Yoga injuries? Yes, it’s possible.
It is disheartening to see the New York Times come out with yet another article that seems to completely miss the point of yoga. I think this one is worse than the last, which described a woman going to yoga and eventually realizing that cross training would lead to smaller sized clothing than if she only did yoga. I can only imagine how these NYT articles are put together and why. Are they picking quotes and statistics that fit the agenda of the author perhaps? What is the point exactly of this article? Is it to warn people not to try or practice yoga? Is it to break up certain myths surrounding yoga? What does this really say about yoga injuries?
A couple of students have asked me to weigh in on this, so here we go.
Is yoga exercise?
The first thing that I noticed was that yoga was simply reduced to an exercise method. They might as well have been talking about aerobics, spinning, or a general fitness class. This part by itself is not surprising, and is slightly less concerning than the rest of the article. But, if you’re going to reduce yoga to just exercise, then please compare the injuries and injury rates to those of what you have reduced it to. I wonder what the statistics are for injuries in other sports? I found this list rather quickly on the web.
Comparing yoga to exercise
The following table of injuries is based on 2006 data compiled by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS).
Sport and Type of Injury
|Basketball – Cut hands, sprained ankles, broken legs, eye and forehead injuries.|
|Bicycling – Feet caught in spokes, head injuries from falls, slipping while carrying bicycles, collisions with cars.|
|Football – Fractured wrists, chipped teeth, neck strains, head lacerations, dislocated hips and jammed fingers.|
|ATVs, Mopeds, Minibikes – Riders of ATVs were frequently injured when they were thrown from vehicles. There were also fractured wrists, dislocated hands, shoulder sprains, head cuts and lumbar strains.|
|Baseball, Softball – Head injuries from bats and balls. Ankle injuries from running bases or sliding into them.|
|Exercise, Exercise Equipment – Twisted ankles and cut chins from tripping on treadmills. Head injuries from falling backward from exercise balls, ankle sprains from jumping rope.|
|Soccer – Twisted ankles or knees after falls, fractured arms during games.|
|Swimming – Head injuries from hitting the bottom of pools, and leg injuries from accidentally falling into pools.|
|Skiing, Snowboarding – Head injuries from falling, cut legs and faces, sprained knees or shoulders.|
|Lacrosse, Rugby, & other Ball Games – Head and facial cuts from getting hit by balls and sticks, injured ankles from falls.|
In the article they listed the worst of yoga injuries from a WORLDWIDE study of yoga in 2009 and found a total of 734 (I added them together) serious injuries. I don’t know what that number would rise to compared to the 2006 numbers above, which were limited to the US and included more than just serious injuries.
What is the purpose of yoga asana?
There is something else that is underlying all of this in my opinion. And that, is the perceived purpose of asana. Is it exercise? Is it therapy? Or, is it a spiritual practice? The worldwide winner seems to be that it is therapeutic exercise. The idea is that you can do yoga to heal your injuries. This certainly isn’t completely false. In fact, practicing yoga asana may very well get rid of a number of injuries or physical issues that you have. I wonder why there weren’t any statistics or interviews with people who have actually gotten better from doing yoga? There were probably too many people to interview.
Is yoga supposed to be therapy?
Isn’t the real purpose of asana to prepare the body and mind for meditation? We could take this one aspect much deeper. If you start off with the mindset that its purpose is therapeutic then it is ridiculous if someone says that they have injured themselves doing therapy. In this article, they don’t even give yoga credit as something therapeutic, but it seems to be underlying the mindset of the teacher if not the author. There is this sense of “how dare yoga injuries even occur!” “How appalling that injury could occur when doing something as therapeutic as yoga.”
Well… um… it’s kind of an intensely physical activity. And, the likelihood of physical yoga injuries tends to go up if you’re doing intensely physical things, whether it’s yoga or not.
Can you get injured while doing yoga? Yes, of course you can. Why does everyone pretend that you can’t? Do we try to injure ourselves in practice? Of course not! Does it happen? Sure. Hopefully it doesn’t happen regularly, and if it does, check yourself or find a new teacher!
Is it the asana or is it us?
I really enjoyed the teacher’s remedy for people getting injured… make the class ridiculously hard! Really? I guess I understand his intention to get people to take responsibility for their own actions in their practice. This was another observation I made. All of the injuries were a result of the person doing the asana. Yet the person is never blamed, only the asana, and in this case, yoga in general is blamed as the culprit. Not the individual’s physical history, their age, the other activities they do, or their general health. None of that is ever mentioned to put the individual and their injury in perspective relative to the asana that is blamed for their injury.
