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Can yoga really wreck your body?

A recent article in the New York Times Magazine, How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body, sparked considerable controversy about the risks of yoga. The article gave numerous examples of the damage yoga practice can…

Yoga probably results in a number of health benefits and has a few potential risks. Julie Blaustein

A recent article in the New York Times Magazine, How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body, sparked considerable controversy about the risks of yoga. The article gave numerous examples of the damage yoga practice can wreak ranging from debilitating hip, neck and back injuries to brain damage and stroke, but can yoga really mess up your body?

One yoga teacher is quoted in the article as advising people who come for bodywork – “don’t do yoga”. Some of the online responses from the yoga community were perhaps predictable disbelief that such injuries could be related to the practice. But others voiced qualified support for making practitioners aware that just because an activity is called yoga, doesn’t mean it’s free of risk any more than a plant being grown organically ensures it’s safe to eat.

It’s difficult to consider yoga as a single entity. Putting aside its spiritual practices, the physical exercises are a broad church ranging from the gentlest of breathing exercises to rapid movements and extreme postures performed in a humid environment at over 37° C (100° F).

A quick search of the medical literature reveals over 700 peer-reviewed articles with yoga in the title, including at least 13 systematic reviews as well the open-sourced Journal of Yoga and Physical Therapy.

Briefly, there’s the suggestion that yoga probably results in a number of health benefits and has a few potential risks. So let’s consider some of the specific types of injuries that might be attributed to the practice of yoga.

The most common and most investigated areas of musculoskeletal pain are low back and neck pain; up to 80% of the population has significant back or neck pain at some point in their lives. Contrary to popular opinion, the greatest risk factors for spinal pain are not activity, but genetics – inherited predisposition accounts for up to 75% of the risk of disc degeneration and 38% to 50% of the risk for pain.

Activity, either occupational or recreational, accounts for only about 7% of the risk of degeneration.

In relation to back pain, a 2009 review of all published studies on risk factors for back pain “found strong evidence that leisure time sport or exercises, sitting, and prolonged standing/walking are not associated with LBP."

Earl McGehee

The most serious condition associated with yoga is damage to the arteries in the neck causing stroke. There are at least 12 categories of risks for cervical artery dissection including “trivial trauma” and yoga is indeed listed as one source of such trauma. Other activities in the same list of risks however, include painting a ceiling, coughing, vomiting, sneezing, and sexual intercourse.

A wider search of the literature on the effects of exercise on musculoskeletal pain confirms that no one type of exercise or activity appears to reduce risks more than another. In terms of prevention, therefore, it matters more that you do more, than what you do.

In a response to the article that created the furore, the director of a fitness training centre, Geralyn Coppersmith, is quoted as saying: “Of course, there’s a risk involved when you do anything physical … but there’s a lot more risk if you don’t do anything physical.”

Or put another way, exercise is beneficial but entails some risks. More extreme exercise probably produces more extreme risks, but more extreme exercise doesn’t necessarily produce more extreme benefits.

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7 Comments sorted by

  1. Mazin Family

    Brain Surgeon

    While I commend The Conversation (and NY Times Mag) for trying to tear down just about any accepted 'truth'...I can only speak from experience on this one. The idea that yoga is dangerous is pretty much in parallel with any form of physical activity being bad for you *if you do it wrong*. I'll never forget a yoga class where some guy was trying to show off and our instructor had to repeatedly tell the guy not to do certain poses without the warmup poses, and then had to physically stop him from throwing…

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    1. Paul Richards

      integral operating system

      In reply to Mazin Family

      You have to laugh. Seriously.

      The point of the article was to promote the NY times, something the Murdoch press is unscrupulous about. What reasoning evolved individual could possibly run with an article without sourcing and critical thinking? We all know the answer to that.

      Honestly the Murdoch press is so transparent it's embarrassing he was spawned here.

  2. Damien Pollock


    I signed up to The Conversation to be part of a more intelligent, rational & non-biased current affairs coverage & debate. If this is the standard to be expected then I guess I am to be disappointed.

    1. Paul Richards

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Damien Pollock

      I genuinely apologise for any comments that may have offended you. I can only imagine your value system but if you actually don't express opinions, how anyone know it, be aware and not offend it?

      I will add, expressing cultural truisms, isn't critical thinking.
      If you feel the need to support the Murdoch Press with personal insight, feel free.

      "Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact.
      Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth".
      ~ Marcus Aurelius ~

  3. Benjamin Weale

    logged in via Facebook

    To challenge the literature quoted above (with nothing more than my opinion and observation) I feel that posture, leisure / sporting activities and prolonged periods of walking and sitting have a profound effect on the likelihood of a person experiencing neck or back pain - and genetic disposition may be of a much lower contributing factor given the lifestyles we live currently.

    Sure, there may be a chance that if your dad had severe back pain and that it has a genetic origin you may also experience back pain - but if the issue is mechanical in nature and can be traced to a repetitive movement or learnt posture then how can we sit back and blame genetics?

    Is there a chance you could provide a reference for this study so I can have a look?

  4. Neil Tuttle

    Musculoskeletal Physiotherapist & Senior Lecturer at Griffith University

    I would like to thank Benjamin Weale for his comments and I think what he suggests is consistent with the conventional wisdom. In response to the request for references, there are several studies by Battie and her colleagues in addition to the one listed below on the heritability of risks of back pain and of degenerative changes (Note that the heritability of degenerative changes is greater than of symptoms and from a large number of studies the links between degenerative changes and symptoms is…

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