Sex scandal knocks yoga world off balance
John Friend, the founder of Anusara yoga, is facing some serious accusations of both sexual and financial misconduct. Here, he attends day one of the Leaders Causing Leaders event on November 6, 2010, in Long Beach, Calif.
The ever-balanced world of yoga is rocking after a sex scandal involving a big-time guru has many wondering if the phenomenally popular practice is about to take a tumble.
For the uninitiated, John Friend, the founder of the fast-growing Anusara style of yoga, is currently in the downward doghouse following a series of accusations against him involving both sexual and financial misconduct.
“It’s really just everywhere in the yoga community right now,” says Amy Hess, a 35-year-old yoga instructor from Richmond, Va.
As a result, Friend has taken a leave of absence, sent out a public letter of apology and told his many followers that he’s immersing himself in a period of “self-reflection, therapy and personal retreat.”
While Friend reflects, about 60 to 75 teachers of Anusara — a form of yoga based on alignment and teachings from Tantric philosophy — have resigned, according to Yoga Dork, which broke the news of the scandal. Many others are wondering if Friend’s alleged penchant for sex, drugs and other peoples’ money will taint the entire community of yoga, a form of exercise that touts physical as well as mental and spiritual discipline.
“My biggest concern is the negative impact this scandal will have on the world of yoga,” says Tommy Rosen, a Vinyasa and Kundalini yoga teacher and co-founder of the Tadasana International Festival of Yoga and Music in Santa Monica. “Some people will be turned off and at least for the short term, [they] might avoid some of these wonderful teachings from Anasura yoga — John Friend’s yoga — because they come from that camp. And that’s a shame.”
Yoga students seem to have mixed feelings about the decidedly unyoga-like behavior.
Some feel betrayed, like fashion blogger @ModernGirlStyle who posted “Are there other yoga peeps that are as upset about the fraud of #JohnFriend as me?” on Twitter Thursday.
“I’m not a prude, but yoga is kind of an otherworldly experience. This just stains it for me,” says Barbara Ross, a 63-year-old sales and marketing professional from Seattle. “It’s not going to dissuade me from yoga — nothing will dissuade me from yoga — but it’s so unprofessional.”
Others point to previous sex scandals involving powerful, charismatic men.
“The misappropriation of funds is totally unethical,” says Jill Nussinow, a 56-year-old cookbook author from Santa Rosa, Calif., who’s practiced Iyengar yoga for the past 16 years. “But this is not the first nor will it likely be the last yoga and sex scandal… President Clinton even screwed up, but I’m not going to say, ‘I don’t want a president.’ We all have human foibles. I’m still going to do yoga.”
Stacey Johnes, a 43-year-old marketing vice president from Los Angeles, who has practiced Anusara yoga for a number of years, says that she, too, will remain “a grateful student.”
“In the past, I think I put my teachers and yoga itself on a type of pedestal,” she says. “But … I realized that yoga teachers, like the rest of us, are fallible humans. And actually that’s okay with me. This has not tainted how I feel about my yoga practice.”
Although, she adds, she feels the teacher-student relationship should be treated with appropriate care and respect.
Yoga instructor Amy Hess says the allegations about Friend aren’t that shocking, not because she knows anything about the man — or his behavior — but because of the powerful nature of his position.
“The sexual indiscretions are deplorable and gross and an abuse of power, but I don’t think it’s unique to people in positions of power,” she says. “I’ve seen [men] who tend to flex their power. They’re surrounded by fit, active, typically young attractive women. Maybe it’s a big ‘duh’ for everybody, but I’m reading all these stories about these gurus who’ve had issues and the majority of gurus in yoga are male. And in the West, the majority of practitioners are female.
“I think it lends itself to the idea that yoga instructors and gurus can take advantage of students,” she says. “Not to suggest that all teachers have that in mind or all men have that in mind. But there are some that do.”
Tommy Rosen, who’s been practicing yoga for 20 years, says student-teacher relationships do happen, but they’ve been happening for thousands of years.
“The idea of a student being attracted to a teacher physically or some other way is so old and ingrained, it’s almost a human archetype,” he says.
