Controversy around yoga

Some yoga students may have heard that the New York Times published an article on ‘How yoga can wreck your body‘ recently. The article is a taster for the author’s forthcoming book.

Talking - Image CC from Open Clip Art Library

Although I think some elements of the article are sound, they have been slightly mis-represented. I agree that some yoga asana can be damaging, for some people, especially if they are done incorrectly and/or repeated over decades. My qualifying bit in italics is important, and sometimes the article forgets this and veers towards sensationalism, suggesting that a general yoga class is not advisable at all, and that swathes of the population should not practise yoga. If you’re interested in this area you might like to read my blog post on the Peter Blackaby workshop. I’ve pretty much stopped teaching the ‘traditional’ trikonasana now, as a result of his thinking, and teach a variation which I believe feels better for more people. That doesn’t mean that all yoga poses are wrong or bad, but we can sometimes find other ways of doing things that don’t lead to potential harm and still bring benefits.

The article also equates yoga to asana. Asana is/are just the physical aspect of yoga. There are also pranayama, meditation, mantra, cleansing, yamas, niyams, philosophy etc etc.

One response arguing against the views of the author is by acclaimed yoga teacher Leslie Karminoff, and you can watch his 10 minute clip here. He is an expert in yoga anatomy and makes the valid point that all actions combine some form of risk – leaving the house incurs risks. Where, on the risk spectrum, does yoga lie? The answer is probably not that all these postures are ‘bad’ or can ‘wreck’ your body, but that for some people, some postures or movements are likely to be unhelpful for them, possible damaging. But a generic ‘yoga can wreck your body’ attitude is flawed and inaccurate.

I’m not arguing that injuries will never occur in yoga. Sometimes they’re just an accident, as can happen in any physical activity (even walking along a path can be risky!), but sometimes they may occur from lack of awareness or mindfulness on behalf of the student and the teacher.

So, please don’t be afraid to practise yoga, but take care with what you are doing, understand the benefits and potential problems with some postures for some body types/existing injuries, and modify as appropriate.

Update – 13-2-12
Various yoga blogs and teachers are writing their responses to the New York Times. One teacher from London has read the book (by the author of the article) and gives a comprehensive review here, and this blog post by an anatomy blog reviews the ‘risk’ of yoga against other physical activities.

2 thoughts on “Controversy around yoga

  1. You’re right, any activity has risk, I’m glad to see that recognised. Nowadays there is too much wimpyness and scare-mongering. I think the main thing is that people should take responsibility for themselves. If I want to climb a tree and fall out it’s my own fault – I’m not going to sue the apple farmer. The risk of falling out shouldn’t stop me trying, since the view from the top could change my life. Without risk there is no life. Also, from what I’ve seen of yoga, it is one of the least harmful forms of exercise if you pace yourself and listen to your body.

    • Thanks for the comments Karl. Doing activities under your own steam (eg climbing trees) is, as you say, your own responsibility. With yoga done in a room with a teacher the risk factor becomes a bit of a grey area as the teacher is responsible for their students, but as you say, each person does also have to assess the risks to themselves and take responsibility for their actions, both on and off the yoga mat. I think the trouble with a lot of things that have been stopped/curtailed because of the ‘risks’ involved is that there’s no proportionality or likelihood assessment. I think I saw one blog response to the NYT article that said, essentially, ‘yes, there are people who have been admitted to hospital following a yoga incident, but, the proportion of those people to the huge number of people practising yoga in the USA is actually very small, and even smaller when compared to a proportion of those injured during other sports eg running, baseball.’

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