Yoga can cause injury? Yes, so here’s how to be careful

Note: Our fellow Mt. Shasta-ite, Jennifer Pilotti — who has provided us guest posts twice now (one and two) — kindly agreed to send her expert thoughts on the recent New York Times piece on yoga.

Expert, you ask? Why, yes.  Jennifer has a degree in exercise physiology and is a Health Fitness Instructor via the American College of Sports Medicine. You can find out more about her here.


The New York Times piece on “How Yoga can Wreck Your Body” has elicited a number of responses from the blog world, some of which are defensive, some point out the fact risk exists in any physical activity, and others say yes, yoga might cause injury but I am going to do it anyway.

Injury happens.  It doesn’t discriminate based on age, fitness level, gender, or race.  It creeps up at inopportune times, usually when you are feeling your fittest, most flexible, most committed to your practice.  It teaches you patience, mindfulness, and caution.  And while you are never quite sure when it is going to happen, certain precautions can be taken to reduce the risk.

While injuries seem unpredictable, there are definitely times when they are more likely to strike, such as if you are:

1)     Inexperienced.  The first time you attempt yoga, regardless of what kind of yoga you try or shape you are in, it will probably be hard.  Very hard.  You will be asking your body to do things it doesn’t normally do, and if you try to do too much, too soon, your body will let you know.

2)     Using bad mechanics.  If you do something wrong, over and over again, eventually something’s going to give.  It is your responsibility as a student to listen to the teacher’s cueing, make adjustments, and listen to how your body feels.  If the teacher is not giving proper cueing/adjustments/modification, then you have:

3)     Bad teaching.  Some teachers do not have sufficient knowledge of the human body to be teaching yoga.  They cannot identify faulty biomechanics, they don’t know how to make adjustments for people with pre-existing injuries, and they aren’t good at listening to students’ concerns.  If a teacher doesn’t resonate with you, or you think the teacher doesn’t have the ability to help you without hurting you, find another teacher.

4)     Fatigued.  Athletes are most likely to get injured at the end of the season and skiers are most likely to crash at the end of a ski day.  If it is your 6th day in a row of practice, be extra mindful and I would suggest avoiding new postures.

5)     Stressed.  In his book on “Low Back Disorders,” Dr. Stuart McGill discusses the pencil phenomena, where someone bends over to pick up a pencil and his back “goes out.”  This happens when someone is physically stressed (just ran a 10K for the first time and is doing a full practice the next day) or emotionally stressed.  Our mental state affects our physical state and should not be ignored when performing asana.

6)     Ignoring your body.  Often people know something doesn’t feel quite right about a movement they are performing, but because they are in a class setting, they figure they should do it anyway.  Or, they push a little too far in a posture when a little voice in the back of their head is whispering, “stop, this is going to hurt if you keep going.”

The final thing that causes injury is inactivity.  While the New York Times piece was effective at increasing public awareness of the “dangers” of yoga, it neglected to point out the more pressing dangers of inactivity and the obesity epidemic.  It is estimated that 60-80% of the U.S. adult population will experience an episode of low back pain in their lives (Dunsford, Kumar, and Clarke, 2011).  Two-thirds of all U.S. adults are overweight, and 33% report being completely sedentary (Novak and Brownell, 2011).  Health risks associated with obesity and inactivity include osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, low back pain, upper and lower crossed syndrome, and joint pain..  It is always important to weigh the risks versus the rewards when doing something that might cause harm; I would argue that more frequently than not, the physical benefits of yoga outweigh the potential for injury.  I am not suggesting that yoga is for everybody; however, I think yoga is accessible and safe for most people if they are willing to listen to their bodies and­ find a style and teacher that works for them.

Dunsford, A., Kumar, S., & Clarke, S., (2011).  Integrating evidence into practice: use of McKenzie-based treatment for mechanical low back pain.  Journal of Multidisciplinary Healthcare,  4, pp. 393-402.

Novak, N.L., & Brownell, K.D., (2011).  Obesity: a public health approach.  Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 34(4), pp. 895-909.


Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

2 thoughts on “Yoga can cause injury? Yes, so here’s how to be careful”

  1. Thanks, Jennifer. Very helpful. It has been pointed out that the increase in yoga-related injuries might also be due to simple numbers: More practitioners, more injuries. And your first point about inexperience is well-taken. The “industry” that has become yoga in America bears some blame. While I was standing in line at the grocery store yesterday, I was face-to-face with the current issue of Yoga Journal, which boldly (and falsely) promised me “1 POSE FOR A HEALTHY AND PAIN-FREE BACK.” Really? One pose? And all my problems are over? No wonder new practitioners get injured.


    1. Thanks, Bobbie. I agree that the industry doesn’t help. Plus, (and maybe I am biased because of my profession) I strongly feel new movement should be taught under the guidance of an experienced teacher. I have had a handful of clients attempt to learn yoga from video or magazine pullouts (like the one in yoga journal). Invariably, they end up asking me to check their form because they can tell something isn’t quite right. Conversely, I have had other clients (one of whom is an experienced practitioner) injure themselves in a class because the instructor either pushed too hard or gave them a pose that was contraindicated because of an existing condition. It is a complicated issue, and one that I don’t think will be resolved any time soon. Elephant Journal had an interesting piece a while back about yoga teaching and how students really to use a “buyer beware” approach. I don’t know if I would go that far, but students and teachers need to be held accountable.

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