Yoga- health gain or pain?
Popping ribs, strokes, death - these are not words usually associated with yoga but according to a New York Times article titled ‘How Yoga can Wreck your Body’ they only begin to describe the life- threatening dangers inherent in the practice.
“Yoga has produced waves of injuries….doctors have found that certain poses can result in brain damage that turns practitioners into cripples,” claims science writer William Broad in the 2012 article.
Broad details an incident in 1973 where a 28-year-old woman suffered a stroke whilst performing a yoga pose known as the ‘upward bow.’
He admits such cases are rare but points to statistics from a survey by the Consumer Product Safety Commission in the United States showing the number of emergency room admissions related to yoga has been on the rise since 2000.
Professor of Complementary Medicine at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT University) Marc Cohen says, “There’s a bit of sensationalism in that.”
“No matter what practice you do, people will have strokes and accidents,” but he says to attribute it to a particular practice “is a mistake.”
In 2008 Cohen and other researchers at RMIT University submitted the first ever Australian yoga survey that examined yoga as well as yoga related injuries.
The Yoga in Australia Survey, with a sample of 1056 respondents, discovered the rate of injury sustained in the past 12 months amongst respondents was 3.4%, excluding pre-existing conditions, dropping to 2.4%.
The data found that the idea of “achieving the posture” may cause injury. This was reflected in statements such as “everyone else was doing it,” suggesting that peer and internal pressure to achieve the ‘ideal’ posture caused injury and that yoga itself isn’t to blame.
Cohen supports this finding, “just to concentrate on the physical practice and to say that the physical practice can cause injury, well then you’ve lost the essence of yoga.”
Cohen accepts that yoga ‘risks’ relating to injuries, are manifested from a lack of “mindfulness” but that Broad is over-emphasising the risks.
“If you do a downward dog, how could that be risky?” Christina Morganti-Kossman, Associate Director of Basic Research at the National Trauma Research Institute, Alfred Hospital, questions.
Morganti-Kossman, practices yoga herself and describes it as “a gentle practice” and says Broad’s claims are “very strange.”
She refers to brain injuries caused by physical activity as affecting cognitive function, memory, concentration and even depression.
“If you talk about brain injuries relating to exercise you are talking about high body impact sports, like football, ice hockey, soccer…but from yoga? No way!”
In fact, according to the 2002 report from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, ‘Participation in Sport and Physical Activities’, yoga ranked 14th as the most popular physical activity with 310,000 people claiming to have participated in yoga, making it slightly more popular than Australian Rules Football with 307,900 participants.
Joel Cartuz yoga teacher at the Power Living yoga studio in Bondi Junction, Sydney agrees that yoga is a safe and popular form of physical activity.
“I have passed out before, but I was pushing myself,” Cartuz says. He adds, “I was coming from a place of competitiveness pushing myself to be better than the guy next to me, it’s that ego that can come.”
The Yoga in Australia Survey found respondents were unanimous about ‘the role of ego’ relating to yoga injuries.
Findings show “My ego made me do it” as a common reason for pushing too hard.
Cartuz says injuries are common but emphasises “it’s not the yoga… it’s people being unaware and not present in their practice.”
“That’s what injures you,” Cartuz says.
However Cartuz says there is a possibility for strokes to occur. “If people have high blood pressure and do Bikram or Power [yoga] well then that’s silly,” he says.
The survey did discover that as yoga becomes more strenuous, the likelihood of injury increases, accompanied by injury prone postures which includes: headstands, shoulder stands, lotus postures and strong forward bends.
“If you bend your head in a headstand you will have increased pressure on the brain. Of course it would not be recommended for people who suffer from high blood pressure, a brain aneurysm or elderly people,” Morganti-Kossman says.
Cohen agrees, “headstands are not for everybody” but says there are alternatives, “yoga can work well for elderly, geriatric populations as it can for young, healthy populations.”
Morganti-Kossman adds that a person who would have a stroke whilst practicing yoga would likely suffer from a medical predisposition that would be aggravated by yoga poses and that the poses themselves are not dangerous unless executed negligently.
But it’s not only students who are responsible for injuries.
According to the Yoga in Australia Survey, “overzealous teaching and inappropriate adjustments received from their teacher causes a full 10% of injuries reported.”
The overall message from Yoga Australia, an association of qualified yoga teachers, is that “people should seek well qualified teachers… and students need to understand they do have the ultimate responsibility for their well-being and need to come to Yoga without a sense of push and leave their egos at the door.”