Let me pose a question. Is yoga safe? A study published in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies found that participating in yoga over the course of year resulted in 10.7% suffering new musculoskeletal pain. Does this mean that you should avoid yoga? Downward dog. Hold that pose. Don’t stretch to conclusions before a closer look at the study.
For the study, the researchers contacted 4901 yoga class participants from the two locations of a suburban yoga studio. The studio offered a range of yoga classes (Vinyasa-style, Iyengar-style, restorative, and prenatal) and featured certified instructors. Ultimately, 566 participants responded to the recruitment emails, 487 (86% of the 566) completed an initial questionnaire at the beginning of the one year study, and 354 (75% of the 487) completed a questionnaire at the end of the one year study. The questionnaires asked them about their yoga habits and any pain (from yoga or anything else) that they had suffered along with the duration, severity, type, and cause of the pain. Most of the study participants (333 of the 354) were women.
During the one year study period, 38 (10.7%) participants reported new pain due to yoga, 25 in one body region and the rest in 2 to 3 body regions. The most common body part affected was the the wrist or hand (13 people) followed by the shoulder (9), the elbow (8), the hip or thigh (7) and the lower back (6). Pain forced 15 participants to miss yoga time. The pain for 16 participants lasted more than 3 months. The risk of new pain didn’t seem to be associated with the person’s age, yoga experience, time spent practicing yoga, or intensity of yoga.
So, is yoga really a pain for over 10% of practitioners? Hold on. The study has as many limitations as a beginner trying to do an Eka Hasta Vrksasana (a one-handed tree pose) or a Kala Bhairavasana (Destroyer Of The Universe Pose). This study was from just one yoga studio…in suburbia somewhere. Less than a tenth of the yoga class participants eventually completed both questionnaires. And aside from the yoga instructors being certified (with at least 200 hours of training), what do you know about each instructor’s experience, quality, and temperament?
Moreover, asking whether yoga can hurt you is a bit like asking if food can hurt you. Broccoli can be very dangerous when thrown rapidly at your head but good for you in a casserole. Similarly, there are so many varieties of yoga, so many different poses, and such a wide variety of classes and instructors. Yoga instructors range from the knowledgeable and experienced to the ones who spout pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo. You can’t lump them all into one bin. Also, what you do as a participant can make a big difference. Yes, if you don’t warm up properly, fail to follow instructions, or are too over-eager (overly intense yoga participation can be a bit of an oxymoron), you can certainly injure yourself. Even though the study found no association between intensity of yoga and injury risk, the findings are based on participant self-report. And you know how good people are at assessing themselves…
The study does remind you that yoga is not completely benign. Some aspects of yoga can be quite risky. Thus, having good attentive instructors, following directions, listening to your body, practicing moderation, and checking with your doctor if you have health concerns are all important. Of course, even when done correctly, you can still hurt yourself in almost anything that you do. (Heck, you could even hurt yourself giving someone a dirty look.) Yoga can be quite strenuous with some forms and poses being more taxing than others. What’s really needed are studies that determine what specific poses, types of movements, practices, aspects of instructors, and other details of yoga are more or less risky.