Youch! Yoga Injuries: How Not to Wreck Your Body

This entry was posted on Jan 9, 2012 by Charlotte Bell.

The New York Times Takes on Yoga Injuries

Last week’s New York Times article titled “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” made quite a splash in the yoga blogosphere. And the waves are still rippling out. Today, Cyndi Lee of OM Yoga asked her Facebook friends to share their thoughts on the article and has already amassed a huge number of comments.

As a practitioner who’s just passed my 30-year anniversary of continuous yoga study, I have to say that while I found the article’s title a tad bit incendiary, I felt that the article made some valid points. Anytime you take your physical body out of its normal range of motion, there’s a possibility for injury. In fact, any physical practice can bring about injury. In particular, a physical practice where one is encouraged to push or force one’s body into any sort of position outside its comfort zone has potential to cause problems.

Traditional vs. Modern Teacher Training

I personally would like to have seen the NYT article delve more deeply into modern yoga teacher training, a hot topic that surfaces now and again in the yoga blogosphere. Before the 20th century, yoga was transmitted from teacher to student, one on one. Having trained several teachers this way I can understand why. Each of my teacher trainees came to the table with different areas in which they had deep understanding and others that were less developed. A one-size-fits-all training with 40 other students would not have allowed them to develop—and in some cases, identify—what they needed to learn. I worked with these incipient teachers for a year or more, and I’m happy to say that they are competent as well as sensitive to the unique needs of their students. They are also quite aware, as I am, of how much more there is to learn.

While I’m certain that those who teach larger teacher trainings intend to produce competent and confident teachers with the maturity and experience to create a safe and inspiring space for students, I’m not sure that the current model is as effective as it could be. Six months—or often much less—in a class with 30 to 40 students, many of whom have little prior experience, is not the ideal learning situation for a system as vast and deep as yoga. The teachers I trained individually all had many years of regular, continuous practice under their belts before they even considered training to teach. All had taken classes from a variety of competent teachers, as well as workshops and retreats. They also regularly practice meditation. It is the depth of their experience that has made them the wonderful teachers they are—much more than their training with me.

Thirty years of practice has taught me that yoga needs time to marinate. Like homemade soup that benefits from sitting undisturbed, overnight, our bodies and minds need time—including down time—to integrate and blend the practice into our lives. There is no substitute for years.

Yoga is Not Just Poses

We all know that yoga is not just poses, but asana remains the centerpiece of most Western practice. I wonder if the rise of yoga-related injuries might also be related to the fact that asana has been taken out of its original context. When the physical practice for its own sake becomes the be-all, end-all, it is much easier to become forceful and competitive, which IMO is the source of many yoga injuries. Consider how practicing the eight limbs tempers asana practice:

  • Yama:  The yamas teach us to approach practice with honesty, generosity and the spirit of non-harming.
  • Niyama:  The niyamas teach us about contentment, self-study (so that we know how poses affect us), and that our practice is not just about ourselves, that our practice is for the benefit of all beings.
  • Pranayama:  Giving our breath primacy in asana practice, as Donna Farhi teaches, shows us how to practice with the continuity of our breath in mind, so that we don’t move beyond the limits of our body’s ability to breathe freely.
  • Pratyahara:  Pratyahara teaches us to not become attached to the pleasant—or unpleasant—sensations we feel in practice.
  • Dharana:  Dharana steadies the mind so that we can see more clearly what is happening in our bodies as we practice.
  • Dhyana:  Dhyana refines our awareness of the experiences of each passing moment.
  • Samadhi:  Gives us a taste of the settling of the mind into silence—the true definition of yoga.
About Charlotte Bell
Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. Her third book is titled Hip-Healthy Asana: The Yoga Practitioner’s Guide to Protecting the Hips and Avoiding SI Joint Pain (Shambhala Publications). She writes a monthly column for CATALYST Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. Charlotte is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010.

15 responses to “Youch! Yoga Injuries: How Not to Wreck Your Body”

  1. Avatar cora wen says:

    Thanks for being a voice of reason Charlotte.

    May we all continue to learn and illuminate our ignorance from this practice.

    • Avatar Charlotte says:

      Thanks, Cora. There’s so much inflammatory stuff flying around the blogosphere these days. While I agree that yoga injuries are on the rise, I think the reasons are very complex. Yoga, in its complete form, is designed to “illuminate our ignorance” as you say. I hope that yoga matures to the point where we can all practice with mindfulness and care.

  2. Avatar BodyNBrain says:

    Well said, Charlotte. Mobility must always be balanced with stability.

    As a Feldenkrais practitioner with a background and traditional sports training I agree that one of the reasons is that these “trendy modalities” are taken out of their context very often and reduced to mere exercise. Hypermobility or strength without having a FUNCTION in mind is maybe great, but useless.
    Mobility to play say better golf or put on shoes, strength (and organization) to be able to lift kids…these are MINDFUL traits.
    My five cents.
    Healthy regards.

