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In Response to Dangers of Doing Yoga and the Great Yoga Scare

in YD News

The latest discussion in ‘yoga kills’ comes from the penman of the Great Yoga Scare himself, William J. Broad. As you may recall, when his New York Times article came out in early 2012 a virtual riot ensued. The infamous article was adapted from his book which also highlights but is not limited to, injuries and deaths resulting from yoga. It’s just science, you see! Now, we’re not saying he’s Satan reincarnate, no of course not, but he certainly does play a good devil’s advocate, and perhaps a necessary one.

The subsequent conversation that is apparently still going on is a meaningful and useful one, if not a bit sensationalized (the latest Men Beware article was right in time for WJB’s paperback release). In any case, this is not a one-sided discussion so we thought we might share some of the latest responses to the most recent episode in the American Yoga Horror Story.

The latest fodder…

Mr. Broad is no dummy, but he somehow didn’t see the backlash coming. In his January 10, 2013 NYT blog(adapted from the newly released paperback, naturally) he describes the outpouring of gratitude he received too, and explains why he still he stands by his mission and “obligation” to be the bearer of bad news:

Yoga for many people is a sacred refuge. But as I learned of the dangers, I felt an obligation to help people disentangle the good aspects of the practice from the bad.

…Yoga authorities are right in saying that known injuries have resulted in no reported deaths. But that speaks to the limits of data collection and reporting in biomedicine rather than a demonstrable absence of fatalities among millions of yoga practitioners. It’s a state of ignorance versus one of knowledge.

My exploration of this world has prompted me to alert yogis whenever possible to what are probably very low risks that can have extremely severe consequences.

Allow us to share responses from well-respected and qualified teachers and experts, who may not have definitive answers, but dear lord, at least offer additional sides to the story.

Dr. Loren Fishman, who sees a multitude of injuries and conditions in his work with yoga therapy, comments via email on Mr. Broad’s blogs:

It’s unfortunate that William Broad bringing up chilling examples of yoga injuries again and again has garnered accusations of sensationalism I believe have honestly surprised him. The issue of sensationalism is a red herring. It seems to me that what Broad, a serious yoga practitioner himself, is really trying to do is promote a realistic evaluation of yoga.

The rather extreme examples of injuries he has noted serve as an antidote to a 60ish gloss on yoga as all-good and all saintly. Just as vegans must recognize that even organic hemlock is poison, yogis should be grateful for Broad’s cool head and hard facts.  It’s just responsible to be aware of possible injuries that can result from doing yoga improperly, without training or in excess.

Investigation of and finding yoga injuries is not new. Long before Broad wrote “The Science of Yoga,” Ellen Saltonstall, Susan Genis and I did a worldwide study of yoga injuries, which surveyed 33,000 yoga teachers and therapists and was published by the International Association of Yoga Therapists. The reality of yoga injuries was confirmed there and has been shown in other studies too.

When I started using medical means to verify or invalidate yogic remedies in the 1990s, it was truly difficult to persuade yoga practitioners to believe anything but what their guru had said. Broad has borne some of the brunt of the anger he stimulated in those who have this kind of faith but his hammering away at this is turning people’s gaze back to what seems to be a somewhat harder reality – a scientific assessment of the risks and benefits of yoga.

This should be helpful and eye-opening for the yoga community, not an opportunity for Broad-bashing.  The fellow is not just negative; he is also impressed with scientific evaluation of yoga’s benefits. I have seen many people with yoga injuries, and given the advantages of evidence-based studies I have been able to use yoga itself to cure many of them.

In response to “Wounded Warrior Pose” about the concerns over men doing yoga, Dr. Fishman continues:

William Broad got the facts right. The worldwide study of 33,000 yoga teachers and therapists I did with Ellen Saltonstall and Susan Genis, Esq. confirms that men sustain more yoga injuries than women, percentagewise.  An excellent Australian monograph – Yoga in Australia – comes to the same conclusion.

It’s widely believed that partly because of social restrictions, in ancient time yoga was a discipline of men with spiritual — not physical —  goals. Things have evolved and changed dramatically. Today studies show that most yoga injuries occur in class rather than at home. Today men in yoga classes are surrounded by women who are more flexible than they are. That may present a formidable challenge, prompting men to pit their strength against their inflexibility and injure themselves. Some men need to be reminded that gritting your teeth and pushing through isn’t yoga.

Dr. Timothy McCall weighs in:

As Broad makes clear in his book, The Science of Yoga (from which the first Times yoga article was excerpted), the subject of his inquiry is the physical practice of yoga as found in most classes. He’s not talking about meditation, chanting, selfless service or spiritual development. Even so, styles of asana practice, different teachers and classes vary enormously. It’s my feeling that Broad’s failure to account for these differences could entirely explain his findings.