But that doesn’t excuse gurus or teachers who act on that attraction, he says.
“My guru was very clear on this point,” he says. “When you teach yoga, there’s a mantra you say before you teach. ‘I am not a man. I am not a woman. I am not a person. I am not myself. I am a teacher.’ When you step into a yoga studio and you’re the teacher, there needs to be a boundary there.”
Yoga and Sex Scandals: No Surprise Here
The wholesome image of yoga took a hit in the past few weeks as a rising star of the discipline came tumbling back to earth. After accusations of sexual impropriety with female students, John Friend, the founder of Anusara, one of the world’s fastest-growing styles, told followers that he was stepping down for an indefinite period of “self-reflection, therapy and personal retreat.”
Mr. Friend preached a gospel of gentle poses mixed with openness aimed at fostering love and happiness. But Elena Brower, a former confidante, has said that insiders knew of his “penchant for women” and his love of “partying and fun.”
Few had any idea about his sexual indiscretions, she added. The apparent hypocrisy has upset many followers.
“Those folks are devastated,” Ms. Brower wrote in The Huffington Post. “They’re understandably disappointed to hear that he cheated on his girlfriends repeatedly” and “lied to so many.”
But this is hardly the first time that yoga’s enlightened facade has been cracked by sexual scandal. Why does yoga produce so many philanderers? And why do the resulting uproars leave so many people shocked and distraught?
One factor is ignorance. Yoga teachers and how-to books seldom mention that the discipline began as a sex cult — an omission that leaves many practitioners open to libidinal surprise.
Hatha yoga — the parent of the styles now practiced around the globe — began as a branch of Tantra. In medieval India, Tantra devotees sought to fuse the male and female aspects of the cosmos into a blissful state of consciousness.
The rites of Tantric cults, while often steeped in symbolism, could also include group and individual sex. One text advised devotees to revere the female sex organ and enjoy vigorous intercourse. Candidates for worship included actresses and prostitutes, as well as the sisters of practitioners.
Hatha originated as a way to speed the Tantric agenda. It used poses, deep breathing and stimulating acts — including intercourse — to hasten rapturous bliss. In time, Tantra and Hatha developed bad reputations. The main charge was that practitioners indulged in sexual debauchery under the pretext of spirituality.
Early in the 20th century, the founders of modern yoga worked hard to remove the Tantric stain. They devised a sanitized discipline that played down the old eroticism for a new emphasis on health and fitness.
B. K. S. Iyengar, the author of “Light on Yoga,” published in 1965, exemplified the change. His book made no mention of Hatha’s Tantric roots and praised the discipline as a panacea that could cure nearly 100 ailments and diseases. And so modern practitioners have embraced a whitewashed simulacrum of Hatha.
But over the decades, many have discovered from personal experience that the practice can fan the sexual flames. Pelvic regions can feel more sensitive and orgasms more intense.
Science has begun to clarify the inner mechanisms. In Russia and India, scientists have measured sharp rises in testosterone — a main hormone of sexual arousal in both men and women. Czech scientists working with electroencephalographs have shown how poses can result in bursts of brainwaves indistinguishable from those of lovers. More recently, scientists at the University of British Columbia have documented how fast breathing — done in many yoga classes — can increase blood flow through the genitals. The effect was found to be strong enough to promote sexual arousal not only in healthy individuals but among those with diminished libidos.
In India, recent clinical studies have shown that men and women who take up yoga report wide improvements in their sex lives, including enhanced feelings of pleasure and satisfaction as well as emotional closeness with partners.
At Rutgers University, scientists are investigating how yoga and related practices can foster autoerotic bliss. It turns out that some individuals can think themselves into states of sexual ecstasy — a phenomenon known clinically as spontaneous orgasm and popularly as “thinking off.”
The Rutgers scientists use brain scanners to measure the levels of excitement in women and compare their responses with readings from manual stimulation of the genitals. The results demonstrate that both practices light up the brain in characteristic ways and produce significant rises in blood pressure, heart rate and tolerance for pain — what turns out to be a signature of orgasm.
