Yoga 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.
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.
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!)