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Is Yoga Really Good For Us? Not Even Science Has All The Answers

in YD News

science-formula-cartoonYoga injuries: a hot to trot topic lately. And it’s for good reason. No one wants to get hurt. One could say it’s especially counterproductive and counterintuitive in yoga class. Body destruction is not one of the eight limbs, doncha know. But, believe it or not, we are human and we do have destructible bodies as much as we’d like to think (or hope) we don’t. Even popular teachers known for striking fancy poses and Instagramming their hearts out injure themselves. Give us a yoga teacher or long-time yoga student and we’ll bet our bottom dollar they’ve had an injury of some sort whether it’s happened in class or not.

As a Western culture we are fascinated with scientific studies, with quantifiable results and answers. Oh, we love answers. If it’s bad for them it must be bad for me, we think, and vice versa. On many levels this mentality has been helpful, in say, doing things like leading to the cure of some diseases or reminding us that operating on people with dirty instruments is a poor choice because of things called germs, bacteria and viruses. But even modern science has taught us that germs are not always the devil and some bacteria is actually pretty great for us (see: kombucha).

Scientific studies are great – hey, we love science! – but they’re not the be all end all, especially when the studies are small, short-term and include a very narrow demographic. This seems to be a big issue in yoga right now.

Related: Yoga-Related Scientific Studies Increasing at Historical Rate

So where are we on the yoga injury subject when it comes to science? Is it helping or hurting us? Because seriously, with the gazillions of articles touting yoga’s benefits, if the practice is actually no good for us we ought to know, right?

This article that popped up on Vox today sets out to tackle those questions – the author, Julia Belluz, reviewing over 50 scientific studies on yoga and speaking with seven of the world’s top yoga researchers to find out more about just how healthy yoga is for us.

And what did she find?

Results are inconclusive.

Belluz, a yoga practitioner of eight years, points out that most of the studies she reviewed were pretty weak, small and/or biased based on participant selection, and that there are so many styles of yoga that it’s hard to have any sort of definitive answer for yoga as a whole. The latter should not be all that surprising – there seems to be a new style (or brand) every day.

But despite the lack of depth in science, what she did find from her research is still interesting.

Still, what I learned is that there are a few things we can say about yoga, based on the available research. Yoga probably won’t hurt you, despite what haters claim, and it appears to be just as good for your health as other similar forms of exercise.

Even more, yoga seems to help alleviate lower back pain, improve strength and flexibility, and reduce inflammation in the body — which, in turn, can help stave off chronic disease and death. Emerging research suggests yoga can increase body awareness, or attention to the sensations and things going on inside you. That’s no small matter: Researchers think heightened body awareness can improve how well people take care of themselves.

Keep in mind, however, that other mind-body exercises — such as tai chi or meditation — can boost body awareness and reduce inflammation, too. That’s the catch with a lot of yoga research: It still hasn’t told us how much better or different yoga is for a number of health measures when compared with other forms of exercise. Finally, many of the most outlandish claims people make about yoga, like the idea that it can alleviate constipation or wring out toxins, either aren’t backed by science or haven’t been studied at all.

Relieving constipation doesn’t seem too outlandish of a claim, but we get her point. Science, what we all rely on to tell us what to do with ourselves, has let us down here. Anecdotal evidence from others, which is what we also rely on to help guide us through our own lives (and what we’ll come across through Matthew Remski’s WAWADIA and what we’ve seen in the great yoga scare of 2012 ignited by William Broad’s article in the New York Times on yoga “wrecking the body”) isn’t the definitive answer either. If it were, we’d all be lucky living with the same exact bodies, ailments and issues because we’d all be cloned mutants.

In answering the million dollar (bodily insurance) question once and for all? (Or at least for right now.)

1) Is yoga likely to hurt you?

No, probably not.

This question first came up in 2012, when the New York Times published a splashy article suggesting that yoga can wreck your body. The piece, adapted from the book The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards, suggested yoga caused widespread harm to its practitioners — from ruptured disks and stroke to brain injury.