Since the baby boomers discovered yoga, the arousal, sweating, heavy breathing and states of undress that characterize yoga classes have led to predictable results. In 1995, sex between students and teachers became so prevalent that the California Yoga Teachers Association deplored it as immoral and called for high standards.
“We wrote the code,” Judith Lasater, the group’s president, told a reporter, “because there were so many violations going on.”
If yoga can arouse everyday practitioners, it apparently has similar, if not greater, effects on gurus — often charming extroverts in excellent physical condition, some enthusiastic for veneration.
The misanthropes among them offer a bittersweet tribute to yoga’s revitalizing powers. A surprising number, it turns out, were in their 60s and 70s.
Swami Muktananda (1908-82) was an Indian man of great charisma who favored dark glasses and gaudy robes.
At the height of his fame, around 1980, he attracted many thousands of devotees — including movie stars and political celebrities — and succeeded in setting up a network of hundreds of ashrams and meditation centers around the globe. He kept his main shrines in California and New York.
In late 1981, when a senior aide charged that the venerated yogi was in fact a serial philanderer and sexual hypocrite who used threats of violence to hide his duplicity, Mr. Muktananda defended himself as a persecuted saint, and soon died of heart failure.
Joan Bridges was one of his lovers. At the time, she was 26 and he was 73. Like many other devotees, Ms. Bridges had a difficult time finding fault with a man she regarded as a virtual god beyond law and morality.
“I was both thrilled and confused,” she said of their first intimacy in a Web posting. “He told us to be celibate, so how could this be sexual? I had no answers.”
To denounce the philanderers would be to admit years of empty study and devotion. So many women ended up blaming themselves. Sorting out the realities took years and sometimes decades of pain and reflection, counseling and psychotherapy. In time, the victims began to fight back.
Swami Satchidananda (1914-2002) was a superstar of yoga who gave the invocation at Woodstock. In 1991, protesters waving placards (“Stop the Abuse,” “End the Cover Up”) marched outside a Virginia hotel where he was addressing a symposium.
“How can you call yourself a spiritual instructor,” a former devotee shouted from the audience, “when you have molested me and other women?”
Another case involved Swami Rama (1925-96), a tall man with a strikingly handsome face. In 1994, one of his victims filed a lawsuit charging that he had initiated abuse at his Pennsylvania ashram when she was 19. In 1997, shortly after his death, a jury awarded the woman nearly $2 million in compensatory and punitive damages.
So, too, former devotees at Kripalu, a Berkshires ashram, won more than $2.5 million after its longtime guru — a man who gave impassioned talks on the spiritual value of chastity — confessed to multiple affairs.
The drama with Mr. Friend is still unfolding. So far, at least 50 Anusara teachers have resigned, and the fate of his enterprise remains unclear. In his letter to followers, he promised to make “a full public statement that will transparently address the entirety of this situation.”
The angst of former Anusara teachers is palpable. “I can no longer support a teacher whose actions have caused irreparable damage to our beloved community,” Sarah Faircloth, a North Carolina instructor, wrote on her Web site.
But perhaps — if students and teachers knew more about what Hatha can do, and what it was designed to do — they would find themselves less prone to surprise and unyogalike distress.
Benefits of Yoga – Why Yoga Exercise is Good for You
Yoga books tell us that Yoga is aimed to unite the mind, the body, and the spirit. Yogis view that the mind and the body are one, and that if it is given the right yoga kit and tools and taken to the right environment, it can find harmony and heal itself. Yoga therefore is considered therapeutic. It helps you become more aware of your body’s posture, alignment and patterns of movement. It makes the body more flexible and helps you relax even in the midst of a stress stricken environment. This is one of the foremost reasons why people want to start Practicing Yoga – to feel fitter, be more energetic, be happier and peaceful.
