Bikram Tysons Blog

Friday, January 13, 2012

Can Yoga Do Harm?

After a recent New York Times article on the dangers of yoga, a lot of you have asked, "Can I get hurt doing yoga?"  The simple answer to this question is, yes, absolutely.  Can you get hurt lifting weights at the gym?  Yes, absolutely.  Can you get hurt playing tennis?  Yes, absolutely.  Can you get hurt getting out of bed in the morning?  Yes, absolutely.  Any type of physical activity brings with it the possibility of injury -- that is a simple fact and a risk most of us are willing to take given the manifold benefits of exercise.  However, for those of you who were disconcerted by the article, I would like to respond to a few of the author's particular points from the perspective of a Bikram yoga practice and then give a few tips to keep your practice as safe and beneficial as possible.

Many of the postures the author takes particular issue with, such as headstand or shoulderstand, are inversions that put significant weight on the cervical vertebrae.  We do not do these postures in Bikram yoga because they may not be appropriate for beginning students.  The closest posture we do to an inversion with weight on the neck is Rabbit Pose.  However, the hands firmly grip the heels, thus taking body weight and undue pressure off of the neck.  Properly done, no more than 20% of the student's body weight ends up on the neck in this posture.

The author makes the valid point that yoga evolved in an Eastern culture in which people sit cross legged or squat down instead of sitting at desks and in cars all day like we do here.  Consequently, many yoga poses assume very open hips and knees that many Westerners lack.  As such, lotus posture, for example, may be beyond the range of motion many Western yoga students have.  However, in Bikram yoga, the postures do not put excessive strain on the knees.  Tree Pose requires one leg be put in half lotus, but the extent to which the knee is pushed back is up to the student's level of flexibility.  Also, Fixed Firm Pose does stretch the knees, but students are given the option to simply kneel if that is as far as their body will allow them.

Specific to our practice, the author notes the heat of Bikram yoga can lead to overstretching of muscles.  I argue the contrary; the heat of Bikram yoga allows the muscles (especially for people lacking in natural flexibility) to stretch safely and more deeply than they would in a cold room.  Anyone who has played sports knows the importance of doing warm up exercises first to prepare the body for what's to come and to mitigate the chance of injury.  The heat in Bikram yoga works in a simlar way to warm the body and loosen the muscles, providing for a safer practice.  Overstretching can certainly happen in any environment, but that is likely due to a lack of awareness on the part of the individual practioner.

Additionally, the author notes many injuries arise from teachers physically pushing students into postures beyond where the student is ready to go.  For this reason, our teachers do not give physical adjustments in class.

Finally, the author gives some very troubling anecdotes of injuries suffered by yoga practitioners and states that hospital emergency room visits due to yoga injuries numbered 46 annually in 2002.  What he neglects to mention is that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "during July 2000-June 2001 an estimated 4.3 million nonfatal sports and recreation-related injuries were treated in US hospital emergency rooms.   If yoga were included in that figure, it would have accounted for approximately .00001% of all injuries.  A prevalent danger to be avoided?  Hardly.

Ultimately, the author states that the biggest danger in yoga is ego and lack of awareness during practice.  And, this is always a good lesson to learn, even if it took a provocative article that often overreaches to bring it to the forefront.  If we are unaware of what we are doing and push our bodies beyond where they are ready to go, even the fittest and most flexible among us can cause ourselves harm.  So before you compare yourself to the yogi next to you who has been practicing for 5 years, remember that this is meant to be a healing practice in which you simply do as much as your body can.  It's not a competition for perfection; yoga is meant to be a daily practice in which we use the physical body to access relaxation and greater awareness.  So bring that awareness to your mat every day, and come to simply try, breathe, and be.  Will you find healing and peace?  Yes, absolutely.

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