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How Poor Analysis Can Wreck Your Yoga

posted by sheetal
I’d like to thank the The New York Times for continuing to fuel the relevancy of the Hindu American Foundation’s Take Back Yoga campaign.  The latest piece in the Times Magazine, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” by William Broad, just adds more fodder to the campaign.  Broad’s latest has naturally upset many in the yoga community – it’s a rather silly, one-sided piece that highlights a handful of people who have suffered injuries due to their yoga practice.  The male college student sitting on his heels in vajrasana “for hours a day, chanting for world peace” is hardly the typical profile of an everyday yoga practitioner.  It’s also rather curious that Broad had to go back as far as 1973 to find a healthy, 28-year-old woman who suffered a stroke due to backbending.  Admittedly, Broad agrees these are seemingly rare, but goes on to note that yoga-related injuries have been increasingly since 2000.  Pardon my immediate reaction, but isn’t that obvious?  As with any activity that requires physical exertion, it is only logical that as it becomes more popular, the number practitioners will increase, as will the number of injuries.  ”How Zumba Can Wreck Your Body,” anyone?

Moreover, Broad draws his conclusions from studies that were individual case reports which, according to the physicans at HAF, carry the stamp of least academic legitimacy and are effectively, tantamount to anecdotes.  And while several systematic, randomized studies have demonstrated the health benefits of yoga, no large, matched cohort or epidemiological study has ever revealed the dangers, making me yet again wonder why his piece received so much space in the magazine.

But, putting aside the absurdity of Broad’s very narrow base of examples, there are two larger issues which his piece touches upon.  The first is essentially the premise of the Take Back Yoga campaign: Yoga is not a purely physical exercise, and to view it as such is the crux of the problem.  Asana is an important component of yoga, one with countless benefits, and in today’s body-image obsessed world, it is THE limb that has opened up the world of yoga to millions.  But asana alone is not yoga, and as Glenn Black comments in the piece, “Asana is not a cure-all.”  He is absolutely correct, and I commend his usage of the word “asana” instead of “yoga.”  Asana is posture.  Yoga, on the other hand, is a holistic practice rooted in Hindu philosophy that reaches far beyond the 90 minutes spent on a mat.  As we at HAF have continuously said, “Yoga is a combination of both physical and spiritual exercises, entails mastery over the body, mind and emotional self, and transcendence of desire.”  The goal of yoga is not physical – it is inner peace and ultimately, the attainment of liberation from worldly suffering, or moksha.

The purpose of asana is to train and discipline the body to be able to sit in meditation for extended periods of time.  The mental state in which a person approaches their yoga mat is as important as their physical state.  What and how much a person eats and drinks, what she sees and thinks, how one acts in her life outside of the studio – all of these are variables that cannot be ignored in a holistic practice.  Even a quick perusal of the famous Yoga Sutras by Sage Patanjali will demonstrate the importance of actions, behavior, and thoughts outside of the yoga studio.  Yoga encompasses concepts such as non-violence, truthfulness, cleanliness (both physical and mental), contentment with oneself, and moderation of diet.  Attempts, such as Broad’s, to analyze asana and its effects in isolation of a practitioner’s lifestyle cannot be taken as a serious study on yoga.  A dishonest and hurtful person may be able to twist, contort, and bend into countless asanas, but that doesn’t make him a yogi – it just makes him flexible.

The second problem, which Broad explicitly covers in his interview with Black, is the surge of yoga teachers who are not qualified to teach and are thus, prone to pushing their students too far, leading to injuries.  When I began learning yoga, it was one-on-one with an amazing teacher, Holbrook Newman, who had years of experience and was adamant that I learn the basics before trying anything complicated.  She was particular about my alignment in even the most basics of asanas and careful about how she taught me more advanced asanas, like headstand.

While everyone does not have the luxury of having one-on-one sessions to introduce them to yoga, there wonderful alternatives, like the studio I currently frequent, Ashtanga Yoga New York (AYNY) run by Eddie Stern. There, yoga is taught in traditional manner and new students, who receive personalized attention, are taught the basics before they are allowed to learn more.  Despite having practiced for a few years, I was out of class (which was like an one-on-one session with Eddie) in less than 30 minutes the first three or four times I went to AYNY.  There was no headstand, shoulder stand, nor backbending…and there was no injury.

