"How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body," a controversial article in this weekend's New York Times magazine, is stirring debate between devotees and those who question the Westernization of the practice, which counted some 20 million disciples in the United States last year.
The piece is adapted from William J. Broad's book The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards, publishing next month. Mr. Broad found temporary relief in yoga after rupturing a disc. Then disaster struck.
"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."
He argues that several factors have increased injury risks, most significantly yoga's shifting demographic.
"Indian practitioners of yoga typically squatted and sat cross-legged in daily life, and yoga poses, or asanas, were an outgrowth of these postures. Now urbanites who sit in chairs all day walk into a studio a couple of times a week and strain to twist themselves into ever-more-difficult postures despite their lack of flexibility and other physical problems."
Mr. Broad cites decades worth of medical journal entries warning about yoga injuries. The lower back is the most common victim, according to a worldwide survey of yoga teachers, therapists and doctors published by Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons. He interviews scores of (embarrassed) adherants: students with pulverized hips, teachers with bad backs and those complaining of the terrifying "yoga foot drop," a nerve condition that makes it hard to walk.
He also points to Bikram yoga, the heat of which has been known to raise the risk of muscle damage and blackouts.
Mr. Broad interviews Glenn Black, an exceedingly careful yoga teacher who helps people rehabilitate after yoga related injuries: "Today many schools of yoga are just about pushing people," Mr. Black said, blaming teachers' egos. "If you do it with ego or obsession, you'll end up causing problems."
Commenters on the story seemed to get the picture: "It's so like us Americans to take a perfectly harmless and even beneficial form of exercise, and turn it into the ridiculous charade that yoga has now become," wrote Victor from California.
Over at The Atlantic, writer Elspeth Reeve seized on the piece to eviscerate the "purply plum"-swathed masses yoga has attracted in the West.
"Admittedly, yoga attracts some of the worst people on the planet: The image obsessed girls... super-hippies and self-righteous spiritual types. But any human that's obsessed with a type of exercise is generally intolerable. Talk to a marathon runner lately? Everything in moderation."
Perhaps Roger, a carpenter commenting on the NYT piece, said it best: "I am sure that I was able to avoid surgery due to yoga. Common sense and the willingness to get in touch with your own body make an enormous difference. I think the danger lies more in the perils of the American ego."
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