Should You Give Up Yoga? Experts Respond to the New York Times' "Yoga-Can-Wreck-You" Controversy
I first heard about William Broad’s debate-sparking New York Times Magazine article, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body,” in yoga class on Saturday afternoon. As the class inhaled in an extended downward dog, the teacher, a willowy woman with a husky voice, asked if anyone had read the article. Unlike the more usual grunts heard in yoga class -- ones indicating physical exertion -- there were grunts of agreement. And because it’s rare that any student would willingly take the spotlight from the yoga teacher to opine on matters of great or small importance, the class waited for further enlightenment. As we were guided into pigeon pose –a deep hip-opener in which one leg is bent in front of you and then over it, you lie prostrate on the floor—the teacher offered this: “The thing is,” she told us, “if you’re mindful, you won’t get hurt.”
Is that really true? As I said “Namaste” to my classmates, I thought of how the teacher’s response seemed very “yogic” to me, very Zen, very “don’t you worry, everything will be fine if you live in the moment.” I’ve been practicing yoga for 11 years. And though I have suffered back pain as a result of what I self-diagnosed as “too much practice” and once, pulled a hamstring as I maneuvered into triangle pose, I still believe that yoga makes me happier, more centered, more productive, more at peace. I can oft be found proselytizing to my non-yoga-practicing friends that yes, really, they should try it.
Then I went home and read the article in which Glenn Black, a highly trained yoga teacher, was quoted as saying that he thinks the majority of people should give up yoga altogether as it’s simply too likely to damage their bodies. Alarmed, I continued reading through a litany of yoga-related injuries, and a cited growing body of medical evidence supporting Black’s contention that "for many people, a number of commonly taught yoga poses are inherently risky.” Phrases such as “potential to inflict blinding pain” jumped out at me. I had not so much a crisis of confidence, but a feeling that “if you’re mindful, you won’t get hurt” was very possibly an inadequate answer.
The part of me that is not a blind yoga devotee is an inherent researcher. So I consulted four different health professionals -- a chiropractor, a clinical psychologist, a movement coach, and my favorite yoga teacher-- to see if I could unearth a better response, a better solution, or at the very least, a bit more detail. Herewith, my findings, and some further thoughts on yoga and injuries.
1. Daryl Gioffre of the Gioffre Chiropractic Wellness Center in Manhattan wrote to me that he loves yoga and thinks it is very healing but not without risk -- a risk that can be found in many places. “I think it has helped so many people break through personal barriers,” he explained. “Sometimes people do have underlying health problems that haven’t surfaced as a symptom yet. So whether it be yoga, running, walking, sleeping or sitting, something will bring that person to a threshold that will activate their symptoms.” Gioffre agrees with Glenn Black that injuries are most prevalent when a student (of anything) is not paying attention. When your mind wanders, injuries happen. “To take it one step further,” Gioffre offered, “those that recognize something is off should make sure they take the proper steps to see the right professional, such as a chiropractor, to see if there is anything specific that needs to be addressed.”
2. Sherry Breslau, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Manhattan, found the article disturbing and felt that Glenn Black was on the right track. Approaching this debate with a mind more toward the mental and emotional than the physical, Breslau had insights as to why we push ourselves so hard in yoga classes. “For many women,” she explains, “the image of the centered, graceful, swan-like creature has such a powerful pull that it is hard to resist. Add the potential for public humiliation and a desire to please their teacher, who often becomes an idealized role model, and you have a recipe for obsessive overdoing. Men are not immune to any of these motivations, and we can add a desire to impress the women or other men in the room.” Like Gioffre, Breslau points out the unmentioned repressed wounds that could come to the surface, adding, “A good psychologist knows what Black has intuited: that being mindful of how to stretch oneself, physically or emotionally, is crucial. And often the mind-body stretch is one and the same.”
3. Patti and Gibby Cohen, body coaches who primarily teach strength and help people understand habitual patterns and how to change them found the article troubling as well, but on the other end of spectrum. While they don’t teach yoga, they do practice several types including wall yoga and aerial yoga. Gibby Cohen felt that the article was a scare tactic, pointing out that it only covered the bad things about yoga, none of the good, and focused almost exclusively on the extreme, worst-case scenarios. Both Cohens felt that if the article had just been about how yoga can help you, it wouldn’t have been printed. “Unless you have no indication of your body you’re not going to go into a position that’s going to injure,” Gibby Cohen explained, adding that a teacher’s most important thing are his eyes: a teacher, and a student, need to pay attention to how a student is moving in space. Along those lines, the only danger Patti Cohen cited was “a teacher who just read through a script and didn’t notice individuals.” As for students, the Cohens advise common sense. “As you know, when you learn to ride a bike, you begin with training wheels. As you become more advanced and begin learning tricks, going faster, the risk/reward ratio increases -- same with yoga or with anything we venture to train our bodies to do.”
4. Adrian Molina, a yoga instructor, who teaches Warrior Flow yoga classes privately and at Equinox in New York City, told me that he read the article twice and both times he got upset, for many reasons. Molina was the first to mention the pictures that accompanied the article -- the cast of the Broadway play Godspell doing their “flexible best.” He acknowledged that though the pictures of actors struggling through poses were likely intended to be funny, he found them disrespectful to the physical aspects of yoga. Molina felt the article was negative and too subjective, along the lines of, “OK, I am frustrated about how yoga ‘didn’t help me’ so now I’m going to complain about it and put everything in the same bag.” Molina believes that the yoga he teaches should be fun, keep students happy, healthy and flexible. He acknowledges that injuries happen. “I wish I could say that you will never hurt your body doing yoga. But that is not true. But I can’t say that either for spinning, jogging, dancing, walking.” Molina, whose class I take weekly and enjoy tremendously, always includes an "easy posture" option to promote awareness and steer his students away from pushing too hard. And while he knows that sometimes students and teachers can do a little too much, he thinks the rewards outweigh the risks.
In talking to people who have given the New York Times article a great deal of thought, and having given it a great deal of thought myself, I still believe in the healing qualities of yoga, in its ability to calm, center, cure, energize and strengthen (facts the Times article mentioned as well). I also think it’s important to acknowledge that worst-case scenarios, and even bad-case scenarios, do indeed exist: neck injuries can happen and in rare cases, much more serious injuries have happened. And grave accidents likely can’t be prevented by just being mindful and having a watchful teacher. It’s possible that some poses may be too dangerous to do, and it’s up to each yoga-practicing individual to use caution and judgment and know that with reward comes risk. I find that I do still agree with the initial concept of “being mindful,” as I feel everyone I spoke with does, too. But it’s more of a mindful-plus: be responsible to yourself, for yourself, and be aware of both your teacher’s and your own limitations. In yoga class, and everywhere else.
And this yogi will be mindfully unrolling her mat again shortly.
*Read more heated responses to the NYT story from the yoga community.