Yoga is a science that has been practiced for thousands of years. It is consists of Ancient Theories, observations and principles about the mind and body connection which is now being proven by modern medicine. Substantial research has been conducted to look at the Health Benefits of Yoga – from the Yoga Postures (Asanas), Yoga Breathing (Pranayama) and Meditation. The information on Yoga Poses & Benefits are grouped into three categories-physiological, psychological, biochemical effects. Furthermore, scientists have laid these results against the benefits of regular exercise.
The New York Times
How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body
Members of the Broadway cast of “Godspell” do their flexible best. From left: Uzo Aduba (doing the wheel), George Salazar (extended-hand-to-big-toe pose) and Nick Blaemire (headstand).
By WILLIAM J. BROAD
Published: January 5, 2012
On a cold Saturday in early 2009, Glenn Black, a yoga teacher of nearly four decades, whose devoted clientele includes a number of celebrities and prominent gurus, was giving a master class at Sankalpah Yoga in Manhattan. Black is, in many ways, a classic yogi: he studied in Pune, India, at the institute founded by the legendary B. K. S. Iyengar, and spent years in solitude and meditation. He now lives in Rhinebeck, N.Y., and often teaches at the nearby Omega Institute, a New Age emporium spread over nearly 200 acres of woods and gardens. He is known for his rigor and his down-to-earth style. But this was not why I sought him out: Black, I’d been told, was the person to speak with if you wanted to know not about the virtues of yoga but rather about the damage it could do. Many of his regular clients came to him for bodywork or rehabilitation following yoga injuries. This was the situation I found myself in. In my 30s, I had somehow managed to rupture a disk in my lower back and found I could prevent bouts of pain with a selection of yoga postures and abdominal exercises. Then, 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.
At Sankalpah Yoga, the room was packed; roughly half the students were said to be teachers themselves. Black walked around the room, joking and talking. “Is this yoga?” he asked as we sweated through a pose that seemed to demand superhuman endurance. “It is if you’re paying attention.” His approach was almost free-form: he made us hold poses for a long time but taught no inversions and few classical postures. Throughout the class, he urged us to pay attention to the thresholds of pain. “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.
After class, I asked Black about his approach to teaching yoga — the emphasis on holding only a few simple poses, the absence of common inversions like headstands and shoulder stands. He gave me the kind of answer you’d expect from any yoga teacher: that awareness is more important than rushing through a series of postures just to say you’d done them. But then he said something more radical. Black has come to believe that “the vast majority of people” should give up yoga altogether. It’s simply too likely to cause harm.
Not just students but celebrated teachers too, Black said, injure themselves in droves because most have underlying physical weaknesses or problems that make serious injury all but inevitable. Instead of doing yoga, “they need to be doing a specific range of motions for articulation, for organ condition,” he said, to strengthen weak parts of the body. “Yoga is for people in good physical condition. Or it can be used therapeutically. It’s controversial to say, but it really shouldn’t be used for a general class.”
Black seemingly reconciles the dangers of yoga with his own teaching of it by working hard at knowing when a student “shouldn’t do something — the shoulder stand, the headstand or putting any weight on the cervical vertebrae.” Though he studied with Shmuel Tatz, a legendary Manhattan-based physical therapist who devised a method of massage and alignment for actors and dancers, he acknowledges that he has no formal training for determining which poses are good for a student and which may be problematic. What he does have, he says, is “a ton of experience.”
“To come to New York and do a class with people who have many problems and say, ‘O.K., we’re going to do this sequence of poses today’ — it just doesn’t work.”
According to Black, a number of factors have converged to heighten the risk of practicing yoga. The biggest is the demographic shift in those who study it. 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. Many come to yoga as a gentle alternative to vigorous sports or for rehabilitation for injuries. But yoga’s exploding popularity — the number of Americans doing yoga has risen from about 4 million in 2001 to what some estimate to be as many as 20 million in 2011 — means that there is now an abundance of studios where many teachers lack the deeper training necessary to recognize when students are headed toward injury. “Today many schools of yoga are just about pushing people,” Black said. “You can’t believe what’s going on — teachers jumping on people, pushing and pulling and saying, ‘You should be able to do this by now.’ It has to do with their egos.”
When yoga teachers come to him for bodywork after suffering major traumas, Black tells them, “Don’t do yoga.”
