Can Yoga Wreck Your Body?

Hot controversy is raging in cyberspace about a New York Times article called “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” with medical practitioners and yoga devotees taking vehement stands for and against this popular workout. The article is being flamed on Facebook, and normally zen-like yogis are up in arms.

The Daily Beast quoted one yoga teacher describing the article as fear-mongering, while a yoga publication contended that The New York Times is trying to “wreck yoga” with an article that “cherry picks a few extreme events.”

The number of Americans who twist themselves into pretzel-like postures in search of mental and physical benefits has soared from 4 million in 2001 to 20 million in 2011. But is the exploding popularity of this ancient workout causing an epidemic of injuries and even disabilities? Or is William Broad’s article slim on science, as critics charge? Here’s a look at the debate.

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Is Yoga Harmful?

The article quotes a yoga teacher, Glenn Black, who advises “the vast majority of people” to give up yoga because it’s simply too likely to cause harm. Yet Black, whose clients include celebrities and prominent gurus, continues to train students in this supposedly dangerous activity, while warning that even celebrated yoga teachers “injure themselves in droves.” He cites two cases in which an Indian yogi broke three ribs during a spinal twist and a leading American teacher lost movement in her hip joints.

Black is also quoted as saying that clients often seek him out after being hurt in other yoga classes, due poorly trained teachers who have jumped on the yoga bandwagon and who push students beyond their physical limits, with increasingly difficult poses, such as shoulder and head stands.

Yet Black also acknowledges that he has no formal training himself in determining which poses are helpful or harmful for students.

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Is there any scientific proof that yoga causes damage?

The article claims that many commonly taught yoga positions are “inherently risky.” As evidence, Broad cites a 1972 “article” in British Medical Journal reporting that certain yoga poses might cause stroke in relatively young people due to hyperextension of the neck, as can also occur during whiplash. However, the “article” is actually a letter to the editor and not scientific proof.

Broad also describes several bizarre case reports from medical literature, including a 28-year-old woman who had an apparent stroke after doing a yoga pose called the "upward bow," leaving her with harrowing disabilities. That calamity occurred in 1973. Broad also reports that ER visits due to yoga injuries are “rising quickly,” with the Consumer Product Safety Commission reporting 13 such visits in 2000 and 46 in 2002 (the most recent year listed). That’s actually lower than the number of Americans struck by lightning each year (about 270).

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