Can Yoga Wreck Your Body?
The New York Times article, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body,“ upset many Yoga lovers. It’s created some buzz, and now Inside Edition, a CBS news magazine, wants to do a television feature to follow up on the wave of interest.
An investigative reporter on the CBS team called to ask if I could help her find a significantly injured patient to highlight the story. Was there anyone out there with a broken bone? A bleed in their head? Any kind of permanent disability?
Photo compliments of www.irmaphotography.com
After contacting every Yoga instructor and therapist she could find, she was out of luck. She explained that they wouldn’t be able to run the story if she couldn’t track down something serious.
I told her I was very happy that I knew of no one who had been terribly injured. Sure, there are muscle pulls and sprains, some occasional bruises, and the ubiquitous back pain. We’re tough creatures, we humans, but we’re not made of steel. Any movement can cause an injury, even getting out of bed.
When I was working in the emergency room, I had patients all the time who injured themselves walking. They’d step in a hole and sprain their ankle, trip on the curb and fall to break an outstretched hand, lose their balance and hit their head causing a bleed – and the list goes on. If you do nothing and stay in bed, that will injure you too. As a society, we’re dying of diseases spawned by our sedentary habits.
I wrote a previous post about the sensationalism of Yoga injuries. For that article, I tried hard to find published reports of documented trauma. There just really isn’t anything much. That explains the lack of facts backing up the latest New York Times article.
Yoga is about being in the now. It’s about awareness and focusing inwards. Pay attention to the body, be conscious of its placement, and bring the mind to its focal point for absorption. Here are some tips to avoid injury:
- Move slowly and consciously. Rapid movements without attention lead to strains and sprains – and if you’re really unlucky, slipped disks in the back.
- Ask teachers not to move your body for you, but rather to show by example and to instruct verbally. Forcing a body into a posture increases the likelihood of minor injuries like muscle pulls and torn ligaments. Teachers who insist on “hands on” work need to ask first before they touch (every time) and never move someone who has their eyes closed and their focus pointed inward.
- Realize that Yoga is not a competition. It doesn’t matter what the person next to you is doing. And it doesn’t matter what you did three weeks ago before you went on vacation and haven’t practiced Yoga since. You’re not competing against your old record either. Let the gains be slow and gradual and real, not forced.
- Don’t throw the head back too far into hyperextension. When the neck is extended (the face is pointed towards the ceiling), don’t roll or rotate the head. This is the one extremely long-shot way to cause a significant injury, specifically a tear of one of the arteries that feeds the brain leading to a stroke. There is a case report or two in the medical literature in which the authors suspect Yoga with the neck in an extreme posture as the cause. It’s a guess, but it’s one not to take lightly.
- The neck needs to be protected in inverted postures, particularly sirsasana (headstand) and sarvangasana (shoulder stand). The body’s weight shouldn’t be on the neck. It can potentially lead to intervertebral disk damage and facet joint injury. Those bones aren’t designed to hold the full weight of the body. If they were, they would be big and thick like the lumbar vertebrae. Limit the time in these asanas or avoid them all together to avoid trauma. If practicing sarvagasana, use a folded blanket under the shoulders.
- Avoid inversions during your period. I know people think this is passé, but read what I wrote here.
- Try not to lock the knees. That can lead to cartilage damage and arthritis. While it may not be a problem for everyone, if you’re made with knees that straighten past the point of 180 degrees, then you may have trouble with the menisci over the long term. This is particularly true for more active forms of yoga and especially for any exercises that include jumps, pivots, or cutting out.
- If you don’t feel good about a posture, don’t do it just to make your teacher happy or to avoid being the only one in class not doing it. Trust your instincts. If everyone else is being a pretzel in some way-out-there pose, that doesn’t mean you have to do it too. The extreme postures aren’t necessary.
- If you have glaucoma, don’t do inverted postures. There is evidence that the increased pressure it causes in the eyes can worsen the disease and accelerate the onset of blindness. If you’re at risk of glaucoma, get your eyes checked before you turn upside down. (There’s a list of risk factors here.)
Yoga is a safe and wonderful practice that benefits us on many levels. It is a holistic form of healing available to everyone. As with anything, injuries are possible, but when practicing with full awareness and with proper technique, they can be avoided.
If anyone knows of a Yoga practitioner who has been seriously injured by their study, I’d like to hear about it.
Any other suggestions for an injury-free practice? Please leave us your thoughts in the comment section.