“They look at me like I’m crazy,” he goes on to say. “And I know if they continue, they won’t be able to take it.” I asked him about the worst injuries he’d seen. He spoke of well-known yoga teachers doing such basic poses as downward-facing dog, in which the body forms an inverted V, so strenuously that they tore Achilles tendons. “It’s ego,” he said. “The whole point of yoga is to get rid of ego.” He said he had seen some “pretty gruesome hips.” “One of the biggest teachers in America had zero movement in her hip joints,” Black told me. “The sockets had become so degenerated that she had to have hip replacements.” I asked if she still taught. “Oh, yeah,” Black replied. “There are other yoga teachers that have such bad backs they have to lie down to teach. I’d be so embarrassed.”
Among devotees, from gurus to acolytes forever carrying their rolled-up mats, yoga is described as a nearly miraculous agent of renewal and healing. They celebrate its abilities to calm, cure, energize and strengthen. And much of this appears to be true: yoga can lower your blood pressure, make chemicals that act as antidepressants, even improve your sex life. But the yoga community long remained silent about its potential to inflict blinding pain. Jagannath G. Gune, who helped revive yoga for the modern era, made no allusion to injuries in his journal Yoga Mimansa or his 1931 book “Asanas.” Indra Devi avoided the issue in her 1953 best seller “Forever Young, Forever Healthy,” as did B. K. S. Iyengar in his seminal “Light on Yoga,” published in 1965. Reassurances about yoga’s safety also make regular appearances in the how-to books of such yogis as Swami Sivananda, K. Pattabhi Jois and Bikram Choudhury. “Real yoga is as safe as mother’s milk,” declared Swami Gitananda, a guru who made 10 world tours and founded ashrams on several continents.
But a growing body of medical evidence supports Black’s contention that, for many people, a number of commonly taught yoga poses are inherently risky. The first reports of yoga injuries appeared decades ago, published in some of the world’s most respected journals — among them, Neurology, The British Medical Journal and The Journal of the American Medical Association. The problems ranged from relatively mild injuries to permanent disabilities. In one case, a male college student, after more than a year of doing yoga, decided to intensify his practice. He would sit upright on his heels in a kneeling position known as vajrasana for hours a day, chanting for world peace. Soon he was experiencing difficulty walking, running and climbing stairs.
Doctors traced the problem to an unresponsive nerve, a peripheral branch of the sciatic, which runs from the lower spine through the buttocks and down the legs. Sitting in vajrasana deprived the branch that runs below the knee of oxygen, deadening the nerve. Once the student gave up the pose, he improved rapidly. Clinicians recorded a number of similar cases and the condition even got its own name: “yoga foot drop.”
More troubling reports followed. In 1972 a prominent Oxford neurophysiologist, W. Ritchie Russell, published an article in The British Medical Journal arguing that, while rare, some yoga postures threatened to cause strokes even in relatively young, healthy people. Russell found that brain injuries arose not only from direct trauma to the head but also from quick movements or excessive extensions of the neck, such as occur in whiplash — or certain yoga poses. Normally, the neck can stretch backward 75 degrees, forward 40 degrees and sideways 45 degrees, and it can rotate on its axis about 50 degrees. Yoga practitioners typically move the vertebrae much farther. An intermediate student can easily turn his or her neck 90 degrees — nearly twice the normal rotation.
Hyperflexion of the neck was encouraged by experienced practitioners. Iyengar emphasized that in cobra pose, the head should arch “as far back as possible” and insisted that in the shoulder stand, in which the chin is tucked deep in the chest, the trunk and head forming a right angle, “the body should be in one straight line, perpendicular to the floor.” He called the pose, said to stimulate the thyroid, “one of the greatest boons conferred on humanity by our ancient sages.”
