 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 you that the yoga you practice could “wreck” your body? The Times apparently figured some pictures of clowns in funny positions splattered around the page would add gravitas to the article or maybe like the headline, it was just to catch folks’ eye. I also think it worth noting that the author of the article, William J. Broad, a Pulitzer Prize-winning senior science writer for the New York Times, has a new book out. It may be cynical of me but I don’t think unfair to suggest that Mr. Broad might have had an eye toward sales, too, especially since his article warns those 20 million practitioners that yoga could seriously injure or even kill them. (No exaggeration. He really does say that). Although he may not have been responsible for the lurid, attention-grabbing headline, it is his byline, and he did choose to focus the article on a handful of sensational yoga-related injuries. (I think it worth mentioning that the book itself has the much less provocative title The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards.)

I have since learned a little more about William Broad and what is in his article. Some of this information comes from a February 5 interview he did with Terry Gross on her NPR show Fresh Air. In the first paragraph of the article Mr. Broad says that while he was doing the extended-side-angle pose (Utthita Parsvakonasana, I presume, a beginners’ pose by Iyengar standards), “[his] back gave way.” What he doesn’t say in the article that he relates in the interview is that he was partnering with what he describes as a “beautiful young woman” and that he was “strutting his stuff” in the pose while they were talking to one another (!) when his back “gave way”. Bear in mind that in the article he said that he had had a ruptured disc years back which led him to yoga in the first place.

So I have to ask: Did yoga wreck Mr. Broad’s body or did distraction and ego wreck Mr. Broad’s body?

In the next sentence of the article, he says, “With it went my belief, naïve in retrospect, that yoga was a source only of healing and never harm.” Excuse me, but I’m having a little trouble with the idea that a senior science writer for the New York Times has been practicing yoga since 1970 and had never heard of a yoga-related injury until 2007. Do you mean to tell me that for thirty-seven years, during which time I would presume he took classes and workshops and during which he almost certainly spoke at least periodically with other practitioners, that he never once heard of someone tearing a hamstring or hurting their low back? Ahem.

Furthermore, I pointed out in the blog that several responses to the article cited factual errors regarding the anatomical and physiological statements Mr. Broad made, and I included links to those responses for folks interested in delving into these more technical aspects in the article. Regarding the physical claims and statements in Mr. Broad’s article then (I have not read his book), “sloppy”, “sensational”, and “suspicious” are adjectives that come to mind. These would also apply to his implication that B.K.S. Iyengar teaches shoulder stand with head and neck at 90 degrees while Roger Cole, a well-known Iyengar Yoga teacher, developed a modification for elevating the shoulders on blankets to decrease cervical flexion; and to his statement that Timothy McCall, medical editor of Yoga Journal, called headstand too dangerous for general yoga classes, citing a number of possible ill effects. Mr. Cole responded to Mr. Broad’s article by pointing out that, in fact, it was B.K.S. Iyengar who had instituted the use of blankets under the shoulders to prevent injury and enhance the positive effects of shoulder stand, and Mr. McCall has since stated that he was speaking only of his own experience with headstand and had not intended it as a proscription against the pose at all.

Mr. Broad does say later in the NPR interview that he still practices yoga and that he thinks it could revolutionize in a profoundly positive way the manner in which we approach health care in the future. He cites particularly the Iyengar method which he says is superior because of its use of props and emphasis on alignment to help students avoid injury. You would never get a sense of any of this from the article, however.

In the article, Mr. Broad quotes extensively Glenn Black, a yoga teacher who, Mr. Broad says, “has come to believe that ‘the vast majority of people’ should give up yoga altogether.” I questioned in the earlier blog posting 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). Mr. Black has recently undergone surgery to have his spine fused and screws inserted into his lumbar. According to Mr. Broad, Mr. Black attributes the need for this to his practicing extreme backbends and twists for those forty years. Based on his self described extreme practice, I said in the blog that listening to Mr. Black’s opinions on the dangers of asana practice struck me as being akin to receiving advice on motorcycle safety from Evel Knievel. I don’t want to be too hard on a colleague (I’ve never met Glenn Black) who has suffered a serious injury and is undergoing what is by his own description a slow and painful recovery, but since he has allowed himself to become a spokesman regarding the subject of yoga-related injuries, I feel compelled to address some of the things he and Mr. Broad say. I agree quite strongly with some of them, and I have problems with others.

