Stretching It

A recent New York Times Magazine story titled "How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body" caused a stir last week, claiming that certain aspects of yoga were too risky for the general population. So should you avoid the fitness routine if you're not a serious athlete?

Jan 10, 2012
Outside Magazine

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Like a lot of graying male athletes, I came to yoga a few years ago to help prolong my adolescent sports fantasies: the dream powder run down some distant Alaskan peak; heading in the winning goal in the dying seconds of my city-league championship soccer game. Those things may never happen, but at least yoga helps sustain my belief that they were possible. True, the Lululemon-clad genuflectors could be a little weird and ripe for ridicule, but “practicing” yoga has helped me recover from hard training and competition, and, as I’ve often extolled to yoga-phobic friends, kept injury at bay by cultivating flexibility and correcting muscle imbalances, or so I liked to think.

So it was with great interest that I read the recent New York Times Magazine feature, "How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body," excerpted from The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards, a new book by William Broad. While there have been many times in yoga class when I’ve felt like an important piece of connective tissue was about to go sproing, I have never been hurt (touch wood). But Broad had. During an extended-side-angle pose he’d thrown out his back, though we never learn the full extent of his injury.

The story goes on to investigate the bodily harm we court in yoga, which currently attracts some 20 million Americans, according to the story. Broad provides an extensive catalog of injuries, some quite grave, including ruptured achilles tendons, torn rotator cuffs, stroke, brain damage, cervical-disk injuries, spinal stenosis, and others. “A growing body of medical evidence supports [the] contention that, for many people, a number of commonly taught yoga poses are inherently risky,” Broad writes. Woah, was I about to become another casualty among the hordes of unsuspecting yoga victims?

By the time I finished the story, I found myself more annoyed than enlightened. And it seemed I wasn’t alone. Before the story appeared in print on Sunday, there were nearly 400 comments attached to the Web version, precious few of them ringing endorsements. As a lot of people pointed out, Broad’s logic defied common sense, and his most vivid examples were dated, some from as far back as the seventies.

The evidence he marshals falls short of persuasive. For example, he points out that in 2002, emergency-room visits for yoga-related injuries jumped to 46 from 20 the year before—for the 100 hospitals surveyed. This “statistically significant” bump is one of his strongest points, but while there is no doubt that the number of yoga injuries is growing in absolute terms, I could find no evidence that these figures were increasing as a percentage of participation, which seems essential if you are arguing a trend. I called the Consumer Products Safety Commission, the federal agency that keeps tabs on a vast array of injuries and which Broad cites in his story. The most recent numbers they could provide were from 2006, when they pegged yoga-related injuries at 4,459—a figure that had actually gone down from the previous year’s 5,089. By way of comparison, 2006 also saw 3,180 injuries from archery, and 3,328 zipper accidents.

Still not satisfied, I ran the story by some folks who would have a more informed opinion than me. “Are yoga injuries on the rise? Yes,” says Andy Pruitt, founder of the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine in Colorado. “But am I going to black-flag it? No, because I think there are many benefits that yoga, done right, can offer.”

I asked my own instructor, Ja Soon Kim, an Iyengar-certified yogi in Santa Fe, about it. Ja Soon has been practicing for 40 years and teaching for 12, and I trust her take. “People get hurt, that’s for sure,” she said. “It’s paramount that you study with someone who’s properly trained.”

She described seeing classes in New York and Los Angeles, with 50 or more students and the instructor on a dias at the front of the room. “They’re just doing their own routine up there and expecting people to follow them,” she told me. Part of the problem, she explained, is that there’s no standard certification and licensing process for teachers. “You have people who do a little bit of yoga, are flexible, and then begin to teach. But teaching is all about the students. It should never be about you.”

“I originally got into yoga as therapy,” she added. “I used to play polo, I was a dancer, I played tennis, I ran. I was a terrible rider, and I fell off the horse right and left. I did major damage to my shoulder. I’m certain that if it weren’t for yoga, I’d be crippled by now. There’s a saying we toss around: for every hour of running, you need seven hours of yoga to undo the damage.”

Curious to hear what trainers and coaches were seeing, I reached out to Vern Gambetta, a strength and conditioning guru who’s worked with the U.S. men’s soccer team, collegiate swimmers, beach-volleyball players, and many other elite athletes. I knew Gambetta approached yoga like I did, as one component of a broader training program. Had any of his athletes been injured doing yoga?

“Never,” he said. “I’ve been using yoga as an integral part of my programs for 20-plus years, and I haven’t seen any problems with it.” He said he prescribes it often because it enhances linkages and connections in the body. “That’s why there’s such tremendous transfer to athletics: you promote flexibility by moving through a full range of motion around the joints with control.”

I also e-mailed Mark Twight, who I’d met a couple of years ago at the now storied Gym Jones in Salt Lake City, where he trains climbers, cyclists, MMA fighters, NFL players, soldiers, and other badasses. If anyone was going to give me an unvarnished opinion about whether yoga is worth the risk, I knew he would. Did his guys do yoga? And if so, were they getting hurt?

“For most sporting objectives, we look for the path or task that will provide the biggest bang for the buck,” he wrote back. “This changes over time: as certain means are maxed out, the training emphasis shifts. It may eventually land on yoga but we have not seen it produce a better result than other means in any of our athletes. Often it comes down to time. In a certain part of his or her development, I'd rather see someone spend more time practicing the sport. At another point, conditioning may produce the biggest return on investment. Applying the right stressor at the right time is a critical piece of the training progression, and this requires an open mind, some creativity, and balance. All of the work we do is accompanied by strong emphasis on recovery practices: deep tissue work, foam rolling, cryotherapy, sleep, nutrition, cyclic stress relief, etc. This makes yoga, which places intensive time and energy demands on an already stressed athlete, less of a factor in our overall approach.”

In the Times Magazine piece, Broad had his own epiphany about the risks of yoga in the wake of his back injury, and he leans heavily on the opinion of Glenn Black, an Iyengar instructor in Manhattan, who says in the article, “Yoga really shouldn’t be used for a general class.” I couldn’t fault them for pointing out that, hey, you can get hurt doing this, but it seemed a large disservice to make such a hard case against something that could be so beneficial for so many people.

Especially masters athletes like me. “A lot of what yoga does is help students shift their focus from the old system of just training the muscular and oxygen systems to training the more subtle neural system,” says Steve Ilg, founder of Performance Yoga in Durango, Colorado. “It’s unbelievable how well the body learns to regenerate itself. You don’t get sore, you don’t have to stuff yourself with all sorts of strange nutritional products to try to recover.” Ilg, a stand out mutlisport athlete himself, recounted how he had competed in the grueling Imogen Pass trail race (17.1 miles, 5,300 vertical feet) and had been up at 5 a.m. the next day, folding into lotus and various back bends, and feeling fine.

I don't know how much science backs up Ilg’s claims, but I do know that the periods of my active life that have been the most injury-free, and thus performance-worthy, correspond directly with how regularly I’ve done yoga. If there is any caution to be issued, it is the same caveat that applies to almost anything I do: lifting weights, running intervals, taking meds, drinking, whatever. Based on all the blowback (and attention) Broad’s getting for his story, he’s probably eager to see his book hit the shelves. No doubt he dedicates much of it to spelling out the miraculous healing powers of yoga. But, of course, how controversial is that?

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