Contrast that to some of the “Level 1” and “Beginner” classes I have attended over the years at various studios.  Students who could barely manage downward dog were attempting headstands and wheel pose in class.  In a class of 20 or 30, with only one teacher, that is a recipe for disaster.  To compound the issue, in an effort to not exclude anyone (or perhaps make as much money as possible, depending upon the studio), its appears that the majority of yoga classes are “open to all levels” leaving the decision of which asanas to attempt and how far to push the body up to the students.  As one of the newer students at AYNY, I know the feeling of practicing next to someone who has been attending class for six, seven, or eight years.  It’s incredibly awe-inspiring and intimidating at the same time.  It can be hard not to gawk and think to myself, “Yes, I can do that too.”   I generally come back to my senses and to my own practice thanks to all the Take Back Yoga efforts I’ve been involved with at HAF.  And then there is also Eddie hovering over me saying, “No more. You’re done for the day.”  And there’s no arguing with that.



  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment al

    thanks for this. As a fellow ashtangi, its certainly one of the most sensible responses to the NYT piece that I have read.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Shashi Ayer

    The benefits of Yoga outweigh the risks if done correctly under proper guidance. Like any exercise program consult your physician before embarking on the Yoga program. For example a person who has glaucoma should not do Shirshana (headstands).

  • Pingback: If you only read one response to the New York Times’ ‘How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body’ piece… | YogaRose.net

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment SS

    I think the NYT article is spot on. I am so glad to see someone hit the nail on the head. Please note I am from India (now in the US) have been practising yoga since I was a little child. Have seen my grandpa & my great grandma practice it daily.

    To quote the author – “And while several systematic, randomized studies have demonstrated the health benefits of yoga, no large, matched cohort or epidemiological study has ever revealed the dangers..”

    Precisely so because, people get too emotional & fight back the moment someone points out the risks & no real scientific study ever happens. There are real risks. However most yoga teachers are brainwashed & continue to brainwash others into vehemently supporting the practice & refusing to accept even the slightest negative comment with an open mind!

    I really hope that this article encourages the scientific community to study the risks with a true “scientific temper” & also eventually help regulate the numerous yoga teachers who have no real clue about whats happening inside. They attribute every discomfort to “release of toxins”! God knows what is being damaged in that pretext.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment vidya

    I agree. This article in Times is so biased. I have had back injuries and yoga definitely has helped me manage my pain and strengthen muscles and I continue to do it. They are not mentioning all the examples where people have healed from injuries by practicing yoga.

    There’s another good blog countering this article — http://blogs.yogajournal.com/doctorsorder/2012/01/10/yoga-injuries-the-bigger-picture/

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Sheetal Bedi

    Yoga does not wreck the body…poorly-trained teachers who neither understand nor can teach the value of doing each Asna with the precision required to achieve wholistic benefit is the primary reason why people are getting hurt. I have practised Yoga for more than two decades and have experienced significant benefit at the physical, spritual and mental levels.

    The most important thing to realize is that Yoga is not a competitive art to see who can best contort their bodies. HAF should be congratulated on a well-articulated response to the NYT article.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Bhavani Nirmal

    As one trained by Kaivalyadham of Pune, I am really distressed by such unscientific comments and I am surprised that New York Time should have published it. I know that several Yoga studios have mushroomed and they are at times manned by untrained or half baked yoga instructors. Yoga is not just a physical excersise regimen but a philosphical system that teaches us control of our mind and body to put us on a path of spiritual progress. I am glad HAF has responded to the NYT artcle. I congratulate them for the same.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Renu malhotra

    Anything can wreck our American bodies. It is not the practice per say but our desire to excel and make it competitive. Examine any thing and we can find this,’ Temperament’ of competition. Diets but very fat people, lots of make up but bad skin, lots of medicines but more and more sick persons. Even yogurt which was unknown to our country 40/50 years ago and had been eaten in many countries for few thousand years has been made into a relatively unhealthy item! We want things our way so the whole experience of the past centuries has to be given up and restarted with items not recognized anymore.

  • http://www.hafsite.org/beliefnet_poor_analysis_can_wreck_your_yoga Mihir Meghani

    Nicely written. The NYT was poor – yoga is not more dangerous than any other physical activity but must be done properly. The anecdotal stories should not have a place in a top paper like the NYT.

  • http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/undergod/2010/04/shukla_and_chopra_the_great_yoga_debate.html Prahalad Appaji

    OK, I am not going to sugar coat this at all. All the silly excuses against Yoga are just a cover for anti-Hindu­ism propaganda­. The entire church hierarchy is afraid that they will lose their flock who are conditione­d to Dogma (to a better value system called Dharma where plurality, inclusivity, tolerance, mutual respect and understanding are hallmarks)

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Sushma Sahajpal

    Splendid rebuttal by Sheetal Shah. My favourite line:”A dishonest and hurtful person may be able to twist, contort, and bend into countless asanas, but that doesn’t make him a yogi – it just makes him flexible”.

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