Extreme motions of the head and neck, Russell warned, could wound the vertebral arteries, producing clots, swelling and constriction, and eventually wreak havoc in the brain. The basilar artery, which arises from the union of the two vertebral arteries and forms a wide conduit at the base of the brain, was of particular concern. It feeds such structures as the pons (which plays a role in respiration), the cerebellum (which coordinates the muscles), the occipital lobe of the outer brain (which turns eye impulses into images) and the thalamus (which relays sensory messages to the outer brain). Reductions in blood flow to the basilar artery are known to produce a variety of strokes. These rarely affect language and conscious thinking (often said to be located in the frontal cortex) but can severely damage the body’s core machinery and sometimes be fatal. The majority of patients suffering such a stroke do recover most functions. But in some cases headaches, imbalance, dizziness and difficulty in making fine movements persist for years.
Russell also worried that when strokes hit yoga practitioners, doctors might fail to trace their cause. The cerebral damage, he wrote, “may be delayed, perhaps to appear during the night following, and this delay of some hours distracts attention from the earlier precipitating factor.”
In 1973, a year after Russell’s paper was published, Willibald Nagler, a renowned authority on spinal rehabilitation at Cornell University Medical College, published a paper on a strange case. A healthy woman of 28 suffered a stroke while doing a yoga position known as the wheel or upward bow, in which the practitioner lies on her back, then lifts her body into a semicircular arc, balancing on hands and feet. An intermediate stage often involves raising the trunk and resting the crown of the head on the floor. While balanced on her head, her neck bent far backward, the woman “suddenly felt a severe throbbing headache.” She had difficulty getting up, and when helped into a standing position, was unable to walk without assistance. The woman was rushed to the hospital. She had no sensation on the right side of her body; her left arm and leg responded poorly to her commands. Her eyes kept glancing involuntarily to the left. And the left side of her face showed a contracted pupil, a drooping upper eyelid and a rising lower lid — a cluster of symptoms known as Horner’s syndrome. Nagler reported that the woman also had a tendency to fall to the left.
Her doctors found that the woman’s left vertebral artery, which runs between the first two cervical vertebrae, had narrowed considerably and that the arteries feeding her cerebellum had undergone severe displacement. Given the lack of advanced imaging technologies at the time, an exploratory operation was conducted to get a clearer sense of her injuries. The surgeons who opened her skull found that the left hemisphere of her cerebellum suffered a major failure of blood supply that resulted in much dead tissue and that the site was seeped in secondary hemorrhages.
The patient began an intensive program of rehabilitation. Two years later, she was able to walk, Nagler reported, “with [a] broad-based gait.” But her left arm continued to wander and her left eye continued to show Horner’s syndrome. Nagler concluded that such injuries appeared to be rare but served as a warning about the hazards of “forceful hyperextension of the neck.” He urged caution in recommending such postures, particularly to individuals of middle age.
The experience of Nagler’s patient was not an isolated incident. A few years later, a 25-year-old man was rushed to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, in Chicago, complaining of blurred vision, difficulty swallowing and controlling the left side of his body. Steven H. Hanus, a medical student at the time, became interested in the case and worked with the chairman of the neurology department to determine the cause (he later published the results with several colleagues). The patient had been in excellent health, practicing yoga every morning for a year and a half. His routine included spinal twists in which he rotated his head far to the left and far to the right. Then he would do a shoulder stand with his neck “maximally flexed against the bare floor,” just as Iyengar had instructed, remaining in the inversion for about five minutes. A series of bruises ran down the man’s lower neck, which, the team wrote in The Archives of Neurology, “resulted from repeated contact with the hard floor surface on which he did yoga exercises.” These were a sign of neck trauma. Diagnostic tests revealed blockages of the left vertebral artery between the c2 and c3 vertebrae; the blood vessel there had suffered “total or nearly complete occlusion” — in other words, no blood could get through to the brain.
Two months after his attack, and after much physical therapy, the man was able to walk with a cane. But, the team reported, he “continued to have pronounced difficulty performing fine movements with his left hand.” Hanus and his colleagues concluded that the young man’s condition represented a new kind of danger. Healthy individuals could seriously damage their vertebral arteries, they warned, “by neck movements that exceed physiological tolerance.” Yoga, they stressed, “should be considered as a possible precipitating event.” In its report, the Northwestern team cited not only Nagler’s account of his female patient but also Russell’s early warning. Concern about yoga’s safety began to ripple through the medical establishment.