One of the things with which I strongly agree is his emphasis on attention and awareness as key elements in the practice of yoga. Mr. Broad writes that during a class, “Black walked around the room, joking and talking. ‘Is this yoga?’ He asked as we sweated through a pose that seemed to demand superhuman endurance. ‘It is if you’re paying attention.’”

One of the things I do in my introductory comments during my first class for beginners each session is to distinguish yoga from exercise by emphasizing the importance of attention and presence of mind in doing yoga, so I appreciate Mr. Black’s making that distinction. Mr. Black’s contention, as Mr. Broad describes him as saying, “that awareness is more important than rushing through a series of postures just to say you’d done them” is right on the money. It is, however, a little tough for me to reconcile this statement with Mr. Broad’s recounting of Mr. Black’s back injury. “Black said that he felt the tenderness [in his back] start 20 years ago when he was coming out of such poses as the plow and the shoulder stand. Two years ago, the pain became extreme.” I take that to mean that for 18 years, Mr. Black continued to practice extreme backbends and twists despite experiencing tenderness when practicing much more basic poses. This is hardly awareness. Nor does it seem to gibe with Mr. Broad’s contention that “Black is one of the most careful practitioners I know.”

The regular readers of this newsletter will not be surprised to hear that I strongly agree with Mr. Black’s and Mr. Broad’s assertion that “there is now an abundance of studios where many teachers lack the deeper training necessary to recognize when students are headed toward injury.” I have railed ad nauseam about ubiquitous month long or 200-hour teacher trainings which in and of themselves cannot possibly properly prepare people to teach yoga safely or even effectively, so I am glad to see the author make this point.

As for the examples that Mr. Black and Mr. Broad use to demonstrate the extreme danger of yoga (This is the “serious injury or even kill” part I mentioned earlier.), they are presented as if representative of a significant part of the practicing population. Yes, Mr. Broad does say, “such injuries [stroke] appeared to be rare”, and “These cases may seem [my italics] exceedingly rare”, and “The numbers [of yoga-related injuries] weren’t alarming”. But these caveats are tucked away and powerfully overshadowed by the at-length descriptions of yoga injuries (ten cases in all, including Mr. Broad’s and Mr. Black’s). Several were chosen because they represented “the worst injuries [Mr. Black] had seen.” Statements such as: “Not just students but celebrated teachers injure themselves in droves [my italics; no actual figures are given] ”; “[E]mergency-room admissions related to yoga [were] rising quickly” [my note: Based on Mr. Broad’s figures, out of 20 million yoga practitioners, 13 or .00000065 per cent went to the ER in year 2000, 20 or .000001 percent went in year 2, and 46 or .000002 percent for year 2002. This makes the likely of your going to the emergency room for a yoga-related injury practically on par with being struck by an asteroid]; “The experience of Nagler’s patient [stroke] was not an isolated incident” [my note: One other is cited.] The accumulation of these scary statements create the impression of wide spread carnage and mayhem despite the passing qualifiers.

The article raises so many important issues: Who should do yoga? Just what IS yoga? What role does the current approach to training teachers play in the possibility of injuries occurring? What is dangerous and what isn’t? So many, in fact, that I can’t really discuss all of them meaningfully in this newsletter. But given the central theme of the article, let’s ask, “Can yoga wreck your body?”

As I said in the earlier blog: OF COURSE, you can hurt yourself doing yoga. You can injure yourself stepping off the curb, 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 injure you. Along with saying that yoga is really about awareness and attention, this is also something I have told my beginning classes for years. It makes sense that anything that has the power to cure and create also has the power to damage and destroy.