The truth is that the asana, the method, and the system, are completely neutral. It is us who color all of these things with our understandings, misunderstandings, physical limitations, attitudes etc. The asana doesn’t exist until we do it. We are ultimately responsible for what we choose to do with our body.
I think students often want too much too quickly. This is an important part of why people are getting injured practicing yoga. That’s not to mention that there are just simply more people doing yoga! The other part is that it is also the responsibility of the teacher to teach students according to their individuality and lifestyle and to stop people from doing things that they and their body are not ready to do safely.
Is yoga safe?
Ah, I said it, the safe word. Safety, safely, safe. It’s an illusion. No one can predict what’s going to happen to someone, either in a good way or a bad way. The same pose that can heal you can also harm you! The difference is YOU! Sometimes injuries happen unexpectedly, accidentally, and all we can do is make up stories about how it happened and why.
If you want to know how to do asana, and yoga in general, as safely as possible, then maybe this list will help.
- First, as the scriptures say, find the most qualified teacher in your area. This is not necessarily the one who can do the most tricks, sound the most spiritual, or be the most popular one on YouTube. Although they might also be good teachers.
- Second, study and practice with them as deeply as possible.
- Third, also go to their teacher.
- Fourth, stay as present as you can with what you’re doing.
- Fifth, see that it’s you that creates everything, including the asana.
- Sixth, practice consistently, and don’t make yoga an exercise regime that you do once or twice a week.
- Seventh, BREATHE!
This article simply went too far. It went so far that it’s actually ridiculous. Don’t let it shake your faith and dedication to your practice. There is nothing here except for exceptions to the norm, and the norm is that yoga, when practiced consistently, leads to personal evolution. If you’re stuck worrying about the physical, then there you are, stuck worrying about the physical. So says the anatomy guy! HA!
magnificent points altogether, you just gained a brand new reader.
What would you suggest in regards to your put up that you made some days ago?
This is my first time visit at here and i am truly happy to read everthing at
The primary intended purpose of Yoga Asanas (which is only one of the eight limbs of Yoga) was to make the body fit to remain steady and stable for long periods. The classical definition is “Sthira Sukha Asanam” -ie that which is comfortable and steady is called an Asana. By implication the practice should have be extended enough for comfort to have set in -in the posture and then when with this comfortable posture, the body is steady and unmoving -that is an asana.
There is a second aphorism which most teachers do not understand and ignore even if they do.
“prayatna saitilya ananta samapati bhyam” -the posture should be held with complete relaxation and with the mind immersed in the infinite :, which is should be taken to mean that the mind should be completely focused on the practice ,on the muscles involved in the posture, while getting into it, while staying in it and while coming out of it. The mental approach is meditative.
It is when this is not followed and the movements are divorced from mental concentration that injuries occur.
As David has pointed out these injuries are attributable to the the practitioner , not to the Asana. Not to do so is to akin to blaming the act of walking for an injury, if you twist your knee on an uneven patch on the street.
i am currently working on a proposal regarding safety guidelines for yoga in the fitness industry. “unfortunately” the increased interest in Yoga in our country over the last few years, and a lack of knowledgeble(not qualified) teachers,has created a situation were yoga may be regulated by a pilates association, due to safety concerns. HELP/GUIDANCE needed and welcome.
“Yoga is well established enough now to be able to have an article looking at it’s risks and not be a puff-piece or ‘pros and cons’.”
I agree. Perhaps there is a bit too much Woo Woo in Yoga, which may result in folks taking offense to critiques as though one were attacking their personal religion or patriotism. I’m now doing Feldenkrais in complement with other gentle activities. Nothing is risk free, of course, but I can honestly say that it IS “Woo Woo Free”!
As a yoga teacher I welcomed the NYT article and am saddened by the generally defensive reaction to it. Yoga is well established enough now to be able to have an article looking at it’s risks and not be a puff-piece or ‘pros and cons’.
The idea that yoga can do no harm is very strong and I think the NYTs angle is justified.
When I was in Mysore, Pattabhi Jois would regularly call peoples knee injuries from yoga practice “openings” -and I would guess many of them aren’t reported. My partner -a novice with 0 ambition in yoga, didn’t want to attempt a pose with Sarath but did at his insistence and with his adjustment, and received such an ‘opening’.
A turning point for me was hearing my yoga teacher, when talking about his sore back saying ‘still if I didn’t want pain then I’d do something like pilates’ -WTF?