These cases may seem exceedingly rare, but surveys by the Consumer Product Safety Commission showed that the number of emergency-room admissions related to yoga, after years of slow increases, was rising quickly. They went from 13 in 2000 to 20 in 2001. Then they more than doubled to 46 in 2002. These surveys rely on sampling rather than exhaustive reporting — they reveal trends rather than totals — but the spike was nonetheless statistically significant. Only a fraction of the injured visit hospital emergency rooms. Many of those suffering from less serious yoga injuries go to family doctors, chiropractors and various kinds of therapists.
Around this time, stories of yoga-induced injuries began to appear in the media. The Times reported that health professionals found that the penetrating heat of Bikram yoga, for example, could raise the risk of overstretching, muscle damage and torn cartilage. One specialist noted that ligaments — the tough bands of fiber that connect bones or cartilage at a joint — failed to regain their shape once stretched out, raising the risk of strains, sprains and dislocations.
In 2009, a New York City team based at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons published an ambitious worldwide survey of yoga teachers, therapists and doctors. The answers to the survey’s central question — What were the most serious yoga-related injuries (disabling and/or of long duration) they had seen? — revealed that the largest number of injuries (231) centered on the lower back. The other main sites were, in declining order of prevalence: the shoulder (219), the knee (174) and the neck (110). Then came stroke. The respondents noted four cases in which yoga’s extreme bending and contortions resulted in some degree of brain damage. The numbers weren’t alarming but the acknowledgment of risk — nearly four decades after Russell first issued his warning — pointed to a decided shift in the perception of the dangers yoga posed.
In recent years, reformers in the yoga community have begun to address the issue of yoga-induced damage. In a 2003 article in Yoga Journal, Carol Krucoff — a yoga instructor and therapist who works at the Integrative Medicine center at Duke University in North Carolina — revealed her own struggles. She told of being filmed one day for national television and after being urged to do more, lifting one foot, grabbing her big toe and stretching her leg into the extended-hand-to-big-toe pose. As her leg straightened, she felt a sickening pop in her hamstring. The next day, she could barely walk. Krucoff needed physical therapy and a year of recovery before she could fully extend her leg again. The editor of Yoga Journal, Kaitlin Quistgaard, described reinjuring a torn rotator cuff in a yoga class. “I’ve experienced how yoga can heal,” she wrote. “But I’ve also experienced how yoga can hurt — and I’ve heard the same from plenty of other yogis.”
One of the most vocal reformers is Roger Cole, an Iyengar teacher with degrees in psychology from Stanford and the University of California, San Francisco. Cole has written extensively for Yoga Journal and speaks on yoga safety to the American College of Sports Medicine. In one column, Cole discussed the practice of reducing neck bending in a shoulder stand by lifting the shoulders on a stack of folded blankets and letting the head fall below it. The modification eases the angle between the head and the torso, from 90 degrees to perhaps 110 degrees. Cole ticked off the dangers of doing an unmodified shoulder stand: muscle strains, overstretched ligaments and cervical-disk injuries.
But modifications are not always the solution. Timothy McCall, a physician who is the medical editor of Yoga Journal, called the headstand too dangerous for general yoga classes. His warning was based partly on his own experience. He found that doing the headstand led to thoracic outlet syndrome, a condition that arises from the compression of nerves passing from the neck into the arms, causing tingling in his right hand as well as sporadic numbness. McCall stopped doing the pose, and his symptoms went away. Later, he noted that the inversion could produce other injuries, including degenerative arthritis of the cervical spine and retinal tears (a result of the increased eye pressure caused by the pose). “Unfortunately,” McCall concluded, “the negative effects of headstand can be insidious.”
Almost a year after I first met Glenn Black at his master class in Manhattan, I received an e-mail from him telling me that he had undergone spinal surgery. “It was a success,” he wrote. “Recovery is slow and painful. Call if you like.”