    • Avatar Charlotte says:

      You are right. That’s one thing I love about modalities such as Feldenkrais and the Alexander Technique. They teach practitioners how to apply efficient movement to everyday life. Asana practice of course was developed with the idea that it would support the settling of the mind. That is also a mindful trait. But asana taken out of context can too easily become about performance.

  3. Avatar susan says:

    I had a spinal cord stroke that was a result of an overstretch in a yoga class. I am a paraplegic as a result of the stroke. I had been practicing for 4 years and understood the 8 limbs of yoga. Injuries do happen. Teachers and students do need to be aware.

    • Avatar Charlotte says:

      I’m so sorry to hear about your injury. I agree that injuries can and do happen in yoga and it’s good for everyone to be aware. I’m grateful that the New York Times opened this discussion, and as a practitioner of 30 years I’m well aware that injuries can happen even with the best of intentions. I feel that embodying the eight limbs as a precursor to starting asana practice would go a long way toward tempering the tendency for injury, but it’s certainly not foolproof. As a naturally flexible person, I’m also quite aware of the dangers of overstretching. Even as a very careful practitioner, I’ve had to learn the hard way that hypermobility is not balance. Mobility must always be balanced with stability.

  4. Avatar Flying Yogini says:

    A lovely and balanced response to the article! I agree that there was some stoking of the paranoia fires in the NYTimes post, but I also liked the reminder to people that some yoga poses are not for all. We are talking now about teachers that are not instructing safely, about assisting too deeply and listening to our own bodies. This conversation is very important and should be a constant evolving one. If the NYTimes article continues such discussion then I say kudos to the author. Your reply is a great example of this important conversation. Thanks!

    • Avatar Charlotte says:

      Funny thing is, I think this is a discussion that needs to take place in the yoga community. People are getting hurt, probably more than any of us will ever know. The reasons for this are complex and varied—inexperienced teachers, deeply ingrained competitive attitudes on the part of teachers and students, classes that are way too big for anyone to manage, and many more things. All this stems from a lack of understanding of what the practice is really about, the settling of the mind into silence.

  5. Avatar Shoosh Lettick Crotzer says:

    I have been a yoga teacher for 38 years. Today, I got an email from a
    student who said he was scared now about doing yoga after reading the NY
    Times article by William J. Broad, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.” This was
    quite upsetting to me, as a teacher and long-time proponent of yoga.
    Therefore, I feel it is important to rebut a few of the points made in the

    Since yoga has boomed in popularity in the United States, the negative
    results are inevitable, as well as the positive benefits. The marketing of
    yoga is geared to the 20-30 somethings with wonderful, healthy and athletic
    bodies. But the reality is that with this mass marketing, the result is that
    the typical yoga student usually is not that youthful body, since it is not
    the typical American body. Instead, classes are full of overweight people,
    with complaints such as backaches, stiff joints, fatigue, and most commonly,
    stress. However, the popular mainstream yoga classes often do not address
    this reality. Before going further, I must clarify that there are many
    fantastic, knowledgeable, educated yoga teachers for whom my criticisms will
    not apply and I hope I am writing on their behalf as representing quality

    The injuries that were mentioned in the article, especially in the neck and
    spine, were not the result of the yoga itself, but of poor teaching and of
    students who have stopped paying attention to and responsibility for their
    own bodies. As with other popular exercise trends, injuries happen the more
    you use your body, especially in new and different movements. Aerobics,
    Pilates, jogging, all have increased injuries along with the increased
    number of practitioners, and the quality of the teaching often drops when
    the numbers go up. So, it’s not just in yoga that this happens.

    It is disappointing to note that many yoga classes are now competitive, and
    as a result, teachers and yoga schools have emerged with gimmicks and new
    names to attract more students. Sometime, it appears, that the heart of yoga
    has gotten lost. The bottom line is that it isn’t the yoga that is “bad” or
    dangerous. It’s the quality of the teaching! The literal meaning of yoga is
    “to join” and that by joining body awareness with education and inner
    observation (body/mind/spirit), the student can learn about his/her own
    body, and learn movements and poses that can help them live and feel more
    comfortable in that body. Simple, individual, noncompetitive, but elusive
    for many. For some, the best yoga is that of letting go, stress reduction,
    breathing and relaxation techniques. But Type A go-getters can find it
    difficult to recognize that the burn and push and drive they have been
    applauded for in other athletics is not a benefit in their yoga practice.
    Hence, injuries.

    The headstand and shoulderstand poses, for example, which are called the
    “king and queen” of yoga postures, can be extremely dangerous for many
    unstable cervical spines, yet they are often included in general yoga
    classes. Some classes now have 50-100 students so the teacher cannot
    possibly be able to observe each student. Therefore, what needs to happen is
    a change in yoga teacher education. The teacher needs to revise the classes
    for the students who are present. Yet many teachers are taught “routines”
    and they lead the classes through these instead of teaching them the
    foundations on which to create routines for their own needs.

