MONTREAL (The Gazette) – Yoga has a reputation for curing what ails you, from sore backs to sore wrists and even the occasional achy knee. If you attend enough yoga classes, you’re bound to meet devotees who swear it has changed their life for the better.
What you won’t find in those classes are people for whom yoga has done more harm than healing.
“Yoga can wreck your body if you’re not careful,” New York Times senior science writer William Broad said in an interview for the Larchmont-Mamaroneck Patch, a web-based community paper.
To suggest that yoga isn’t the all-healing practice that we’ve been led to believe isn’t a popular stance. Yet that’s exactly what Broad has done in a recently published book, The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards (Simon & Schuster, $29.99).
Broad quotes studies, provides statistics and offers up comments and personal narratives from yoga instructors and practitioners, all of which point to a dangerous side of yoga that few have explored. Injuries including pulled and torn muscles, premature degeneration of the joints and even a few strokes are examples of yoga’s dark side.
Broad blames some of these injuries on an industry-wide absence of guidelines for instructor certification and a failure of yogis to agree upon which postures and specific practices are considered high risk for the average population.
Yoga instructor certifications are all over the map in terms of what constitutes adequate training, and many cover only a specific type of practice. There’s also a lack of consistency in how long it takes to become certified, with training periods running anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of years. All of which leaves the average consumer with very little knowledge about what to look for when shopping around for an instructor who knows the trade.
Yoga purists often defend the lack of industry standards by referencing its history, which dates back thousands of years. Why regulate anything that has been so popular for so long? Yet today’s yoga is a far cry from the individual or small-group practices taught by master yogis who learned their craft through lengthy apprenticeships under elders who in turn learned from their elders.
Nowadays, yoga appeals to the masses by filling rooms to capacity with people of all ages and abilities. “Injuries happen more often in large classes, where the instructor can’t give students the attention they need,” said Xanthi Gazetis, an osteopath at Concordia Physio Sport. “They also occur when people with poor flexibility try too hard to keep up with the instructor.”
Instructors who demonstrate little knowledge of or respect for a practice based on the synergy of mind, body and spirit don’t help, either.
David Snively, a popular Montreal personal trainer and group fitness leader, knows all about what happens when yoga goes wrong. He took a power yoga class with one of Montreal’s premier instructors, who popped Snively’s shoulder out of the socket while trying to manipulate him into a challenging pose.
“It scared the crap out of me,” said Snively, who was a seven-time Canadian champion diver and member of the 1980 Olympic team.
Another change in yoga’s approach is that it has become a significant revenue stream for club owners. Fitness clubs and private yoga studios are constantly re-jigging the practice to attract a wider market share that incorporates corporate executives, stay-at-home moms, kids, babies and the average office drone. This boom in yoga styles has made it increasingly confusing for consumers trying to choose a class that matches their goals, experience and abilities.
And then there’s the competitive nature of today’s yoga, which is a far cry from the egoless practice of its origins. Fitness fanatics who see the execution of difficult poses as a measure of their physical ability are more at risk of being injured than those seeking inner peace and physiological improvement.
Does that make today’s yoga less worthy than the original? I don’t think so. What it does mean is that we have to approach yoga like any other service, and evaluate it based on its ability to deliver on its promises. So until there is some form of industry-wide regulation regarding what constitutes a qualified instructor and what kind of poses and practices are considered high risk, consumers shouldn’t assume that all yoga is safe.
“I completely trusted the instructor,” said Snively, who never had his shoulder pop out before or after his yoga experience. “I put my body in his hands.”
In fact, the same principles that apply to any other physical activity also apply to yoga. If it hurts, stop. If you’re in more pain after the class than before the class, talk to the instructor and find out what you can do to modify the practice. And if the instruction offered is unprofessional or if your instructor is unwilling or unable to modify the poses to make the practice more comfortable, find another class or another instructor.
Yoga isn’t a medicinal practice designed to heal. It’s a workout like any other, with its own set of positives and negatives. So go ahead and downward dog to your heart’s content. Just make sure you understand that when it comes to yoga, it’s buyer beware.