Is There Danger in my Downward Dog?

By Katie Andrews

In January, The New York Times Magazine published, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body,” a report on the shocking ways you could damage your body from practicing yoga. The author, William Broad, begins the article with his own injury story: “While doing the extended-side-angle pose, a posture hailed as a cure for many diseases, my back gave way. With it went my belief, naïve in retrospect, that yoga was a source only of healing and never harm.”

Broad continues the article by detailing his interaction with Glenn Black, a 30-year yoga instructor-to-the-stars. Black controversially believes that “the vast majority of people” should give up yoga altogether “because it is too likely to cause harm.” Black continues by describing the consequences of yoga injuries, from difficulty walking to popped ribs. You would think he and Broad were describing injuries sustained from Ultimate Fighting, not the peaceful practice of yoga.

As the listing of injuries continued, so did my level of fear. The “sickening pop” of a hamstring muscle, the inability to walk following a headstand, and finally a stroke sustained by a 28 year-old woman, which required a year of physical therapy, were each more cringe-inducing than the last. Surely the release felt from a spinal twist is not worth these risks.

And yet recent research has associated the outcomes of yoga practice with benefits for breast cancer survivors, people with hypertension, and those suffering from lower back pain. As a spin instructor, I find that the stretch my legs experience through yoga cannot be matched by any other activity.

So which category does yoga fall into? A good-for-you practice or an inherently risky one? The ridiculous postures photographed above (each incorrectly modeled by members of the Broadway cast of “Godspell”) help to provide an answer to that question: it’s a little bit of both. Yoga, when practiced properly and with careful instruction, can be beneficial for the mind and body. But, if you let your ego take control, or force a pose that your body isn’t ready for, prepare to feel the pain. Each injury outlined in the article followed an advanced position the yogi had “pushed himself” into or held for an excessively long time.

A college student, who was unable to climb stairs after “intensifying” his practice, sustained an injury so traumatic that it received its own clinical term: “yoga foot drop.” While sitting in vajrasana, he cut off circulation between his lower back and legs. It turns out he was sitting in the position for hours a day, chanting for world peace. Even in yoga, nothing exceeds like excess.

Black finally reaches this message of balance in the end of the article: “if you do [yoga] with ego or obsession, you’ll end up causing problems.” What he doesn’t mention, however, is that you can do it without ego or obsession and see benefits.

If you were considering trying yoga for the first time, don’t let the article deter you.

Follow these tips for a safe and beneficial practice:

  • Check your ego at the door. Remember that yoga, like any other form of exercise, should be performed at an individual level. Don’t push yourself into a pose because your neighbor is doing it. There are some poses that may never be right for certain individuals. Allow your mind to be guided by your body, not the other way around.
  • Don’t be afraid to be the new guy! Introduce yourself to your instructor if it is your first time, and let her know if you have any injuries or limitations. Also, tell her if you’re open to “adjustments” in your positioning during class – this will give her the green light to help move your body into proper positioning (your choice!).
  • Choose a studio and class that fits your style. Some studios are heated, some focus on a longer savasana, some will pack the room, and others limit classes to 20 people. Find the style that works best for you. It may take some “studio shopping” at first, but being comfortable will pay off in the long run.
  • Just because you aren’t breaking the same sweat that you get in a boot camp class or on a 5-mile run doesn’t mean your body isn’t working. Expect to feel sore after a yoga class! Even if you don’t break a sweat at all, this is a form of exercise for your body. Remember to allow for recovery and don’t push too hard when you’re starting out.

The best way to start practicing yoga? Learn from a trained professional. At Sadhana Yoga in Boston’s South End (2nd location in Everett, MA) owner Glen Cunningham teaches a “Fundamentals Class,” designed to emphasize “all of the basic skills necessary to support a student in creating a safe, challenging, enjoyable and ‘successful’ classroom experience.” Though I have never taken the Fundamentals Class, I enjoy the daily practice at Sadhana, which provides a relaxing, supportive, and non-competitive environment for my yoga style.

While almost every sport or form of exercise comes with its own set of safety rules and guidelines, these should not deter us from learning how to properly challenge ourselves with physical activity. Just as you would strap on a helmet before riding your bike or stay out of the dangerous currents while surfing, take care when practicing yoga and remember to work within your own physical limits. But don’t hang up your mat for fear of a stroke. If you use your head, the practice of yoga can help you take care of the rest of your body parts.

*Photo Source 1; photo source 2

Katie Andrews is a 2nd year Nutrition Communications student finishing her last semester at the Friedman School. An avid blogger, future registered dietitian, and commenter on all controversial things nutrition, you can find her at www.theaspiringrd.com,

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