Mr. Broad quotes Yoga Journal editor, Kaitlin Quistgaard as saying, “I’ve experienced how yoga can heal. But I’ve also experienced how yoga can hurt.” With respect to Glenn Black’s injury, Mr. Broad says, “I asked him if his recent injury could have been congenital or related to aging. No, he said. It was yoga.” I’m not so sure how he could know this with such certainty, but in any case, just as it wasn’t the airplanes that killed Kong, it was beauty that killed the beast, so I would argue that it wasn’t yoga that injured Mr. Black, it was pride and fanaticism that injured the yogi. As Mr. Black himself says, “In fact, if you do [asana] with ego or obsession, you’ll end up causing problems.” Speaking of injuries he has seen, he says, “It’s ego. The whole point of yoga is to get rid of ego.” Given the evidence, I daresay that Mr. Black is living proof of the truthfulness of his own statements. I just find it a bit disheartening that he now feels it necessary to blame yoga for his lack of discrimination and has as his “message” according to Mr. Broad that “ ‘the vast majority of people’ should give up yoga altogether.” To my mind, this is lot like a reformed alcoholic pushing abstinence on the entire population, even though most people seem to be able to take a drink or two and not fall prey to the ravages of demon rum.

The biggest problem with the article is the central idea postulated in the title: that yoga can wreck your body. Regarding Glenn Black’s, Kaitlin Quistgaard’s, William Broad’s, even my own injuries (Yes, I’ve had some over the years.), my response is that yoga did not injure them or me. We made mistakes in our practice and our mistakes hurt us. I would say instead that the faulty practice of yoga can wreck your body. The responsibility is not with yoga; it’s with the practitioner. Although it doesn’t make as splashy a headline, this is a crucial distinction. It puts the power and responsibility for avoiding injury where it belongs – with the practitioner.

I hasten to add that if you are in a yoga class, then along with you, the teacher also has power and thus responsibility as well. So we could also say, “Bad Yoga Teachers Can Wreck Your Body”, which strikes me as a good reason to encourage current and prospective yoga students to think seriously about where and from whom you are receiving your yoga instruction.

The next biggest problem in my opinion is Mr. Broad’s sensational, predominantly one-sided presentation of the issue of yoga-related injuries. In doing so he does a disservice to the discussion even as he does the significant service of drawing attention to the issue in the first place. I agree with him that it is important for people to know that if you practice yoga, you can hurt yourself. However, I don’t think before his article came out everyone was zipping their lips or averting their eyes as Mr. Broad seems to imply in his “Emperor’s clothes” portrayal of the yoga community. Nor do I think everyone is as ignorant of it as Mr. Broad says they are or at least as he apparently was. Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the article, I hope the ensuing discussion will encourage people to be more discriminating in choosing the teachers and the classes they attend and to be more conscious and attentive in the way they practice. If that happens, then all the hoo-ha will be well worth it.

— John

P.S.:  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 most of us fogies who have been practicing yoga for forty years or more are doing quite alright, thank you.



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2 responses to this post.

  1. Steve Dinkelaker says:

    Dear John,
    Your CDs were highly recommended to me by Betty Eiler, a long-time Iyengar yoga teacher from CA that I just participated in a week-long workshop with in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. In purchasing your CDs today over the phone from Anick (sp?), I noticed the article on your website in relation to Mr. Broad’s excerpt article from his book (which I agree was perhaps an inappropriate and incendiary promotion for his book, just released). I have been practicing yoga for over 7 years, and have served for almost 5 years on the Board of Trustees for Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health (where Betty happens to be doing a workshop again this May). In any case, I just finished reading Mr. Broad’s “Science of Yoga” book and found it refreshing in all respects in bringing to light what “science” and “research” say about yoga. I do hope to see your comments in the future after you have read Mr. Broad’s book, which I do think is worthwhile (even though the promotion campaign before its release had some questionable aspects). I found Mr. Broad’s book balanced on the whole, showing the real benefits of yoga and highlighting some of the false claims that are not supported by “scientific research”–like the claim to aerobic fitness often made for yoga that do not seem supported by VO2 max measurements or the alleged support for yoga as a weight reduction aid when in fact yoga lowers metabolism and makes it harder for persons to lose weight (although, as Mr. Broad points out, yoga may support weight loss by making practioners more conscious and aware of what they are eating). I believe Mr. Broad does the yoga community a service by reviewing all scientific research done over the last several years in giving credibility to those that substantially prove yoga’s claims to health and longevity. I sincerely look forward to a more reasoned analysis from you after you have read the book, which I truly believe is one of the best to come out in the last several years. Sincerely, Steve Dinkelaker
    NOTE: I have a daughter in Towson University and close friends in Chevy Chase and look forward soon to attending one or more of your classes when I am next in Bethesda. Namaste.

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