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Getting Hip on Yoga Injuries—The Debate Resurfaces
Yoga’s self-proclaimed crusader for injury prevention, New York Times senior science writer William Broad, is at it again. Broad first created an uproar in January 2012 with his highly controversial New York Times article “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body,” followed by several controversial articles.
To some, Broad has opened a much-needed and long overdue conversation about yoga injuries, safety, and yoga teacher training. To others, he is ignoring basic standards of science reporting, cherry picking facts, and creating cleverly crafted narratives—initially at least—coinciding with the publications of first the hardcover, then softcover versions of his book, The Science of Yoga.
Whichever camp you fall in, Broad is worth paying attention to. On November 3, 2013, the New York Times published another article by Broad, “Women’s Flexibility Is a Liability (in Yoga).” In this latest missive, Broad claims that yoga is a contributing factor to a high incidence of hip injuries among women, arguing that women are at larger risk for hip injuries because they are more naturally flexible. He pulls in interview statements from leading orthopedic surgeons in support of his arguments, and refers to a review article on femeroacetabular impingement (FAI) as backup for his arguments.
Not surprisingly, leading yoga teachers have been quick to speak out in response to the article. Responses range from people pointing to the weaknesses in Broad’s data to thoughtful reflections on yoga and hip injuries, and why they occur. Yoga U Online has rounded up some of the more incisive responses here. (For a more in-depth view of the debate, also be sure to watch out for our upcoming article/interview with Dr. Ray Long, orthopedic physician, Iyengar yoga teacher and author of The Key Muscles of Yoga: Scientific Keys.)
As always, William Broad’s articles do get us thinking and talking about yoga, notes Dr. Baxter Bell in this thoughtful blog post. Yet, he goes on to argue, as in the past, the article is full of overgeneralizations, and ‘data’ failing to back up Broad’s sweeping claims.
One of my difficulties with the statistics—if they can be called statistics—that are offered in the New York Times article to back up the assertion that women are at a significant risk of hip injuries of a very specific kind is statements like this:
“Each year, he (Dr. Kelly) said, roughly 50 to 75 of his patients who danced or did yoga underwent operations. Most, he noted, were women."
The author goes to the effort of interviewing a surgeon, getting a guesstimate from said doctor, and never follows up with: how many were yoga related and how many dance related, and how many were a combination (as many yoga students, men and women, danced when younger)? And how many were men? What meaningful conclusions can a yoga teacher make from such superficial exploration?
Read the full post by Dr. Baxter Bell here.
Jonathan FitzJordan of CoreWalking refreshingly points out the obvious: Anything done incorrectly puts the body in danger of injury—yoga is no exception. Learning to advance safely in practice is a process of getting to know our bodies. Having a good teacher helps, but if anything, he argues, the yoga injuries debate points to the need for taking a closer look at the training of teachers.
I am one of the people that William Broad is referring to when it comes to men who can easily get injured. My yoga life began with Ashtanga, an amazing practice that no one taught me how to do correctly. As a result I hurt my knees due to too much hyperextension and ended up having three knee surgeries before coming to realize that I should probably learn to do this yoga stuff correctly. And now fifteen years later I have a practice that allows me to do anything I want without any fear of injury. Or if I get injured, I heal fairly quickly.
…Everything William Broad says in the article is basically correct but it is really an indictment of yoga teaching and I don’t think it is all that great to tell people that they have to back off, or be scared. It might be too easy to become a yoga teacher, and I do believe that most teachers don’t really know enough to teach people correctly.
Awareness of hip injuries in yoga is nothing new, points out Iyengar yoga teacher Roni Brisette. But the issue may not be FAI, as much as hypermobility.
The reason why very flexible individuals get hurt in yoga is rather simple. These ligamentous bodies are generally not being cared for by the teacher. I would say that in most classes the teacher is giving instructions for the “stiffer body” –and the flexible body actually needs quite different instructions. In fact, it takes a more seasoned teacher to teach the yoga asanas for a flexible body. So inexperienced teachers often do not have the number of years required in seeing many different bodies.
. . . . The teacher needs to SEE and IDENTIFY those students who are “at risk” and give them quite different instructions like compact the hips, take the buttock flesh toward the backs of the knees or draw the abdomen back.
The Bottom Line?
If anything, the yoga injuries debate has made it all too clear that the body is an exceedingly complex structure. There are no easy answers, and in teaching yoga, there is no one size fits all.
In athletic and fitness pursuits, inevitably, injuries will happen to some people, some of the time. Yoga is no exception. Yet, in its deeper essence, the practice of yoga is about building greater body awareness. Learning about your body and its limitations, what makes it stronger and what is counterproductive is an inseparable part of the process.
That’s not to say that uninformed or inexperienced teaching is not an issue, but ultimately, the owner of the body will have the strongest power over injury prevention. So let us end with the words of Mr. Broad himself:
“Better to do yoga in moderation and listen carefully to your body. That temple, after all, is your best teacher.”