Is Yoga Dangerous for Men?

Baxter Bell disagrees with New York Times writer William Broad that men are more prone to being injured in yoga.
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Baxter Bell disagrees with New York Times writer William Broad that men are more prone to being injured in yoga.
jason crandell in eka pada galavasana yoga pose

In late December, The New York Times science writer William Broad, author of the controversial book The Science of Yoga, penned an article outlining the inherent dangers of yoga for men.

My purpose here is not to refute this article, but for more information that does that, you might look for recent online posts by Timothy McCall, MD, and Ram Rao, PhD.

However, I do want to say that in my experience as a yoga teacher and health-care professional for well over a decade, I have not observed this injury trend that Broad believes is afoot. Just the opposite: In my teaching across the country, I receive many more reports from men of the benefits of their regular yoga practice.

To this I would add a few points:

1. The potential benefits of appropriate yoga practice will far outweigh any risks. So, if you haven’t already, get on the mat! For a thorough discussion of this topic, see "Practice Awareness" in the February issue of Yoga Journal.

2. Articles like Broad's tend to reduce “yoga” to mere asana practice or physical poses. And although this is the trend in some studios, I would encourage those of you interested in a more complete experience of yoga to look for classes and studios that embrace the full spectrum of what yoga has to offer: physical practices, breathing techniques, accessible meditation teaching, as well as community building and opportunities for selfless service. As Jon Kabat-Zinn, leading voice in mindfulness meditation for stress reduction, says, yoga is about developing ongoing attention to what is really happening in your body all the time. And developing this kind of awareness makes it far less likely that you’ll injure yourself during yoga practice.

3. I would recommend you see your yoga as one part of a multi-pronged approach to your health and lifestyle, as opposed to substituting asana for all of your exercise.

4. If you are worried about hurting yourself, start with an entry-level class (that’s right, a beginner’s class), with a certified, experienced teacher. Once you have learned some basics, you can gradually advance the difficulty of your yoga asana practice, if that is a reasonable goal for you. And you must check your competitive tendencies at the door. Save those for the basketball court or the golf course, where they may be more appropriate.

5. With the unrelenting stress of the past several years and the accelerating pace of our technologically oriented lives, now, more than ever, it is important for men to have access to the calming, centering, opening, strengthening, stress-reducing benefits of a regular yoga practice. In some ways, the concern should not be whether yoga is more injurious for men than women, but how do we get our men into yoga in the first place. For a pretty thorough look at this challenge, check out this article by Andrew Tilin.

6. As yoga consumers, you should insist that your local studios hire the best trained and experienced teachers they can, and support the efforts of organizations like the Yoga Alliance and the International Association of Yoga Therapist that are involved in developing and improving training standards for teachers and schools of yoga. In this balanced way, you are taking care of yourself and encouraging the yoga establishment to evolve and improve what it has to offer you.

7. We could definitely use more truly scientific studies to better understand the benefits and limitations and risks of yoga, especially yoga asana. The question often comes down to “where will the money come from?” to fund such research. As activist consumers, letting your elected representatives know this a priority to you could result in more support for agencies like the National Institutes of Health, which is already funding some yoga research.

I sincerely hope that one of your intentions for the new year is to continue to integrate yoga into your personal health plan, along with cultivating a good diet, getting adequate rest and sleep, and participating in solid aerobic exercise. I will do everything I can in these posts to support, encourage and inspire you on your ongoing yoga journey. Happy New Year!

Baxter Bell, MD, teaches in the San Francisco Bay Area and internationally, and is director of the Piedmont Yoga Studio's teacher-training program in Oakland, California. He is a contributing writer for Yoga Journal magazine and for the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, and created Yoga Journal’s Yoga for Stress DVD. Follow him on his other blog, Yoga for Healthy Aging or his websitewww.baxterbell.com