Can Yoga Be Harmful?


“With it went my belief, naïve in retrospect, that yoga was a source only of healing and never harm.”
– William J Broad, NY Times

If you haven’t read or heard about it, the New York Times recently ran an article titled How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.  It’s far from the perfect article.  For one, it’s full of anecdotal evidence.  Second, many of the examples given of yoga causing injury consist of people doing rather extreme versions of a pose or movement.  I think the article does bring up valid questions: Can yoga cause harm?  Is it always safe for everyone?

I’ve had a couple of harsh experiences with yoga.  Once I had a teacher that thought since I looked big and strong I could do some sort of headstand.  I figured I would follow the teacher’s lead and give it a shot.  Without question I was not ready for this pose.  I left the class with a very painful shoulder.  This instructor had been teaching for years and was very highly sought after at the gym where I worked.  I was in another class where an instructor all but insisted that I move deeper into a pose and I simply couldn’t do it.  My nervous system was trying to protect me by preventing further movement into this position and she had me trying to force my way into a deeper range of motion.  Again, by the end of class, I was in a bit of pain.  This is not what I was after.

My observation is that yoga is often championed as a panacea cure-all for any number of ailments: back pain, knee pain, mental stress, possibly even digestive issues.  I can’t say everyone says this type of thing but in every gym setting where I’ve worked yoga is discussed and presented in this glowing fashion. But is yoga really any different from any other type of exercise? Might there be a few risks?

First and foremost, yoga is movement.  So is running a 100 m sprint.  Driving a golf ball is also movement.  The power lifts are movements.  Typing on a keyboard and watercolor painting?  Also movement.  Guess what: Movement can cause injury!  (By the way, try NOT moving and see how healthy you become.)  Further, yoga is a lot of very different movements.  One may be quite safe, another quite unsafe.  All parts of yoga can’t be viewed fairly as the same thing.

We can probably agree that movement is essentially necessary and usually healthy.  We can probably agree that walking is typically safe and healthy.  But what if we have a sprained ankle?  Or a damaged vestibular system such that we can’t tell which way is up?  Then even walking might be quite harmful.  Lifting weights is similarly healthy in most cases.  If we have a herniated disk or if we use bad technique then lifting may be very unhealthy.  Why would we view yoga as any different?  If we have poor kinesthetic sense then moving into any number of poses could cause pain and/or injury.

Further, we as Americans often have the view of “If a little bit is good then a BIG WHOLE LOT must be great!” More is better in other words. I’ve heard some yoga people speak proudly of not only how deep they can move into a pose but also how quickly they can move from one pose to another.  Sounds a lot like the talk in any weight room.  Just substitute weight and reps for poses and depth of motion.

Glenn Black is an experienced yoga teacher who’s interviewed for the Times article.  He speaks to other yoga teachers and practitioners on the issue of injuries.  He talks about ego.  (I think the popular image of yoga is that it is an ego-less type of thing.  But what human activity is free of ego?)  Black says, “My message was that ‘Asana is not a panacea or a cure-all. In fact, if you do it with ego or obsession, you’ll end up causing problems.’”  This seems a very wise statement, and I’m pleased that this article may start to shed light on the idea that yoga should be evaluated the same way as any other type of exercise.




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