Is Yoga Safe?

Two years ago, at breakfast with the dean of yoga at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, I got an answer to a serious question that had nagged at me. Let me explain: I rarely practice yoga, but I quietly envy those who do it well. Kripalu has been rated as the best yoga retreat in the nation and trains more than 500 yoga instructors annually. The dean, Devarshi (or Steven Hartmann), told me that he had spent most of his life living a yogic lifestyle — and he seemed a walking advertisement for the myriad benefits of his practice. He looked healthy, strong, fluid, relaxed, and clear-eyed. Meanwhile, I have spent much of my life rowing and had recently returned from an attempt to return to the US Olympic Team after 28 years. Given that Devarshi and I were roughly the same age and had taken opposite paths to what is arguably a peak of health for a middle-aged man, what I wanted to know was this: “Do you now wake up in the morning with aches and pains?” He smiled and said, “Sure. Of course.” And so I sighed with relief. “Me too.”

One hard reality is this: Whether you take the outward path of exercise or the inward path of yoga, bodies get creakier with age. Hurts happen. Awareness must deepen. The good news for both exercisers and yogis — unlike our sedentary contemporaries — is that we seem to suffer less, heal faster, and have better sex, and we can still do most of the stuff we could do in our college days. Research indicates that we will also likely live longer and experience more joy in the process. The data gets stronger every year.

A Broad Swipe At Yoga

My conversation with Devarshi came back to mind when I read William Broad’s incendiary article in the New York Times, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.” In the article, adapted from his new book, The Science of Yoga: The Myth and the Rewards, Broad writes: “In my 30s, I had somehow managed to rupture a disk in my lower back and found I could prevent bouts of pain with a selection of yoga postures and abdominal exercises. Then, in 2007, while doing the extended-side-angle pose, a posture hailed as a cure for many diseases, my back gave way. With it went my belief, naïve in retrospect, that yoga was a source only of healing and never harm.”

Broad goes on to say that he then went to take a class with Glenn Black, a yoga teacher for nearly four decades, who has become well known for his knowledge of yoga injuries. What Black told Broad has made a lot of otherwise serene yoga enthusiasts very upset. Black said “the vast majority of people” should give up yoga altogether. It’s simply too likely to cause harm. “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.”

Because the story appeared in the Times, my neighbors saw it on TV and wondered if they should stop going to yoga.

Reliving the ’80s

Broad’s yoga article is akin to many written during the fitness boom of the ’80s, when it was discovered in places like the Times that running and aerobic dancing could wreck your body. Back then, I was the fitness editor of American Health magazine, and I wondered if some of these writers had ever run a lap. Of course, people get injured from exercise (often from lack of coaching), but the dangers of not exercising are much more lasting. In 1980, the recommended dose of aerobic exercise for cardiovascular health, based on the best science, was 20 minutes, three times a week. At a conference I went to in January, cardiologist Mimi Guarneri, MD, founder of the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine, told me that the recommend dose had risen to 40–60 minutes, seven days a week.

The thought that it took years for Broad to realize that yoga could do harm is completely outlandish. My guess is that most people can figure that out with a single glance at an advanced pose. Achieving some of the poses I admire would cripple me, but that doesn’t keep me from participating in classes. I do what I can do without significant discomfort, secure in the knowledge that the health benefits from yoga come from the quality of attention — not whether you look good in the pose.

Broad’s fine book was launched on its weakest link, and one of the many things Broad got right is the strange history of the science of yoga. For example, in the ’80s it was established that yoga is on par with walking only as far as aerobic fitness is concerned — yet that simple truth was lost as the yoga boom took shape. Yoga also isn’t a great way to burn calories; quite the contrary. A regular practice significantly slows one’s metabolism to burn fewer calories. The famous yogis of the past could be sealed in caves for 40 days, not because they had stumbled upon the secrets of immortality but because they had found the secrets of bears and other creature that hibernate. We humans have a lot to learn from bears and other creatures.

Dr. Guarneri says she “can’t overestimate the value of exercise when it comes to heart health.” But she sounds like a scientist when she says it. When she talks about the benefits of yoga, however, she gets radiant. “Yoga is medicine!” she says. “Very powerful medicine! People start with yoga; they start to meditate; they become vegetarians; they transform their lives!”

I believe that yoga and exercise can be different paths to the same place. But which actually wins? Well, Dr. Guarneri starts her talk with a story about a loving couple of happy centogenarians. What they do daily is walk together and pray.

Who Owns Yoga?

In our November issue, we reported on a lawsuit filed by Bikram Yoga against Yen Yoga & Fitness of Traverse City, Michigan, and Paul Sutherland, our “Zenvesting” columnist and the owner of S&H. Bikram Choudhury claimed that Yen Yoga violated his copyrighted series of 26 poses and that Bikram-trained instructors are prohibited from teaching outside Bikram studios. Sutherland and this magazine have taken the position that no one should own yoga and that no single person should decide who can and who cannot teach or practice yoga.

As it turns out, Yen Yoga is not alone and other studios including the chain Yoga to the People are also being sued. The good news is that Choudhury — who boasts a fleet of Rolls-Royces — seems likely to lose not just this court case but also his copyright.

According to a letter from the Acting Chief of Performing Arts for the US Copyright Office, “Our general position with respect to exercise routines has changed in the last few years . . . yoga exercise, do not constitute the subject matter that Congress intended to protect as choreography. Thus, we will not register such exercises (including yoga movements), whether described as exercise or as the selection and ordering of movements.”

A California judge may also soon tell Choudhury that his “Teacher Training Agreements” are not enforceable because he did not sign them. As Bikram’s legal team confirmed, “It is not the practice of Bikram Choudhury or another officer of his company to countersign each agreement.” Why Bikram chose not to sign his own contracts is not clear, but it may be because his esteemed teacher Bishnu Ghosh believed yoga should be open to everyone.

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