Great response 🙂 Something which i am curious about is how we actually define what an injury is because i think the word “injury” has a different meaning for different individuals. Many times, people will leave a yoga class and feel temporary soreness in their muscles and may have the perception that it is an injury. Another may have constant knee pain and think of the pain as being temporary soreness. How do you actually define what an injury is? When a muscle or group of muscles are injured, what exactly happens? Are the cells of the muscles damaged? What causes the pain? In your opinion, what would you consider an injury to be?
All the Best,
It’s a good thing that the NYT piece was published – because yogis around the world have realised it’s the most wonderful opportunity to speak truthfully about what it’s all about.
It’s made us better teachers, better communicators, and some poor teachers are revising their anatomy as a result.
No such thing as bad publicity!
The asana does not exist until WE do it…..
… brilliant, simply brilliant….
Love, love, love this response! Thank you for speaking for all of us who found the article so aggressive and unhelpful, not to mention completely missing the point!
When are you back in England? I’m going to tell everyone to come!
Thank you David, for your thoughtful, insightful, and level response. I too believe, although sensationalistic and meant to peak interest in a newly published book, the article opened a needed dialogue. It has people talking and self-evaluating and I never think that is bad.
Karin and David talked about Data. There is a group of Yoga Therapists and health care professionals collecting some more data via survey. It may be an interesting experiment for your readers, students and teachers to take part in. I include it here if you would like to post on your blog. http://www.facebook.com/pages/Yoga-Injuries-Survey/288548167876638
my insight is that as a teacher my responsiblity is to give my students tools to see who is doing the asana. which part of the mind do it and which part observe that? i use the breath movement as the method, stiff or not, same or not, why the EX diffrent from the In to this “type” of person. but if as a teacher i will stay on the “asana safe side” ‘no transformation, more injuries…
the second is to study anatomy, well i am waiting for Davids book and online coarses for better understanding 😉
More than anything, the article suggests that certain poses are inherently risky regarding range of motion required for their “full” and traditional versions. I actually agree with that in a few cases. But the examples cited are ridiculously extreme. Who sits in vajrasana for hours and a) expects no side effects to the feet and b) honestly expects it will make a difference to world peace? That said, what the article doesn’t mention is that the rise in popularity of yoga in “The West” has led to some GREAT advances in the way it is taught and understood, with some pioneering (American!)teachers in this respect. The result being that, in my experience, emerging teachers are now well versed in sensible modifications for just about every contingency. Mind you, I haven’t been to a US yoga class since 2001 as I now live in London so maybe I’m out in touch with everyday yoga over there?!
We need to face the fact that the physical practice (as a mind-body-breath-concentration practice) has taken on a life of its own independent of and detached from Sutras, Vendanta and Tantra and many people DO just have a physical, somatic asana practice. Personally I think that’s fine. But on a practical level, I think part of the problem lies in the rise in the obviously financially viable large, mixed ability group classes (and the demand for “flow”), as opposed to small groups or one-to-one teaching. Good/most teachers DO do their best to encourage students to modifiy and work within limitations, but general classes like this are going to have their limitations and risks as it can be hard for even the most skilled teacher to multi-task like that and keep the flow going. If that is made clear in a less extreme manner than in the NYT article, hopefully students will share personal responsibility with teachers. And I still think the risk-benefit ratio is on the side of benefit, hands down.
Well, regarding who sits in vajrasana for hours – I’m not quite sure that nobody does that, seeing that there are yoga world championships.
And we all underestimate the power of groups, I think. It’s not only bad teachers – it’s the group dynamic as well that pushes folks.
I’m almost certain that my father’s back problems have to do with his yoga classes. They take place at his home, with a group of friends – so it’s “his thing”, and I’m sure he wants to show off, plus the teacher is a youngish attractive girl. Of course he’ll overdo it, it’s not even yoga to blame, just simple human psychology. But, as I said, with yoga the issues arise only years after you’ve started, and then it’s way too late. And that, after all, is a property rather specific to yoga. It looks much gentler than it is.
Also, I’m not quite sure whether we should really blame “the western mindset” or that we’ve reduced it to physical practice. My impression is that hindu gurus are basically charlatans and that the feats that hindu ascetic yogis perform are nothing but show-off and ego. Dressed up under layers and layers of religious hogwash, which doesn’t make it any better. At all.
The main issue when comparing yoga to (other?) sports is that in all those sports, the risk of injury is glaringly obvious. With yoga it isn’t. The problems may arise after years or even decades.
This issue should be considered with every practice you choose – meditation, tantra, qi gong, yoga… We always have to take a calculated risk, whether we do it for “spritual” or physical exercise has no bearing on that.
