Destructive Yoga

“I make it as hard as possible,” he told the group. “It’s up to you to make it easy on yourself.” He drove his point home with a cautionary tale. In India, he recalled, a yogi came to study at Iyengar’s school and threw himself into a spinal twist. Black said he watched in disbelief as three of the man’s ribs gave way — pop, pop, pop…

Black has come to believe that “the vast majority of people” should give up yoga altogether. It’s simply too likely to cause harm.

This quote is from How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body printed in the New York Times Magazine.

Here’s the thing; I really like this article. The headline is a bit controversial, but the point is excellent; yoga is often sold as inherently beneficial when, in fact, there are serious risks in doing the poses that need to be considered.

Prideful practice

Let me tell you a story; when I was living in Tucson, I started a yoga study using B.K.S Iyengar’s book Light on Yoga. It’s an excellent book if you want to understand the mindset and philosophy of yoga and the various asanas. I tried his various regimens and felt pretty good. I pushed myself further and further.


But the one time I ever walked into a yoga class – which was labeled “beginner” – I felt thrashed. During the class I was shaky and weak. I also felt bad because I couldn’t keep up, and I felt worse when the teacher loudly told a new student, “I can see that you practice yoga” (his emphasis) when the student was successfully holding difficult poses.

For an example of those poses, in the very first class we were asked to do the inverted back bend “wheel pose“. The person I came with had wrist injuries at the time, but she still felt compelled to do the pose. The teacher made a show of some folks’ skills by having one person come out of the pose by standing up in a kind of spring action. This was dispiriting while it  simultaneously stoked my desire to push harder.

I never went back.


Still, I really liked practicing on my own. I loved inversions and back bends. I also pushed side stretches, arm stretches, and leg stretches as far as I could, and if I felt pain then I thought that I should push further. I liked to prove that I could sit in lotus position for extended periods.

Now, I have nagging injuries in my sternum, knees, wrists, and ribs. I turn 29 tomorrow. What could have caused it? It was me…doing what I believed to be a totally safe exercise. Incorrectly.


Any asanas I do now are very limited in intensity, duration, and range.

The author of “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” cites stories and studies showing possibilities for much more dangerous results. There are populations for whom shoulder stands – for example – can cause strokes. Also discussed are yoga teachers and students who have serious back problems due to years of yoga study.

Yoga has no inherent good or bad qualities

Yoga is not inherently bad, and everyone won’t injure themselves doing it. “Yoga” is just a name for a collection of philosophies and exercises. With the right ideas embodying the name, you can get healthy. With the wrong ones you can get hurt.

It’s just…we’re really likely to get the wrong ideas. Yoga poses are often sold as inherently good, and that’s to a society that focuses on achievement and image. And let’s be clear: yoga is being sold. Those magazine covers with beautiful people posing on the mountain-side are selling us something. I mean, what fella wouldn’t want to look like Rodney Yee? The guy’s in his 50’s and looks better than most 20 year olds.

But stepping back from dreams of mountaintop awesomeness, we should be as careful doing yoga poses as during weight lifting or any other high intensity activity. Perhaps more. Yoga is meant to be done by people with deep self control. If you push yourself while doing yoga poses, then you may very well injure yourself.

How Yoga Can Wreck Your Health via the New York Times

K2 photo by Adam Jacob Muller under the GFDL


  1. Leslie says

    No kidding! Agree, Agree, Agree!
    Worst thing I ever did yoga-wise: Trying to keep up with Rodney Yee and Patricia Walden.
    Best things:
    1-Taking a class from a good non-egotistical local teacher who taught me the asanas correctly and did not push us to overdo things.
    2-Many years ago I got Lilias Folan’s tapes for senior citizens even tough I wasn’t one. Goodwill Store, 99cents, impulse buy. With my achiever side likely to kick in I’m better off “competing” with a tape geared to slow and careful work. That way if I want I can do more, hold poses longer than the “class” without messing up my body.

  2. Ian Sidden says

    It’s like “senior” portions at restaurants: they’re just totally normal amounts of food with the word “senior” in front of them.

    It’s great that you could find a teacher who worked at your pace.