Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
If I were to list everything I learned about yoga in medical school, I could stop right here. As far as I can recall, it was
never mentioned. Even with yoga’s growing popularity, you can’t expect the average doctor to know much about it. Does that
mean you should not discuss your yoga practice with your physician? Not necessarily. Knowing when to talk with her about your
practiceand what to talk aboutcan help you avoid potential physical problems.
The primary reason to communicate with your doctor is safety. If you are young and generally in good health, there is
probably not much you need to discuss. However, if you’re pregnant or have a recent acute injury, such as a strained back, a
muscle pull, or a sore shoulder, you should ask your doctor if it’s a good idea to restrict your practice for a while.
(Showing her a book that illustrates the postures you typically do can help her make an accurate assessment.)
Although yoga has enormous potential to heal, not all practices are advisable for everyone. For instance, if you are age 45
or older and haven’t been exercising regularly, you might want to get a stress test before beginning a Bikram or Power Yoga
practice, since the intensity could precipitate a heart attack. A stress test is even more crucial if you have one or more
risk factors for heart diseasesuch as smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, or a strong family
history of premature heart attacks.
Your physician also will want to assess your practice in light of any medications you are taking. Blood thinners, for
example, can make balancing postures risky, since internal bleeding could result if you fall. Other medications, including
antihistamines, drugs to control blood pressure, and psychiatric medications can affect how quickly your blood pressure
corrects itself when you come out of forward bends or other postures in which you quickly lift your head.
Be sure to also mention any inversions you practice, as these may present particular concerns. For instance, if you’ve had
neck troubles, poses like Sirsasana (Headstand), Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand), and Halasana (Plow Pose) can be problematic.
Going upside down also raises pressure in the head; this can be risky if you have high blood pressure that isn’t well
controlled or suffer from eye problems. You should consult an ophthalmologist before attempting inversions if you suffer from
diabetes, glaucoma, or elevated intraocular pressure; have had cataract surgery or problems with your retina; or are severely
If you practice Pranayama, the major concern is breath retention, which may not be advisable if you have heart disease,
asthma or other lung conditions, or are weak from any disease and its treatment. The same may be true for vigorous breathing
Finally, if you’re using yoga to help treat a specific health condition, be sure to tell your doctor and mention any benefits
you believe it brings. Not only can this help ensure that you don’t do anything dangerous, but it may educate your doctor
about yoga’s possible therapeutic benefits. If she sees it’s helping you, she might be more inclined to suggest yoga to the
next patient with a similar problem.
Timothy McCall, M.D., is Yoga Journal’s medical editor; his column appears regularly in the magazine. His Web site