Is Yoga Unsafe?

A recent book excerpt in the New York Times claims that yoga is an inherently unsafe practice for most Westerners. Buzz talks to Yoga Journal's Medical Editor Timothy McCall about it.

We often hear about the many health benefits to be gained from a regular yoga practice. But while there is much potential for healing, there is less-widely reported potential to harm—that is when we push our bodies so far we end up injured. "How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body," published yesterday in the New York Times Magazine, states that "a growing body of medical evidence supports [the] contention that, for many people, a number of commonly taught yoga poses are inherently risky." The piece was excerpted from the forthcoming book, The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards, written by a Times senior writer and longtime yoga practitioner William Broad.

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Most yoga students understand that poses like Shoulderstand and Headstand should be practiced under the guidance of an experienced teacher, but Brood cites examples like the man who sat in meditation in Vajrasana (Thunderbolt Pose) for hours at a time and ended up temporarily incapacitated from nerve damage. He also describes a case where a woman suffered a stroke in Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward-Facing Bow or Wheel Pose). "Yoga’s exploding popularity—the number of Americans doing yoga has risen from about 4 million in 2001 to what some estimate to be as many as 20 million in 2011—means that there is now an abundance of studios where many teachers lack the deeper training necessary to recognize when students are headed toward injury," Broad writes.

Yoga Journal's medical editor Timothy McCall, MD, who was interviewed for the book and quoted in the excerpt, comments: "The question is not whether yoga is safe. What matters is whether the specific practices you are doing are safe for you, and whether you are doing those practices in a safe way. Someone who pushes too hard, who ignores the body's signals that something is too much, is risking injury," he says.

"But," he maintains, "yoga asana done appropriately is one of the safest forms of exercise."

Do stories like this scare you? Have you ever injured yourself practicing yoga? What do you do to keep yourself safe and avoid injury?