But that piece was largely based on cherry-picked anecdotes, exaggerating these horrible cases to suggest they were representative of the broader yoga experience when they simply aren’t.

Cramer has studied published reports of injuries and other harms from yoga for several review and told me this: “We found yoga is as safe as any other activity. It’s not more dangerous than any other form of exercise.” He added: “Yoga is not 100 percent safe, but nothing is 100 percent safe.”

We want science to provide answers, and sometimes it does a super job in providing clues. But science is a study. We don’t, and probably won’t, have all the answers. What we can learn from scientific studies as well as anecdotes is information to make better choices for ourselves to better navigate our own journeys and lives and even yoga practices. Maybe this is what we need to remember when we talk about yoga injuries and the search to answer whether or not yoga is good for us and how. (Side note: It’s usually the general non-yoga practicing public as well as the media who focus on this the most.)

Let’s keep the conversation going and let’s continue to learn and study, outwardly in science but also inwardly in ourselves and our experience. It’s sometimes confusing and maybe scary but just as yoga is an individual practice, let’s not forget to pause and ask: What is my experience? Is it good for me? That’s a helpful study, too.

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If you’re interested in the continued conversation, sign up for the WAWADIA – What Are We Actually Doing in Asana?2-part Online Workshop with Author and Yoga Teacher Matthew Remski. The second part happens tonight  July 23rd – 7:30pm – 9:30pm EST. If you missed the first part or might miss the second, too, no worries, you will be provided a download for your safe keeping and independent listening. (YD is an affiliate and by using this link you will help support our site as well. Thank you!)

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13 comments… add one
  • Great article! I for one can claim that yoga fixed my lower back issues, but I’ve also had my share of yoga injuries, including pinched nerves, and pulled intercostal muscles(very painful).

    Like most things, I think moderation is key and to just listen to what your body is telling you.

    No doubt in my mind that yoga is good for us, but we still have to be wise.

  • Thank you for this! I think the really good news here is traditional Western medicine is paying attention to the benefits of yoga. I don’t think anyone can claim that one form of physical movement (exercise) is THE ONE, for everybody. I think that any time we focus on our body, mind and spirit, we win!

  • karen Mulhern

    Yes, yoga can hurt you…..badly. I have practiced yoga almost on a daily basis for about
    12 years. I was very careful and payed attention to my body and proper alignment, etc., etc.,
    and I was diagnosed with a small anterior superior labral tear in my hip this past March.
    The problem with labral tears is that you could have one and be asymptomatic for quite
    a while before feeling that something was not right. My only symptom was a nagging tightness
    in my left glute muscles. Labral tears can take 1-2 years, on average, to diagnose.
    This is an injury that may never heal and could lead, over time, to hip degeneration and
    replacement. I had to stop my practice completely and now, after physical therapy, I can
    only do a small series of poses. My doctor says that hip injuries, wrist and back injuries
    are quite common in yoga patients. So, yes, you can get injured practicing yoga- even if
    you are very careful!!

    • Here is a study showing 30% adverse effects from yoga practice in a control group of over 2500 people. The attendees did have an average age of 58 years but the 30% marker is high enough to raise a red flag in the yoga and medical community.
      Here is the link for anyone interested in seeing this peer reviewed research project .
      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4384376/pdf/13030_2015_Article_37.pdf

      Because some of the injuries were severe, the researchers recommended that Healthcare providers and yoga therapists need to share medical information, especially the potential risks of the attendees, and to be aware of the possible adverse events.
      Many yoga injuries are not discussed, reported, or evaluated. We all need to pay attention to yoga injuries and avoid poses that may lead to joint or nerve compression.

