Response to NYT Article – How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body – Yoga Injuries

January 12, 2012
Response to NYT Article – How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body – Yoga Injuries

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).

Estimated Number
of Injuries

Sport and Type of Injury

529,837

Basketball – Cut hands, sprained ankles, broken legs, eye and forehead injuries.

490,434

Bicycling – Feet caught in spokes, head injuries from falls, slipping while carrying bicycles, collisions with cars.

460,210

Football – Fractured wrists, chipped teeth, neck strains, head lacerations, dislocated hips and jammed fingers.

275,123

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.

274,867

Baseball, Softball – Head injuries from bats and balls. Ankle injuries from running bases or sliding into them.

269,249

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.

186,544

Soccer – Twisted ankles or knees after falls, fractured arms during games.

164,607

Swimming – Head injuries from hitting the bottom of pools, and leg injuries from accidentally falling into pools.

96,119

Skiing, Snowboarding – Head injuries from falling, cut legs and faces, sprained knees or shoulders.

85,580

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.

Learn a system for working with 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.

However, the exercise therapy side has been exploited and sold to the masses, creating the idea that if one feels any sensation when practicing asana, it’s “wrong”. If an injury occurs while practicing asana, you’re an “ego-maniac” and you must not understand the first thing about “ahimsa.” Such stories go around. At the end of the day, it is a spiritual path that uses a physical practice (body), and has a side benefit of being therapeutic.

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!

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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 we 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, or 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. However, 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 who 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!

Conclusion

I could go on about the state of yoga in the US. Read Eddie Stern’s response to the article as he talks about the Mcdonification of Yoga.

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!