Strokes, retina damage and trapped nerves: Is yoga doing us more harm than good
It may be the secret to some of the most lithe and bendy bodies around, but yoga, as loved by celebrities from Matthew McConaughey to Natalie Portman, may also be the cause of a host of severe injuries.
A new book, published next month, opens the lid on some of the physical and mental stretching techniques' darker sides – and from back traumas to strokes, the discipline is not without its dangers, writes author William J Broad.
The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards, out next month, pulls together medical studies and case studies from those who have met with disastrous ends rather than the feel-good flexibility the practice normally affords.
Ancient technique: Yoga is said to calm and heal, but a new book opens the lid on some of the physical and mental stretching practices' darker sides
In an adaptation of the book in the New York Times, Mr Broad recalls meeting Glenn Black, a yogi with classic Indian Iyengar training.
Mr Black, a yoga teacher of nearly 40 years, made the admission that he believes that 'the vast majority of people' should give up yoga. He recently underwent back surgery to correct decades of damage from the discipline.
The yoga guru told Mr Broad that he has seen people's Achilles tendons tear from overdoing a downward-facing dog, men's ribs breaking with 'pops' from spine-twisting moves and teachers who no longer have any movement in their hips or who are forced to teach lying down because of back problems.
But the most severe cases include a 28-year-old woman who suffered a massive stroke while attempting the 'wheel' position. Her story was documented by Willibald Nagler, of Cornell University Medical College, and published in 1973.
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Neurological damage had occurred because of hyperextension of the neck, but the woman – who took two years to learn to walk again and was left with permanent arm and eye and problems – is not alone in succumbing to brain injuries brought on by wounding arteries from head, neck and back movements.
Mr Nagler's report was an early and salutary warning flag in terms of the practice's dangers, but there have been very few studies as to yoga's downsides since. In recent years, the NY Times found that Bikram yoga – in which moves are practiced in a room heated to a stifling 105F and 40% humidity – can cause muscle damage and tearing.
Another study at New York's Columbia University, cited in the book, notes that the most common injuries seen in yoga are to the lower back, knee, shoulder and neck.
Devoted: Natalie Portman, left, and Vanessa Hudgens, right, are mat-carrrying devotees of the ancient technique which many turn to for its healing properties
And physician Timothy McCall, medical
editor of Yoga Journal, told Mr Broad that the commonly-practiced
headstand is 'too dangerous' for most yoga classes.
Something as apparently benign as the headstand is known to compress nerves, cause arthritis and even
pressure-induced retinal tears in the eyeballs.
Mr Black's concern is particularity shocking given that, according to Mr Broad, 'the number of Americans doing yoga has risen from about four million in 2001 to what some estimate to be as many as 20 million in 2011.'
The Science of Yoga, by William J Broad
Could nearly 20 million Americans be at risk of a debilitating yoga injury
A glut of poorly-trained practitioners and teachers as well as a discordance between the exercise's uptake in America and its origins – which means that many yoga lovers in the US spend their time at desks all day rather in the in the Indian kneeling or cross-legged styles of sitting that may make the moves more natural – have seen injury rates increase.
Despite many turning to the downwards dog and other poses from the ancient Indian practice as a healing technique, yoga can – and must be recognised to – also cause pain.
In fact, Mr Black told Mr Broad, 'Yoga is for people in good physical condition. Or it can be used therapeutically. It’s controversial to say, but it really shouldn’t be used for a general class.'
The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards, published by Simon & Schuster, is out on February 7.