Yoga beneficial, but you have to be careful, says author
Published Saturday, February 11, 2012 5:42PM EST
Early last month, a headline in the New York Times triggered a tidal wave of outrage in the blogosphere and Twitterverse from devoted yogis who felt their practice was under attack by one of the paper's science writers.
"How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body" was an article adapted from William J. Broad's latest book, called "The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards," and the headline alone was enough for yogis to see red.
Broad said the hate mail poured in, with language that struck him "as extremely un-yoga-like," including an insulting directive disguised with the acronym GFY.
"Yoga is a great friend to me, so to the extent that that initial publicity made me seem like a monster, that's too bad," Broad said in a telephone interview.
"But I think that as people look at the book and understand what's going down here, that controversy will ebb and go away and people will see that this is really actually a helpful book that has a lot of good science that can help people winnow and sift and improve their practice."
The excerpt and the catchy headline may have been a brilliant attention-getting strategy by the Times' editors, and Broad acknowledges that most authors like publicity for their books, even if it's drummed up through controversy.
But the focus on yoga's potential to cause harm covers only one of the book's seven chapters. The book also offers a history of yoga, and a detailed look at the practice's overwhelming health benefits, including everything from lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels, to a boost in mood and overall feelings of wellbeing, to better sex.
The chapter on injuries looks at cases reviewed in scientific studies that have found that certain poses known as inversions, such as the shoulder stand, and wheel and plough, pose a small risk for potentially debilitating problems.
It includes cases where patients have ended up in hospital suffering from a stroke because a yoga pose cut off blood flow through the neck, leading to clotting and other hazards.
Broad, who began practicing yoga in 1970, says that although the risk is "clearly very low," he has dropped some poses from his regular practice that he believes put undue stress on the neck.
Broad says the outcry -- which has some gurus, teachers and other experts denying that yoga poses any health risk at all, despite the evidence -- comes from those who benefit from what he calls the "yoga-industrial complex." It's the big business of yoga that sells high-cost classes, apparel, DVDs and other accoutrements to the public.
"In my mind there's no question: The yoga industrial complex hates this book," Broad says.
"It hates it, because it explodes three myths that the industry has sold to millions of students: one, that yoga is completely safe; two, that it zips up your metabolism so that you automatically lose weight; three, that yoga is the only exercise you need to do because it's so aerobic. The science shows that none of those claims are true."
Ego causes injuries
The adapted article that appeared in the Times quoted extensively from a yoga instructor in upstate New York named Glenn Black.
Broad attended one of Black's classes, which included only a select number of poses and left out the inversions that Broad found to have links to neck injuries and stroke.
Emma O'Neill, an authorized Ashtanga Yoga teacher based in Toronto who has not read Broad's book, says any activity done incorrectly or without adequate instruction "can be risky."
But she calls statements that link yoga to stroke "ridiculous," and said it's a teacher's responsibility to guide students through their practice.
"As a teacher, I do my best to be as clear as possible when I instruct a class, regardless of the posture," O'Neill says.
"One of my responsibilities as a teacher is to make sure I can explain how to execute a posture using clear, concise instruction and sometimes demonstration.
"Shoulder stand and headstand, done correctly, can heal an injured neck," she adds.
In the article and the book, Black contends that injuries are a result of "ego," students approaching yoga with a competitive mindset and pushing themselves into poses their bodies can't handle.
"Injuries I have seen have always been based in ego and lack of information. I have injured myself doing postures. Injuries usually occur in asana (a pose) when we force our bodies into a posture we are not physically ready for," she says.
"It's all about patience. Injuries can be wonderful teachers if we are ready to receive the lesson. I'm not saying go out and get hurt to learn something. I'm saying if you do get hurt…take a moment to think about why the injury happened and what can be done to prevent it from happening again."
Padma, a yoga instructor in Vancouver who will lead the country's first meditation teacher training program this year, says poses vary in their degree of difficulty, but there's no reason why the average student should stay away from any of them.
She says one point of concern for her is that an inexperienced teacher may ask students to do inversions, such as shoulder stand or headstand, before they are properly trained.
"Just as in any physical training program, it is possible to train progressively, gently and over time from the simpler to the more challenging exercises without incurring any injuries," she says.
Yoga at a crossroads
The yoga industry, Broad says, is at a crossroads and requires some reform to remain relevant and safe for its estimated 250 million worldwide practitioners.
Broad believes that the industry -- gurus, teachers and practitioners -- must start paying closer attention to the science about yoga's potential benefits and harms, which has been coming out fast and furious in the last few years.
"There are real dangers out there, and I think for people to ignore the science can be dangerous," he says. "If you know there are risks out there, if you know you're playing Russian roulette and that one of those chambers is going to hold a bullet, it's smart to pay attention."
He says that the yoga industry can take heart in research that shows, among other benefits, that practicing yoga releases a neurotransmitter called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which calms the mind and boosts mood.
"That's the thing that worked for me when I first took it up in 1970, that's the thing that I think everybody who does yoga gets. It really helps you unwind, it helps you unplug, get centred, relax," he says. "The scientific evidence is overwhelming. It works."
But it also carries serious risks, and should be held up to the scrutiny of clinical trials so teachers and practitioners alike can separate the science from the fiction.
"Of course, clinical trials can be done, as on any sport that people engage in," the yoga instructor Padma says. "Clinical trial results will likely be that yoga is good for improving health and fitness, as long as it is done with care, with knowledge, with patience, and done appropriately to the individual student."