As yoga becomes more popular and more Americanized, the incidence of yoga-related injuries is on the rise.
In India, the land where yoga was created some 5,000 years ago, the term “yoga injury” would be an oxymoron.
Anisha Durve was born there, but moved to the U.S. as a young girl. Today, she is an ayurvedic practitioner at the Ahuja Medical Center of University Hospitals in Cleveland, and a yoga teacher. Having been steeped in the traditions of ayurveda (yoga is but one aspect), she knew of yoga only as a healing practice. Then she met a patient who had become so ill at a hot yoga class that she had to be hooked up to an IV to be rehydrated. “Now some people think if they aren’t sweating and doing an intense workout, then they haven’t done yoga,” she says.
Yoga has become Americanized, says Durve, and many teachers, health experts and even yoga students agree. A tradition that once focused on asanas, or poses, as a way to prepare for a lengthy seated meditation has, in some places, become another form of an athletic and competitive “sport.” In yoga magazines, this style is often referred to as “kick-butt” yoga.
Consider the scene at a popular studio, where crowds of women and men wait for doors to open before a class in “hot” or “power” yoga. They rush in to stake out mat space, guided by duct tape marks on the floors that are designed to allow the maximum number of mats to fit into the heated room.
As an instructor leads the class into pose after pose, sweat drips onto mats and the floor. Experienced students know to bring hand towels to dry themselves between poses, as they engage in rigorous workouts. Some will swear they feel de-toxed and energized—even euphoric—afterward. Others feel stressed by the crowded room, and nauseous, even faint, from the heat.
Rise in Injuries
The explosion of intense yoga classes has coincided with an increase in injuries, which are monitored by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. In 2000, about a dozen yoga injuries were reported in this country. Over the next 10 years, that number grew to more than 7,000. While the increase in injuries is certainly partly attributed to the rise in yoga’s popularity in this country, such injuries were unheard of in yoga’s early years in the U.S., and are still almost never heard of in India.
Judi Bar is the yoga manager for the Cleveland Clinic. She also does yoga teacher training and has had her own practice for more than 20 years. She too calls what has happened “the Americanization of yoga.” “We used to seek yoga to quiet down,” she says. “Now it’s often more about speed and intensity. People are living very frenetic lives and they want to multitask.” That means using yoga to work out as well as to sweat, burn calories, and to stretch—and yes, sometimes, to find balance.
Not that yoga can’t be rigorous—and cleansing and de-stressing. Many longtime devotees can attest to that, and say it has created a healthier body and lifestyle for them in a way that completely changed their lives. But physicians say it’s crucial to make sure you have an experienced teacher, one who has spent years—not a few weekends—getting trained, including some time spent studying anatomy. Orthopedists are usually the doctors who treat those who have hurt themselves doing yoga. The injuries they cite are ones that occur when a yoga student pushes his or her body into a position it isn’t ready for—especially through overextension.
And orthopedic surgeons at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, recently reported a rise in hip injuries among women practicing yoga, which occur from repeated grinding of the hip socket by the upper thigh bone. The surgeons noted that this disproportionately affects women due to the wider range of motion they have compared to men.
One of the largest studies on yoga injuries was done on 4,000 yoga practitioners in Australia. The author, Steven John Penman, noted that headstands, shoulder stands and strong forward bends were most often the cause of injuries. Others often mentioned in medical literature include strained hamstrings, rotator cuff injuries, neck strains, and knee and ligament injuries.
This shouldn’t be a surprise, says Bar. It was the American fitness culture that came up with “no pain, no gain,” after all—and students who eschew guidance or good advice can bring that philosophy to yoga.
Experts Colleen Saidman and Elena Brower
But, as nationally recognized yoga teacher Colleen Saidman points out (she herself came to yoga after years of hard cardio workouts), yoga is a workout that can give its practitioner everything: a thorough physical experience as well as a spiritual one. It creates space for listening to the body and mind.
“You can get all that, but I prefer to open my body strategically and then sit in meditation,” she says. “If there are injuries that occur in yoga, it is due to a poorly sequenced class—one in which a student ends up working too much on one side, for example, which can jam the joints.”
What she does not do in the classes she leads is “crazy, power, sweat-your-ass off yoga.” Rather, she says, the whole idea is to have an intelligent sequence of asanas, and to create alignment—not forcing the body, and not getting overheated.
Saidman thinks the trend toward overly intense yoga will burn itself out, and there will eventually be fewer of those classes as people go back to seeking a more profound and mindful experience.
“I think people are starting to understand again that yoga is about more than just a range of motions and building up heat—it is about its usefulness in balancing our lifestyles.” (She recently released a Yoga for Weight Loss DVD through Gaiam.)
Elena Brower, the founder and co-owner of Virayoga in Manhattan, says there will always be people who seek different things from yoga. Her teaching is influenced by several traditions, including alignment-based Hatha and Kundalini yoga, and her classes emphasize paying attention to the mind, body and heart.
“There are practitioners who want to be challenged intellectually, in having their minds changed and in altering their behavior,” she says. “There are others who are interested in the athletics and the movement, and relish the way their mind gets quiet during that process.” Yoga, she reminds us, is about “how to become more present, and more awake.”
If your yoga class doesn’t emphasize these attributes to your liking, maybe it’s time to begin a search for one that does.