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David BRISSON
Yoga Tree teacher Kumiko Koba and student Satoko Yoshikawa appeared in videos for Yoga Works.

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A Comment on Injuries in Yoga
2015.02.12 - BLOG

Yoga is a spiritual practice with origins dating back at least 4000 years. It is also a multi-billion dollar modern industry with roots stretching into almost every country in the world. Between these two realities is a gulf that accounts for a sea of controversies.

One of the biggest issues to roil the yoga world in the last few years has been student injuries, which have escalated to the point where many doctors have questioned whether yoga is safe. To be sure, there is a growing body of evidence that serious injuries do result from yoga. Well-documented studies in the U.S. show a sharp increase in the number of yoga injuries requiring emergency room treatment and many medical experts have publicly stated that physically demanding styles of modern yoga are dangerous, particularly for beginners coming from a sedentary lifestyle. Reflecting the trend, lawsuits in the U.S. have risen to the point where liability insurance for yoga teachers is as de rigueur as black stretch-fabric pants.

In America, the debate over injuries reached a crescendo in 2012 with the publication of William J. Broad’s article “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” in The New York Times Magazine. If you haven’t read the article, I recommend that you take a half hour to do so—not because it’s well researched and informative, but because it will give you a good idea of the tenor of the argument over yoga’s risks.

While I am sympathetic to the argument that most people are not aware of the risk of injury from yoga, I think that “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” borders on yellow journalism. In fact, stirring controversy was the reason for publishing the article, which The New York Times did a few weeks prior to the publication of Mr. Broad’s book, The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards. In fact, the article is actually a synopsis of a chapter of the book, edited and presented for maximum disruption. Nevertheless, I recommend reading the article. In addition to shedding light on the current debate on yoga injuries, it provides evidence that some of the wildly enthusiastic health claims attributed to yoga are simply untrue. In both cases, the article starts conversations worth having.

A large part of “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” centers on interviews with Glenn Black, a well regarded yoga teacher from New York. Mr. Black, who has practiced and taught yoga for decades, confesses that his own intense practice led to injuries that eventually required surgery. Mr. Broad picks up on this fact and uses it as proof that practicing yoga is risky. In my opinion, a better reading of Mr. Black’s views is that yoga should be practiced intelligently and with awareness. This interview from The Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/eden-g-fromberg-do/yoga_b_1202465.html) gives insight into Mr. Black’s experience with injuries and his frank views on the yoga practice.

After you read the article, delve into some of the ubiquitous commentary on it. Just google “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” and you’ll see hundreds of articles. This video from the teacher and author Leslie Kaminoff is one of the best responses I’ve seen. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ESMGLAbYiDs) While some prominent yoga teachers responded critically to the Times Magazine article, other yoga teachers and students were enthusiastic. Many people commented that the article exposed them to information that they had not previously known. This article from The Guardian (http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2012/jan/14/yoga-can-damage-body-row) offers a nice picture of the non-insider view of the uproar.

Mr. Broad claims that most of his mail he has received from readers has been positive. But he also says that he has been shocked at the hostility he has encountered. He responded to his critics in  articles and interviews that are worth reading if this debate interests you. (http://recoveringyogi.com/questions-for-william-j-broad/) (http://www.elephantjournal.com/2013/01/improvement-by-uproar-the-science-of-yoga-william-j-broad/)

All in all, you can read “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” and a good cross-section of commentary on it in a couple of hours. I believe it’s time well spent. You’ll come away with a better understanding of the diverse opinions on yoga-related injuries and gain a healthy sense of skepticism when it comes to claims about yoga’s benefits and risks.

Although I recommend that you read “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body”, I am much less enthusiastic about recommending Mr. Broad’s book The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards. At another time I might write a review of the book, but for now I’ll just say that for students whose primary interest is understanding yoga and how to practice it, The Science of Yoga would likely be more confusing than enlightening.

Although the controversy around “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” has died down since its publication three years ago, the debate on yoga injuries is likely still in its infancy. Whether you are a teacher or a casual practitioner of yoga, it’s worthwhile examining some of the recent research and opinions on injuries that can result from practicing yoga. While I feel that there’s no question that the benefits of yoga far outweigh the risks, the better informed you are about all aspects of the practice, the more likely you are to develop a practice that serves you for a lifetime.

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