Could yoga be bad for you?

A couple days ago a patient brought a recent NY Times article to my attention titled “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body”. She brought this to my attention because she had, as have many of my patients, injured herself practicing yoga. It is not inherently bad, but similar to the high intensity workout routines such as Crossfit, P90X, and Insanity there are some conceptual patterns that can create a great environment for injuries.

Let me start off by saying that it is very good to perform just about any kind of physical activity. The benefits almost always outweigh the risks. Research has shown time and again that inactivity is a leading cause of chronic disease including systemic problems like diabetes and more orthopedic issues like chronic back pain. Of course, as with anything in life, moderation is the key. Many people use these programs judiciously and get GREAT benefit from participating. But they can cultivate obsessive fanaticism that can be harmful.

These particular routines can fall into the category that I call “cult fitness”. They often have strict codes or program philosophies that do not encourage participants to question the wisdom or effectiveness of the routine. In really bad set ups, they have a “guru-like” leader who hands down unquestionable orders to followers. Those followers turn over their lives to the program, often coming in daily for hours at a time. Those who do not dedicate themselves are shamed for not being disciplined or tough enough.

The other danger is the mentality of “This should be uncomfortable. We are all suffering together.” People ignore what their bodies are telling them and assume that their short-comings are due to being “soft” or uncommitted. For example: I have had many patients over the years who have injured themselves in yoga from struggling to become “more flexible”. The real limit was simply due to their natural bone structure. When you take a joint to it’s natural bony endpoint and then exert extra pressure, things get damaged – often requiring surgery.

Get out there, have fun, and do some physical activity. You may even like having a “drill sergeant” berating you to challenge yourself. Just do me a favor – listen to your body. That guy who runs a marathon every week? He can do that mostly because he is a genetic freak of nature, not because of his commitment to training. Know your limits.