Yoga Injuries, Self-Styled ‘Gurus’, Sex Scandals, and Beyond: Recent Data

KNEEINJURYA few years ago, the NY Times angered mainstream figures in the multibillion dollar “yoga industry” by publishing an excerpt from a new book by one of its science reporters, William Broad, The Science of Yoga: the Risks and the Rewards.

There are serious inaccuracies in Broad’s book, especially in its historical sections, but to its credit the book does deal honestly with yoga injuries. The NY Times excerpt, which we distribute to our Teacher Training students on the first day of each term, is provocatively entitled How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.

Broad doesn’t say anything that serious practitioners didn’t already know. But those in the yoga industry who view yoga’s rising popularity largely in economic terms were fearful that the book would upset Western consumers fed the industry’s relentless hype concerning the supposedly uniform “spiritual” and “healing” properties of yoga. The idea that yoga pursued mindlessly might damage you doesn’t fit the fictional New Age images of yoga aimed at Western consumers by corporate-owned magazines like Yoga Journal or giant commercial yoga chains like Yoga Works.

Broad’s article has been good for yoga, since as every good teacher knows, yoga can seriously injure you as well as heal. This is especially true in old-style guru-centric traditions that use heavy “adjustments” to push students into “correct shapes” — based on prescientific views that the benefits of yoga depend on the the ability of those shapes to move “life forces” around the body in a rejuvenating fashion.

Not accidentally guru-centric traditions are also those in which sexual exploitation is common — another open secret known to every yoga professional. The most recent example involves Bikram Choudhury (the founder of Bikram yoga), whose blatant sexual exploitation of his students is discussed in this recent magazine story. A year earlier, the fall of John Friend and Anusara yoga followed a similar pattern. The story is an old one (one thinks of the Kripalu scandal from the 1990s) that has cropped up in yogic traditions in the West and India as well for many decades.

The common denominator linking violent adjustments and sexual (and also financial) exploitation is blind acceptance of the authority of a would-be guru. If you don’t know what we mean by those links (and if you don’t mind being shocked) take a look at this video of the sado-masochistic and blatantly sexually exploitative adjustment style of K. Patthabi Jois, founder of Ashtanga yoga and one of the most influential yoga teachers of the 20th century. Many prominent Western yoga traditions, including those taught by Bikram, are Ashtanga derivatives.

It’s difficult to know what is most upsetting in the video — Jois’ behavior or the passive compliance to his abuse by his students. Before his death just four years ago Jois was treated by his Western followers almost as a living god — something difficult to imagine when you watch the depraved and arthritic old man at work in the first video. Due to his imagined “authority” as a guru, Jois’ adjustment style has unfortunately been imitated by many male Ashtanga teachers who have followed him.

Not all adjustments are this violent or degrading, but they are one of the leading causes of yoga injuries, especially in the 1940s-50s style of yoga promoted by Jois, which (along with Iyengar) he misled his followers into believing was ancient. (Most Ashtanga poses were unknown in yoga until the mid 1930s.)

Since Broad’s book came out, an increasing number of medical articles have reinforced his message on yoga injuries. We send all this research as soon as it appears on to our Teacher Training students.

The most complete general review of yoga injuries appeared in this paper in PLoS One in October 2013. Its bibliography includes references and links to 70 earlier papers. It was compiled by a group in Germany and one at Duke University, which currently runs the most extensive yoga-medical Program in the United States.

A few years earlier, the Duke group also published this paper on special problems involving injuries in Seniors. Seniors are among those who can benefit most from yoga, which is why Avalon offers free classes to Seniors (and others with serious injuries) every week. But this group is also the most vulnerable to injuries when yoga teachers fall into the mindless yoga trap promoted by Ashtanga and related traditions of teaching poses and not people.

Beyond that paper many more specialized papers on yoga injuries have appeared in the last few years, including this study reporting on serious spinal fractures that have followed when patients have been sent by their physicians to yoga classes to treat low bone mass conditions including osteoporosis and osteopenia.

Many other studies have reviewed serious eye problems including glaucoma associated with headstands (go here for related studies, some involving total vision loss) and other cases involving compression myelopathy (spinal cord compression) that have followed from those addicted to headstands.

Ironically, another modern yoga guru, BKS Iyengar, heavily promoted headstands as the “King of Asanas”; Iyengar’s rival, K. Pattabhi Jois, claimed that “yoga scriptures” suggested that headstands be held for 3 hours!

There is no doubt of the medical benefits of yoga when it is practiced gently and with care, which (as we teach our students) should never include strong physical adjustments. We cover those in other stories. But those who mindlessly follow gurus or allow themselves to be pushed into poses, convinced that there is magic and not science in yoga, are asking for serious trouble.

We will pick up on this story in future posts as new studies underway appear.