The injury, Black said, had its origins in four decades of extreme backbends and twists. He had developed spinal stenosis — a serious condition in which the openings between vertebrae begin to narrow, compressing spinal nerves and causing excruciating pain. Black said that he felt the tenderness start 20 years ago when he was coming out of such poses as the plow and the shoulder stand. Two years ago, the pain became extreme. One surgeon said that without treatment, he would eventually be unable to walk. The surgery took five hours, fusing together several lumbar vertebrae. He would eventually be fine but was under surgeon’s orders to reduce strain on his lower back. His range of motion would never be the same.
Black is one of the most careful yoga practitioners I know. When I first spoke to him, he said he had never injured himself doing yoga or, as far as he knew, been responsible for harming any of his students. I asked him if his recent injury could have been congenital or related to aging. No, he said. It was yoga. “You have to get a different perspective to see if what you’re doing is going to eventually be bad for you.”
Black recently took that message to a conference at the Omega Institute, his feelings on the subject deepened by his recent operation. But his warnings seemed to fall on deaf ears. “I was a little more emphatic than usual,” he recalled. “My message was that ‘Asana is not a panacea or a cure-all. In fact, if you do it with ego or obsession, you’ll end up causing problems.’ A lot of people don’t like to hear that.”
Editor: Sheila Glaser
A version of this article appeared in print on January 8, 2012, on page MM16 of the Sunday Magazine with the headline: All Bent Out Of Shape.
Yoga : yóga) is a physical, mental, and spiritual discipline, originating in ancient India. The goal of yoga, or of the person practicing yoga, is the attainment of a state of perfect spiritual insight and tranquility while meditating on Supersoul. The word is associated with meditative practices in Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism.
Within Hindu philosophy, the word yoga is used to refer to one of the six orthodox (āstika) schools of Hindu philosophy. Yoga in this sense is based on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, and is also known as Rāja Yoga to distinguish it from later schools.Patanjali’s system is discussed and elaborated upon in many classical Hindu texts, and has also been influential in Buddhism and Jainism. The Bhagavad Gita introduces distinctions such as Jnana Yoga (“yoga based on knowledge”) vs. Karma Yoga (“yoga based on action”).
Other systems of philosophy introduced in Hinduism during the medieval period are bhakti yoga, and hatha yoga.
The Sanskrit word yoga has the literal meaning of “yoke”, from a root yuj meaning to join, to unite, or to attach. As a term for a system of abstract meditation or mental abstraction it was introduced by Patañjali in the 2nd century BC. Someone who practices yoga or follows the yoga philosophy with a high level of commitment is called a yogi or yogini.
The goals of yoga are varied and range from improving health to achieving moksha. Within the Hindu monist schools of Advaita Vedanta, Shaivism and Jainism, the goal of yoga takes the form of moksha, which is liberation from all worldly suffering and the cycle of birth and death (samsara), at which point there is a realization of identity with the Supreme Brahman. In the Mahabharata, the goal of yoga is variously described as entering the world of Brahma, as Brahman, or as perceiving the Brahman or Ātman that pervades all things. For the bhakti schools of Vaishnavism, bhakti or service to Svayam Bhagavan itself may be the ultimate goal of the yoga process, where the goal is to enjoy an eternal relationship with Vishnu.
YOGA AS EXERCISE
Yoga (Devanagari) is a term for a range of traditional systems of physical exercise and meditation in Hinduism.
Modified versions of the physical exercises in hatha yoga have become popular as a kind of low-impact physical exercise, and are used for therapeutic purposes.”Yoga” in this sense, in common parlance, refers to the physical exercises, i.e. the asanas or postures. Aspects of meditation are sometimes also included.
Both the meditative and the exercise components of yoga show promise for non-specific health benefits. According to an article in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, the system of hatha yoga believes that prana, or healing “life energy” is absorbed into the body through the breath, and can treat a wide variety of illnesses and complaints.
Yoga has been studied as an intervention for many conditions, including back pain, stress, and depression.
A survey released in December 2008 by the US National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that yoga was the sixth most commonly used alternative therapy in the United States during 2007, with 6.1 percent of the population participating.