My reply is actually rather short and simple, and can be viewed here:
Thank you Skeptic Tantrika!
I took a Yoga class when I was 19 for 6 months and more recently at 54 for 6 months. Both teachers were very good and always stressing caution. I did fine at 19. I stopped at 54 however, because of aggravation to my shoulder that did not diminish via modifications in poses. What the NYT article impressed upon me is that the damage isn’t so apparent when a particular movement is harming us, even when we think we are being very careful. The shoulder stand and headstand never bothered me when doing them. It was the headache I had all evening after the last one that made me wonder if this wasn’t such a good idea after all.
The NYT article may be too harsh for some to take, but perhaps for some, it serves as a wake up call in the midst of what I view as a widespread glorification of Yoga.
With all due respect, some of these types of injuries and problems are present just by being alive an a gravitational field and getting older. There is nothing yoga can do about the inevitability of our body’s disintegration and entropy. We may slow and delay the process, but we will all face old age and its consequences, unless we die young.
The immediate consequences of the injuries associated with various sports may seem obvious, but the overuse, repetitive injury potential and injuries from negative body patterning are not well-known or even well-understood, despite having lots of MDs in the sports medicine field. In your case, if you have identified that headstands are something that physically cause a problem for you, then don’t do them. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Part of the problem, in my opinion, is a improper attitude about risk and life. (I’m not speaking directly about you. I don’t know you. I’m speaking generally.) Everything has risks attached to it. Everything. Your choice is, which problems do you want to deal with or manage?
A wise doctor once told me “you well see a doctor later in life; you just have to choose whether it’s an orthapedic or cardiologist.” That may have been a little overly dramatic, but the point is valid: there are benefits and risks to everything, including increased activity or increased sloth.
We should not shy away from injury discussions. But we should not engage in the fantasy that there is some absolute idealized vision that we or our practice should be compared to. Our bodies are asymetrical entities with different tendencies, strengths, and weaknesses, all operating in gravity, exerting a constant pressure on us. Although we share a lot of commonalities, we are not identitical in all respects, which means different people need different things and respond differently. Sometimes its subtle; sometimes its dramatic. But every choice to do one thing over another or to not do anything at all has risks and benefits attached to it. Life and our yoga practice is an exercise in managing these compromises between risks and benefits, both subtle and gross.
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Of flesh and bone…
but way beyond, Yoga
is like a vehicle, a kite, our body’s
aspiration…for a glimpse of the open
no guarantees, no return,
but worth the journey….
travel with awareness
and slowly…like a snail,
climbing Mt. Fuji ( Basho )
Great to hear from you on this!
All the best! HJj
The NYtimes article reflect the level of consciousness of the writer and how yoga has become so physical in the west. Yoga needs its own rehaul now and bring it back to the root of tradition that fosters deepening spirituality. Thanks for putting this out David, will circulate
Great response to the NYT article David.
Thank you for the common sense – something that seemed to missing in the approach of the original article.
What made the NY Times writer (How Yoga Can Wreck etc)
think that he’d really uncovered something – is the general assumption (touted often in the media) that yoga is a cure-all that promising bliss. Media creates a fantasy. Media then exposes it as a lie.
Yoga practitioners as David suggests should be careful and aware in their practice – and ALL should be aware of and beware of frivolous writing!
As for the first article – the woman herself may be frivolous – rather than her writing. Her article was honest. How can we argue with another’s personal perspective? We get the teacher and practice we deserve. She and her motivations seem to be better suited for the gym. Fine!
Point taken regarding the first article. Not everyone has to like yoga or use it for all of its other benefits. They are welcome to use it just for physical exercise if they choose.
Amen to that!
Looking forward to seeing you in Manila!
Congratulation David on a well thought and better expressed cOMmentary; I agree wholeheartedly, and I also would like to note that the author has a forthcoming “book”to peddle, I mean, promote, on the subject. I imagine a calm, equanimous analysis would not have served his purpose as well.
The neurological cases he quotes have been paraded around for decades. As you can tell, the range of motion values he quotes are approximate at best, erroneous in some cases. I wonder if the teacher’s spinal stenosis is purely acquired; in most cases there’s a component of congenitally narrowed spinal canal to start with.
That said, of course there are cases of vertebral dissection and/or thrombosis, but their number is trivial when compared to the total number of practitioners and the frequency of their practices. Still, awareness is the key.
