It’s true that you can hurt yourself doing yoga, but chances are you won’t, and I wouldn’t let fear of injury hold you back. Overall, yoga is relatively safe and injuries are relatively rare. In fact, that’s the conclusion of the first large-scale examination of yoga-related injuries, published in November 2016. The study, from the University of Alabama, Birmingham, looked at the rate of yoga injuries nationwide over a 13-year span as compiled by the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System. While the researchers found that the injury rate has been increasing over time, they suggested that the upswing might simply reflect the rising popularity of yoga. The study found that the rate of yoga-related injuries increased to 17 per 100,000 participants in 2014 compared to 10 per 100,000 in 2001. All told, the researchers found 29,590 injuries over the 13 years, nearly half of which affected the trunk, while sprains or strains accounted for 45 percent. The injury rate was highest – 58 per 100,000 – among participants age 65 and older. It was 18 per 100,000 among those ages 45-64, and 12 per 100,000 in those 18-44. The researchers noted, however, that the actual risk might be higher, since they surveyed only individuals who sought medical attention in an emergency department.
“Yoga is harder and more demanding than some people believe,” study co-author Gerald McGwin, Ph.D., said in a press release that accompanied publication of the results in the Orthopedic Journal of Sports Medicine. Dr. McGwin noted that he took up yoga on the advice of a physician following a running injury. He added, “You need a realistic view of your own abilities, and you need to understand that some poses might be too challenging and inappropriate. A qualified, certified yoga instructor can help you with that assessment and is essential to a safe experience.”
I have seen a small number of cases of joint problems stemming from the overenthusiastic practice of yoga. Certain postures can stress the neck, knees, and lower back if you perform them too strenuously or hold them for too long, especially if you do not increase your flexibility slowly through gradual practice. With yoga, as with any form of exercise, you must listen to your body. If you notice that one posture gives you persistent pain, stop practicing it. Never let anyone, even a respected yoga teacher, force your body into a posture that causes significant pain.
Some forms of yoga are much more dynamic and strenuous than ordinary hatha yoga, the type most often taught in the west. Kundalini and ashtanga yoga both emphasize vigorous movement as well as difficult poses. They are more stimulating than relaxing and, in my opinion, are not for beginners.
Overall, however, I believe that yoga is appropriate for
just about everyone. Children who take it up can easily become as skillful as adults. For older people, it is a great nonaerobic conditioner. For athletes, it can provide flexibility and centering. If you focus on yoga’s benefits and don’t try push yourself beyond your limits (especially as a beginner) you’ll likely find that does you a lot of good, and no harm.
Andrew Weil, M.D.
Thomas A. Swain and Gerald McGwin. “Yoga-Related Injuries in the United States From 2001 to 2014”. Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine, November 16, 2016; 4 (11) DOI: 10.1177/2325967116671703