 

Many yoga injuries—again based on my experience, since we lack data—happen when people are trying too hard to achieve a particular result. Your foot won’t go into Lotus pose, for example, so you pull a little harder to get it into position, and in the process tear ligaments in your knee. But before that happens, the body almost always gives warning signs, such as pain or strained breathing. If you decide to ignore them and power your way through, problems may result. Both men and women can do this, but if I had to guess I’d say men are more likely to, so in this way may be at higher risk.

William Broad loves to create controversy. Beyond claiming that yoga can wreck your body, he has also written that yoga can make you fat, and that the entire practice started out as a sex cult (neither of which is true). Statistically speaking, if Broad’s analysis is correct (and given the methodological problems in how he did his analysis—see Is Yoga Really Dangerous for Men? Dr. Ram Rao Weighs In—I don’t think we can know), men may indeed be at higher risk of injuries when practicing asana, but this may miss a larger truth. My guess is that if a man practices less demanding forms of yoga, or any style of yoga in a less aggressive and more mindful way, that his risk probably isn’t any greater than that of a woman, and may even be less. Uh oh, there’s a potential future headline for Mr. Broad: Women at Greater Risk of Yoga Injuries! You heard it here first….

Baxter Bell, MD of  San Francisco Bay Area responds via Yoga Journal blog:

I do want to say that in my experience as a yoga teacher and health-care professional for well over a decade, I have not observed this injury trend that Broad believes is afoot.  Just the opposite: In my teaching across the country, I receive many more reports from men of the benefits of their regular yoga practice.

We’ve condensed his points and suggestions:

1. The potential benefits of appropriate yoga practice will far outweigh any risks.

2. Articles like Broad’s tend to reduce “yoga” to mere asana practice or physical poses.  And although this is the trend in some studios, I would encourage those of you interested in a more complete experience of yoga to look for classes and studios that embrace the full spectrum of what yoga has to offer: physical practices, breathing techniques, accessible meditation teaching, as well as community building and opportunities for selfless service.

3. I would recommend you see your yoga as one part of a multi-pronged approach to your health and lifestyle, as opposed to substituting asana for all of your exercise.

4. If you are worried about hurting yourself, start with an entry-level class (that’s right, a beginner’s class), with a certified, experienced teacher.

The rest sums up that men could really use yoga, and that’s yoga by trained and experienced teachers, and that more scientific studies need to be done.

In conclusion, if we may, reading about yoga injuries, deaths and negative aspects is not unlike rubbernecking at the scene of a 5 car pile up or being unable to peel yourself away from evening news. And we ask ourselves,  is this all that’s happening in the world?

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4 comments… add one

  • Mandi

    I think this conversation needs to keep occuring. I think the rapid increase in yoga-teacher-training is putting out a lot of (well meaning) teachers who aren’t fully prepared for the many possibilities a class full of bodies brings. However, I’d say the same about personal trainers and high school PE coaches. Having a certification does not mean a person has the skill or ability to teach well and teach in a way that does not harm. And even the best teacher cannot always protect someone from his/her own ego.
    Every practice is different, every teacher, every body…all different. And I have been in classes where I cringe to see a fellow student attempting to perform a pose completely ‘wrong’–meaning injury-inducing–and the instructor does nothing to corrent them. I’ve been in classes where people who have never done yoga a day in their lives are being helped into headstand and encouraged to try it daily. People who are not ready for downward dog, much less headstand. And to be sure, I’ve been in classes taught by wise and wonderful instructors who know how to teach sequence and how to guide students into safer modifications, appropriate for their body/experience.
    But friends, we need to put down our defenses and open our ears and hearts to possible criticism. I take Broads words as the type of contructive, loving criticism we all need to hear to grow and be better. It bothers me how much defensiveness I’ve heard from the yoga community on this subject–in blogs, publications, and in classes.
    Yoga heals, but, like anything else, if done improperly, yoga can hurt too. And the only way to heal and avoid further hurt is to address the root of the problem and look for ways to move forward, with love and acceptance.

  • Jessica

    Please just read the book. Broad is a total yoga supporter. His headlines suck, but the book doesn’t. Seriously.

  • JEANI

    I AGREE. JUST READ THE BOOK. HE REALLY HAS DONE THE RESEARCH.

  • Stewart J. Lawrence

    Yes, and please do read the “Epilogue,” which is the heart of the matter, actually. Broad rightly calls for yoga and yogis to “grow up” and finally meet the challenge of providing a credible public health service to the millions who might need it — rather than continuing to build a self-indulgent esoteric sub-culture that refuses to credibly license its teacher corps, or subject itself to real scientific scrutiny.

    It’s all in the book. The book’s not really about injuries. It’s about building a yoga that’s actually nurturing and relevant on a much larger scale. We’re not even close to being there. We’re just selling more stuff, and buffing more bodies right now.

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