Much more to say, but I’d like to finish with an observation about the statistics that you quoted: they are from 2006, and there’s NO MENTION of cerebral concussion in any of the sports reported. It was not until 2009 that the “establishment” became aware of the consequences of repeated head trauma, including cognitive loss, dementia, etc.
Live and learn.
Thanks for the thoughtful response Julio… I think we both know that statistics can be played to any point of view. As I mentioned in the reply above, I mostly just picked these stats because they were so readily available online and I literally found these withing 5 minutes of beginning a search for sport and injury related injury statistics. Unfortunately they don’t include head traumas.
As for the stenosis… I was shocked that in the article the yoga teacher completely ignored that there is very often a genetic component to this condition. I could understand maybe load bearing adding some thickening of bone tissue… but I wouldn’t put yoga in that category. I’m not sure how he became SO convinced that it was the yoga ONLY! ???
I’m glad we’re all talking about it. Injuries do happen and I’m glad that if nothing else people start to take more responsibility for their level of awareness while practicing.
I completely agree with you on nearly every level here and I especially appreciate the data comparison. One issue with it, though. Showing the raw numbers tells us nothing about the probability of injury. Just because the total number of injuries in yoga is low compared to that of basketball doesn’t mean you’re less likely to be injured practicing yoga than playing basketball. We need to know how many people play basketball and how many people practice yoga and then find out how many people get injured doing each.
I agree with Dave’s points as well.
The numbers above are definiitely not complete and of course you’re right, you need more numbers to make sense out of how likely you are to get hurt. I posted them more to say, In five minutes you can have just a little bit of context and I’m not writing for the NYT. The author of the article could have given us a bit more to go on. That’s all
Well said David! 🙂
1) Practitioners of yoga are often (not always) ignorant of the potential for yoga-related injuries.
2) Yoga promoters (be they teachers, practitioners, or others) often (not always) emphasize exclusively its therapeutic effects, to some degree ignoring the potential for yoga-related injuries.
3) Many (not all) people approach yoga with a religious fervor, believing the practice to be a source of wisdom and good. In other words, because yoga is “holy” to many practitioners, we are overly sensitive to it’s criticism, making it difficult to admit to errors in how we practice.
3) Points 1-3 create unnecessary risks for yoga practitioners that could be alleviated through increased awareness of the potential for injuries and how to avoid them.
The NYT piece was a sensationalist hack job penned by a writer uninterested or incapable of addressing the topic in a balanced, competent fashion. But rather than rushing to shout down and decry the author, let’s rescue a valuable insight from the episode: yoga would benefit from more self-reflection, study and openness regarding the potential for injury.
i wholeheartedly agree with whomever Dave is and his comment above–interesting how outraged yoga teachers are getting when I see so many people with torn rotator cuffs, cervical injuries and these from yoga teachers doing “adjustments”!!!
I have been teaching and training yoga teachers for the last 40 years. I have seen some injuries coming into my classes; but not that many. Untrained or poorly trained teachers might be partly responsible for in these cases; but not this thing we call yoga.
How many of us blame cars for road accidents… we are all aware it is the driver who needs to learn to take care.
Thanks for your contribution and I agree completely.
Thank you Dave,
very clear thinking. That’s what I’ve seen with ashtanga. I’ve also met yoga teacher’s who practice and teach really gentle yoga styles, and who havent actually seen yoga injuries in their lives.
ad 3): Well and also, if something is “holy”, then you cannot measure success or failure in any useful way. Pain may be part of the “spiritual journey”, etc. It’s an open invitation for abuse scenarios.
Thank you so much for this response. I will share it widely. Of all the responses I’ve read , yours resonates most deeply with me and with my practice. I suppose this is not surprising, considering you are one of my teachers’ teachers’ teachers! 🙂
THANK YOU THANK YOU AND THANK YOU!
I can’t agree more with Scott,you nailed it,that was the full and proper response I was looking for.
Well said David! The article was utterly ridiculous and really annoyed me.
thanks so much for this thoughtful and wide ranging response! I found the article highly inflamatory intentionally and this response highly thoughtful.
Nailed it D 🙂
You have got it absolutely right, David. It is just such a shame that we have to waste giving our time to this nonsense. It could be better used to practising our yoga.
The author has his result though…big book sale. It must have been a quiet news-day for the NYT.
I love your newsletter. AB
well that’s a pretty stupid statement isn’t it, and quite un-yogic too…the author of this article was trying to point out that people ARE injuring themselves doing yoga and why it is happening, you may not ‘agree’ but it doesn’t mean you’re ‘right’…so pay attention to your own practice and keep asinine comments to yourself