In defense of the NY Times article on yoga wrecking your body

I agree 100% with all the folks — Bobbie included — who are reacting with combinations of disdain and orneriness to the New York Times magazine piece on how yoga can wreck your body.

I share the common response: No $#!+.

But I do understand where the writer — a longtime and well-respected New York Times science writer — is coming from, and I think we all shouldn’t miss that important, central point. Even if the point seems to be lost in a lot of silly anecdotal stories of people doing incredibly stupid things in their yoga.

That point: Yoga often does only talk about all the benefits — better health, longer life! — without acknowledging that there can be risks.

But, as Bobbie put it, when you get to a certain point with yoga, it becomes a serious athletic endeavor. And even a little toe into the yoga pool can be dangerous. After all, if you don’t know what you’re doing and go out on the “bunny slope” on a pair of skies, you could end up with a torn knee or shoulder or broken leg.

But, the thing is, no one would really be surprised. Skiing, surfing, rock climbing, pick-up basketball, Sunday soccer league — all those activities come with the implicit realization that you could get hurt. (Maybe even are likely to at some point.) But that doesn’t stop people.

Yoga is no different.

Of course, we’re talking about yoga as asana here. Imagine these two scenarios:

  1. You are out with a bunch of friends and they ask you what’s new. “Oh, I’ve taken up yoga,” you answer. The discussion then moves to its various benefits, whether you “feel more grounded,” who has tried meditation and, invariably, what the best yoga pants are.
  2. You are out with a bunch of friends and they ask you what’s new. “Oh, I’ve started doing gymnastics.” The discussion goes immediately to: “Holy crap! Aren’t you worried about getting hurt?” “What in the world are you thinking?”

Yoga — or, perhaps I’m showing my bias, Ashtanga — is a lot like gymnastics. It is aggressive. It is difficult. It requires a lot of your body.

The thing is, “yoga” as it is seen in the West, I think, is something where candles are lit, new age music is cranked up (I’m kidding, it is played softly) and people sit in a circle doing gentle stretching. That image can work against yoga, against us. It is clearly what the Times writer — and remember, this piece is part of a whole book — is targeting.

But we Ashtangis know better. Who hasn’t heard some version of this quotation from Guruji: “Sometimes, walk funny six months,” said in reference to a particularly tough Badha Konasana adjustment?

Ashtanga, and a lot of asana yoga, isn’t all gentleness and light. There is pain, effort and extremity to get through as part of the third limb of Patanjali’s eight. It isn’t a cake walk. (Is “cake walk” a Fifth Series pose? I can’t remember.)

Now, there are certainly many other problems with yoga that is leading to articles such as this one. Eddie Stern hits many, if not most of them. (Of particular note is his take on the 200-hour teacher training.) Those all are making matters much, much worse. Stupid people doing stupid things also is an obvious problem.

But I don’t think the yoga community is doing itself any favors by ignoring that yoga can do harm. Perhaps, again as Stern notes, admitting the risks would run counter to the business side of yoga. You don’t want people to stop coming in the door. But if Broad’s article and book suggest any sort of real reaction against yoga (not even mentioning the whole religion angle), then the yoga community should not ignore what might be coming.

Being realistic about things could be a better route. A better message than “do yoga, be healthy” might be: “Yoga: some risk, huge reward.” (We’ve talked plenty at this blog about all those rewards. The are physical, mental, emotional, spiritual.)

Anyway, that could be a lesson to glean from the Times article. And, for that reason, here’s this gentle defense of it.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

6 thoughts on “In defense of the NY Times article on yoga wrecking your body”

  1. I would also like to point out that William J. Broad wrote a book titled The Science of Yoga The Risks and The Rewards. I have not read the book but you can decide for yourself. He is much more positive about the benefits of yoga in the video promoting the book. Apparently Mr. Broad practiced yoga since the 70’s. I have to say i’m astounded by how subjective the new york times article is after reading it for the 3rd time. The article is written with an undertone of vengeance. There was no comparisons between Yoga injuries and any other physical activity. Not only was there no comparisons Mr. Broad doesn’t mention any statistics. There was only a mention of about 10 yoga related injuries and about 10 doctors claiming certain moves had injured certain patients. So if there are 20 million people practicing yoga in North America and he can only come up with a few documented cases and the rest being wild wide ranging generalizations I would have to come to the conclusion that Yoga is safe and like any other physical activity caution must be taken by the individual participating. I think what Mr. Broad is really trying to say is, “I could have been a Yogi!” I really do believe there should have been comparisons to other physical activities and a mention of how many people are believed to practice yoga today. Here’s the link. This is true sensationalism at it’s finest and further more Mr. Broad is a science writer whom obviously does not utilize any scientific method or quote from journals or anything scientific. The article is based wholly on subjectiv, anecdotal and biased evidence”

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