      • Dwayne

        Thanks for the interesting reference, but I am not sure the Japanese study is very relevant to many US-style yoga classes.
        For instance: “…Our survey showed that the class attendees
        with chronic disease accounted for 54% of the
        class attendees and the attendees who were hospital outpatients
        accounted for 42% of the attendees. These results
        show that, in Japan, people who take yoga classes
        are not necessarily healthy individuals and that many patients
        receiving treatment for their disease take classes
        to improve health…”

    • Karen< I am sorry to hear of your yoga injury but thank you for sharing what happened. I work with yoga injuries including a practice that has helped others heal labral tears. If interested, please see my website at http://www.yogalign.com. Also would you be willing to take the yoga injury survey I am conducting? link is on the site.

      • Karen Mulhern

        Hi Michelle, I can’t believe you responded because, just as I was
        beginning to feel that something
        was not right, I read about your
        work. I bought your book and
        really felt that you had developed
        the approach that I needed to
        adapt my practice to. I was even
        hoping, daydreaming, that I might
        try to come and study with you!
        THEN I had the MRI which showed
        that I have a small anterior superior
        labral tear in my left hip and was told
        to stop everything and begin physical
        therapy. I now am on my own now
        trying to do the exercises the therapist
        has given me and a limited yoga practice, but feel so at sea! Would
        be happy to participate in your
        survey.
        Take Care, Karen

  • John

    Some questions “science” just can’t answer. It used to be fairly common to encounter health “miracles” in yoga class, people who found practicing yoga correlated with dramatic improvement on a condition or injury conventional medicine wasn’t curing. Correlation isn’t the same as proven cause, maybe they’d have got better sitting home drinking beer, or lifting weights, but there were a lot of them and they were happy to act as if correlation did mean cause because it worked. Yoga is more popular now, less the preserve of those desperately looking for better health. The “miracles” are a smaller percentage, but they’re still around.

    Injuries? Obviously possible, but how to determine exact cause? Run to class, get injury in class, was it the class or the run that done it, or was it the way you sit at your desk at work? How to tell?

    More stats is just going to result in more questions… And more articles, and more claims…. “Studios should gather stats so I can make money spinning them to match my preconceptions about yoga and injury”

    • karen mulhern

      I do not understand your comment. Would you say the same to a football player or a dancer?
      There are many who suffer from sports related injuries. Why not yoga? Why not examine
      this practice, which does indeed have many benefits, to see if there are elements of that practice that can be harmful. Yoga is still presented as being good for you, but I believe it should be considered more like medicine. What kind, how much, when- this is very individual and should differ on a moment to moment basis even for each individual. If taken in the wrong
      dosages, quite dangerous. Our bodies are unique and constantly changing. It takes an awful amount of awareness and experience to get it right and even then………..
      I applaud those who have begun to explore the pitfalls of yoga practice.

      • John

        Of course I would say the same to a football player or a dancer. Their physio would too. Even with an injury that clearly resulted from a single event – a footballer snapping an ACL for example – their surgeon and physio will tell them their hamstring/quad strength ratio, deceleration technique, etc. contributed, that any injury is complex, and there are any number of predisposing factors. How do they know what those factors are? They’ve studied the specifics of the movement and the injury in detail.

        They didn’t come out with some half arsed waffle about “clubs should record injury”. Define injury, define the questions to be asked, and answered, explain how some one who’s lifetime of running just resulted in their knee packing in in a yoga class is going to happily and objectively fill in a complex form. Saying “people get hurt doing yoga, some one should take stats” is achieving nothing. If we want accurate information we need a lot more than a tick box form in studios. Besides, if our bodies are so individual and are always changing, then no amount of bleating about the benefit of generic statistics is going to be useful. No, vague articles or random case studies, or worse, pieces that mention confirmation bias then ask for injury stories, are not brave investigations, they’re idle gossip

  • yes, yoga is very important for us. Its very interesting and amazing blog. I am also doing yoga daily and I have also joined a yoga class in Rishikesh with Shiva Tattva Yoga Foundation. The atmosphere and yoga trainers in center is nice . Thanks for this blog

  • Hey Thank you for the nice article i just love that because this article really helpful for us and Yes yoga really helpful for us and it makes the mind positivity and work keep calm.

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