Open Letter – Response to the New York Times Article, How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body

Response to the New York Times Article,“How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body”

ny times post

The New York Times recently published an article titled, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” . This article has mobilized the yoga community. Even before the print version hit people’s doorsteps, hundreds of comments appeared on the NYT website, numerous posts and discussions on social media sites like Facebook and LinkedIn appeared, e-mails and e-blasts went flying and the story appeared on an ABC News segment. Most responders disagree with the conclusions in the article. Individuals that support the article concur with the facts.

The problem with the article is that it takes a series of facts, the opinion of one source and then draws conclusions that are not supported fully by the facts nor the abundantly available information and numerous other opinions which are not included in the article.

The issue should not be with yoga itself but as with all activities the issue is with the safe and unsafe teaching and practice of yoga.

The article is correct on this point: Unnecessary yoga injuries are occurring. These injuries typically occur in a competitive environment where students are pushed, prodded and cajoled into positions not suitable for them and/or are given faulty instruction from ill-trained yoga instructors.

However, I do not agree that this means it is unsafe for most people to practice yoga. It might be more accurate to state that there are too many badly trained yoga instructors who should stop teaching.

Notice I did not say that there are too many yoga instructors who lack enough training. Yes, some teachers lack sufficient training. A yoga practitioner of over 30 years, I have been teaching yoga teachers for over 20 years. Before Yoga Alliance came into existence the quality of teacher education was sometimes startling in its variety. It was not uncommon for someone to just decided that they knew enough yoga to start teaching without any formal training at all and some of those teachers are still out there teaching.

Since Yoga Alliance began registering yoga schools and yoga teachers at basic levels of 200 and 500 hours of instruction, the quality of teachers knowledge and skills have risen across the board. However, there are still weak programs with less than adequate training in safety.

When it comes to yoga injuries, the issue is with yoga schools and yoga teachers who are blind to the facts of common sense and safety when teaching students. Throughout the ages, there have been those who taught safely and those who have taught unsafely.

I also take issue from a scientific point of view with some of the conclusions drawn in the article. From an epidemiological viewpoint, the fact that an injury occurs is not by itself useful information. People not only suffer severe injuries but die daily in our country from everyday activities such as driving a car, going up or down stairs, taking prescription medicine, and having surgery. Should we sound the alarm about cars and stairs and get people off the road and into elevators? Should we say that most people are not suited for prescription drugs because of the side effects and surgery because it is too risky?

We need more information and context before we decide to throw the baby out with the bath water. It would be more useful to compare the injury rate for hours of yoga practice to the injury rate of other activities. In 1993 I co-authored a paper, “Injuries in recreational adult fitness activities” (Requa, DeAvilla and Garrick) in the Journal of Sports Medicine. Participants were recruited from members of health clubs. Hours of participation in all activities were recorded as well as incidences of injury from minor to severe. Yoga proved to have an extremely low rate of injury per hours practiced and the injuries that did occur were generally very minor.

The anecdotal evidence bears this out when forms of hot and power yoga became popular in health clubs around the turn of the century, the sports medicine clinic where I worked noticed a spike in yoga related injuries. In 2004 the NYT times published a balanced article, “When Does Flexible Start to Mean Harmful? ‘Hot” Yoga Draws Fire”, about the injuries from these types of yoga being taught in a competitive environment. Fortunately the trend in injuries did not continue upward and it was noted at the sports medicine center that the yoga injuries began to taper off once again as awareness about injury prevention grew.

The danger in a news article such as this one that is unfairly balanced in its reporting is that many individuals who might otherwise benefit from the practice of yoga with a competent instructor may never do so out of unfounded fear.

Yoga with a competent yoga teacher can be a low cost and highly effective treatment for many ailments. The number of scientific studies that have been or are being conducted at major research centers and universities that show both the safety and efficacy of yoga for a wide spectrum of injuries and illnesses is increasing.

If this article serves as a wake up call for yoga schools and yoga instructors who think yoga is a one-size-fits-all practice and who still adhere to the old fashioned adage “no pain, no gain”, then it will have had a positive effect. That message may get lost in the bashing of yoga as a practice and the outcry that has followed. Let’s bring some common sense and professionalism into our teaching and our reporting.

Nicole DeAvilla Whiting
Director of Musculoskeletal Yoga Therapy
Ananda Yoga Therapy
Senior Teacher SMC Yoga Teacher Training

Marin County, California
January 8, 2012

Related articles and research by the author:

“Anatomy and Pathology of Yoga Injuries Found at Sports Medicine Facilities” abstract, International Journal of Yoga Therapy, SYTAR 2009 supplement

“Can Being Too Flexible Be Harmful?”, Ananda Yoga Teacher’s Association, Volume 9, No. 3

“Helping Students Master the Asanas, Part I: Understanding Mastery”, Yoga Teacher Support Center, May 2011

Comments

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