Downward Dog Bites Back – Yoga Injuries and The New York Times

Yoga Journal’s Medical Editor Responds to The New York Times

Just as we thought the brouhaha over yoga injuries were over comes another procession of articles in the New York Times by science writer William Broad—incidentally coinciding with the publication of the paperback version of his book.

One of the topics this time around is male yoga injuries, plus a rehash and elaboration of some of Broad’s other claims on yoga injuries (more on that in a separate article). 

When it comes to yoga, Broad argues in one of his recent articles, entitled Wounded Warrior Pose, guys may be, ahem, the weaker sex. That is, men appear to be more injury-prone when practicing yoga.

That article—and the data presented by Broad to back up his claim—recently provoked a response by the Medical Editor of Yoga Journal, Dr. Timothy McCall. In his recent article, Man Bites Downward Dog, Dr. McCall takes on that claim, and several other claims made by Broad over the past year. 

Why break the silence now? YogaUonline asked Dr. McCall in an interview.

“There have been a cumulative stream of articles by William Broad in the New York Times, which contained what I feel is misleading and potentially harmful information,” says McCall. “I finally got to the point after reading the article on male yoga injuries where I said, “Enough is enough. This really deserves a thorough pushback.”

According to McCall, many of the claims made both in the NYT articles by Broad and in his book are not backed up by solid scientific data. However, it can be hard for everyday practitioners of yoga to sort through what’s accurate and what are exaggerated claims. 

“When you read something written by a Pulitzer-winning science reporter, we naturally think, ‘Hey, it must be true,’” explains McCall. “But the fact is that many of these claims don’t have a basis, and this really is something that needs to be addressed. 

Here are some highlights from Dr. McCall’s article. You can also go to Dr. McCall’s website to download the full article: Man Bites Downard Facing Dog.

William Broad, a science writer for The New York Times, is no stranger to controversy. Fact is, he cultivates it. Broad’s latest screed, called “Wounded Warrior Pose,” appeared just two days before the Christmas day release of the paperback version of his book, The Science of Yoga. In the article, he asserts “yoga can be remarkably dangerous — for men.

In making the case that men are at higher risk of yoga injuries in the recent Times article, Broad examines 18 years of data — from 1994 to 2011 — from a federal program that monitors emergency room visits. He didn’t provide any raw numbers (making it hard to interpret the results since we don’t know if we’re talking about 12 or 12,000 cases) just the relative percentages for males and female in 4 categories of “major” injuries 1) strains or sprains 2) dislocations 3) fractures, and 4) nerve damage.

So, for example, men had 24 percent of the dislocations in the reports — more than expected — as Broad estimated they comprised just 16 percent of yoga practitioners (though no peer-reviewed scientific journal would accept his method for calculating that 16 percent).

In his analysis, Broad only included “major injuries,” but how he decided what to include and what to exclude seems idiosyncratic at best. Ankle sprains, for example, can be painful, but most of them shouldn’t be categorized as major injuries, and strains are essentially less serious versions of sprains. 

In contrast, syncope (fainting), which Broad found disproportionately affects women, he categorized as “minor,” and thus didn’t include in his analysis. The question is whether Broad decided which categories to include after examining the data — perhaps okay in journalism but a serious no-no in scientific research, as there’s the risk of cherry-picking the data that support your theories.

Most surprisingly, Broad’s latest Times article failed to mention the lifethreatening condition that was the subject of one of his book’s most shocking claims. Using unscientific methodology, he calculated that yoga causes 300 strokes a year. That would be over 5000 cases of yoga-induced strokes in 18 years. You would think that if Broad had found support for that claim in the government’s emergency room tracking data he would have reported it.

The bottom line is that there isn’t enough evidence at this point to say which gender is at higher risk for yoga injuries. And we certainly should not, based on relative percentages in a few categories of injuries, be labeling yoga as “remarkably dangerous” for men.

“Some yoga practitioners will surely see my analysis as unconvincing,” Broad writes. “It’s the kind of topic,” he says, “that can only benefit from thorough discussion* — as well as rigorous new studies that can rule out the possibility of false clues.”

Finally something we can agree on.

Read the full article here: Man Bites Downward Dog – Yoga Journal’s Medical Editor Responds to The New York Times

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