Is Yoga Bad for You?

February 1st, 2012 by Andrea Bennett

A new debate has taken hold over yoga’s health benefits, or lack thereof.

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

Lately I’ve been feeling very virtuous, which I believe has something to do with my having taken up yoga practice. I have an increasing awareness of posture and form; I’m realizing an urge to wear yoga clothing outside of the studio; I’m even drinking green juices in public. It feels great.

That is, it felt great until I read a recent article in The New York Times – “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.” It feels like every time I discover something to be smug about, I quickly learn that I’m ruining myself. So with my green-juiced smirk wiped from my face, I sat down to see what the response has been to this latest word on yoga.

Here’s a quick summary of the Times article: William J. Broad examines how people in both the medical and yoga communities believe that a number of common yoga poses are risky. For example, Indian practitioners of yoga typically squatted and sat cross-legged in daily life, and yoga poses, or asanas, were an outgrowth of these postures. But the people who are jumping into yoga now are “urbanites who sit in chairs all day […] and strain to twist themselves into ever-more-difficult postures despite their lack of flexibility and other physical problems."
Broad interviewed Glenn Black, a yoga teacher practicing for more than four decades based out of Rhinebeck, NY. Black warned of the damage yoga can do if not practiced carefully. Black’s classes emphasize holding only a few simple poses – no handstands, no shoulder stands – and he told Broad that “awareness is more important than rushing through a series of postures just to say you’d done them.” Even with Black’s recommendation, Broad argued that the vast majority of people should give up yoga altogether: “It’s simply too likely to cause harm.”

As you may imagine, yoga enthusiasts everywhere are responding with fervor to Broad’s article. Paul Raeburn at MIT’s Knight Science Journalism Tracker asserted that the NYT was “both obsessed [with] and confused” by yoga – having written on the topic five times in one week in 2010. But Raeburn calls out this most recent piece as unfair and unbalanced. He argues that the story focuses too heavily on yoga’s risks, leading him to “wonder if some Times magazine editor who thinks yoga is a superstition or faded fashion trend wants to rid the world of this scourge – and do so by terrifying Times readers.”

Raeburn is not alone in his outrage. lanna Kaivalya, originator of the Kaivalya Yoga Method, ran her own response in the Huffington Post. “Can yoga wreck your body? Absolutely! It can also save your life,” she wrote. She also argued that the Western opinion of injuries is that they’re “the absolute worst thing in the world,” when in fact they’re a natural byproduct of living life. Bottom line, Kaivalya says, is that students should study with a qualified teacher who has seen thousands of bodies and worked with numerous injuries.

Where do you stand on the yoga debate? Do you think the reporting in the Times was biased – or a fair warning to people who haven’t properly researched the practice?