    The International Association of Yoga Therapists is working with many
    schools of yoga to create standards that might help reduce injuries and
    instead prevent or improve them. But, these are mainly for teachers who want
    to also be called “yoga therapists”. This would often be one-on-one guidance
    that would in itself already imply fewer incidences of injury because of the
    individual observation.

    So, it becomes the responsibility of the student to check the background of
    their yoga teacher. What type of training do they have? How many years have
    they been teaching? What style of yoga are they offering (intense-aerobic,
    gentle, therapeutic, and so on.) What type do they want or need to do? Most
    often, students go to the classes nearest their home or work place, or at
    their gym, regardless of type of class offered. That might need to change.
    It’s more important to find a qualified teacher who can provide the type of
    class that fits the student’s needs, and if one is not nearby, then it might
    be best to wait until a more appropriate class is available.

    Yoga can and should be noncompetitive, individualized with adaptations, can
    improve posture, alignment and balance, can build strength and improve
    flexibility, and can help reduce stress. But the teacher needs to be
    qualified and the student needs to be responsible. So, it’s not yoga that
    can wreck your body, it’s human nature and you!

    BIO: I have been a yoga teacher for 38 years, am the author of “Yoga for
    Fibromyalgia: Move, Breathe & Relax to Improve Your Quality of Life”
    (Rodmell Press, 2008) and two yoga DVDs: “Yoga for Arthritis” (made in
    partnership with the Arthritis Foundation, and “Yoga for MS and Related
    Conditions.”) I also am the Founder/Executive Director of Enhancement, Inc, a nonprofit that works with breast cancer survivors, and am presently working on my next book, “The Breast Cancer Survivor’s Yoga Handbook”.
    Besides those with arthritis, MS, and breast cancer, I have worked with
    people who have special needs, including at-risk youth, seniors, and so on.
    This is my response to the William Broad article. Although his points are well made, I feel that many potential
    yoga students might be put off and made fearful of yoga as a result, which
    would be unfortunate.

  6. Avatar Charlotte says:

    Hi Shoosh ~ So great to hear from you and to read your thoughts on this. You are absolutely right. The fact that we have shoehorned asana practice into our Western ideas of exercise is at the root of the injury issue.

    I was so surprised that the article focused so much on the Iyengar system which in my opinion is focused far more on intelligent alignment, therapeutics and safety than most of what is being taught today. While I know people have been injured in Iyengar-based classes, Iyengar’s system is far more meticulous about practicing safely.

    I was disappointed that the article didn’t focus on the problems you state above–the proliferation of inexperienced teachers in huge classes that would be unmanageable even to an experienced teacher. In the rush to jump onto the yoga bandwagon, quickie trainings have sprouted up everywhere. 200 hours–even 500 hours–barely scratches the surface of such a vast and profound system. The result is teachers who, as you say, learn a routine or two that are designed to be give a good workout–for fit 20- and 30-something bodies. Add the distraction of loud music and overcrowding and it’s not surprising that people are getting injured.

    A massage therapist friend told me that she attended a beginning class at a popular studio. The very young teacher had the class of more than 40 people go into headstand in the middle of the room–no consideration of the ratio between upper arm length and the length of the area from the shoulders to the top of the head. She said people were tumbling all over the place and knocking each other over. When people fell, the teacher ordered them to go right back into headstand. My friend sat on the sidelines, completely stupefied. I told her she should have taken a stack of her cards into the class so she could help people deal with all the injuries that likely happened that day.

    It is absolutely the responsibility of students to check the credentials and experience of their teachers. As I’m sure you know, as a practitioner of 38 years, the ability to look at a body and see what’s really going on doesn’t come in a matter of months. It’s a continuous learning process that takes years of committed practice and teaching to understand.

    Thanks so much for weighing in here. Your response to the article is well-informed and wise.

  7. Avatar susan says:

    Dear Charlotte and Shoosh,
    Both of you wrote beautiful replys…they rang of genuine truth and concern. I had great teachers. My class was small, quiet, with friends that were 50ish. The asanas were not competitive…they were all about finding a peace within us. I had no idea I was overstretching that morning. It seemed balanced…until it didn’t. It just happened.
    Thank you for your honesty and your knowledge.
    Go gently,

    • Avatar Charlotte says:

      Thanks so much for your responses, Susan. Again, I’m so sorry about what happened to you. The tricky thing is that sometimes we don’t know we’ve overstretched until after it’s too late. Sometimes the injury was waiting to happen and a relatively small thing can push it over the edge. Every instance is different, I think. I’m a very careful practitioner, but at 56 some of the things that used to be easy for me no longer seem appropriate. I’m learning about containing my practice now.

  8. Avatar yoga peach says:

    Charlotte, I completely appreciate your response to the article. Well done. Namaste.

    • Avatar Charlotte says:

      Thanks, Keli ~ There’s so much more to discuss about this issue, I think. While I was disappointed with what I felt was sloppy research in the NYT article, I do feel that it’s really great that it has opened the floodgates for a widespread conversation about this. It is an important issue, one that I hope that the yoga community can come together on to start looking for a solution.

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