Actually, the biggest health risk is to your ego.
If you’ve ever tried to pretzel your way into standing splits or a spinal twist, and wondered, “Is this safe?” the answer is a resounding…probably.
Yoga injuries are on the rise. In 2000, the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, which collects data from a selection of U.S. hospitals, recorded just a handful of yoga-related emergency-room admissions. In 2010, it logged more than 7,000. The most common yoga injuries, according to a 2009 Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons survey of practitioners, involve the neck and cervical spine, shoulders or low back, followed by the knees.
Some of the damage is serious. A 2012 The New York Times Magazine excerpt of the book The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards by William J. Broad lists a litany of scary cases: A 28-year-old woman who suffered a stroke while attempting a backbend. A 25-year-old man who performed repeated shoulder stands (an upside-down pose that puts pressure on the neck) and damaged an artery so badly that not enough blood could reach his brain.
Terrified yet? Time for some perspective. One reason yoga injuries are on the rise is that many more people are hitting the mat—20 million in 2012, about 5 times as many as a decade earlier. And any physical pursuit, whether walking, jogging or downward-dogging, comes with a risk of getting hurt. Guess which activity sent more than 100,000 people to the ER in 2007? Wait for it…golf. Eva Norlyck Smith, PhD, the founder of Yoga U, a yoga-education website, points out that the rate of golf injuries—that is, the number of them per thousand golfers—is almost 10 times that of yoga injuries.
Meanwhile, the benefits of yoga are myriad, says Columbia Medical School Assistant Clinical Professor Loren Fishman, MD, who led the 2009 survey. Fishman has been doing yoga for most of his life and uses it to treat patients with musculoskeletal and neurological problems at his practice, Manhattan Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation.
“There isn’t any better way to increase your strength, coordination and balance and lower anxiety,” he says. “There’s no pill, nothing that so far has been discovered, that can compare to yoga.”
The best way to keep injuries at bay, Fishman says, is to find an experienced teacher and let him or her know if you have physical limitations, such as a bad back or tight hamstrings. A good instructor will welcome this information and help you modify poses so they’re more accessible. He or she will also suggest props to make postures safer, such as positioning a folded blanket under your shoulders during shoulder stand or plow to help take the pressure off your neck. Private lessons are a great option if you’re working with a tricky body part. Even if you have no particular physical problems, a few one-on-one sessions can help you learn proper alignment to avoid future aches and pains.
It’s also important to consult your doctor before you start a yoga practice. Some poses may not be safe for certain health conditions. For example, Fishman says, people with glaucoma, a condition caused by pressure inside the eye, should not do headstands, which makes the pressure worse.
Above all, take to heart one of the key spiritual tenets of yoga: Don’t try to out-asana your classmates or force your body into an advanced posture it isn’t ready for. “The biggest factor in yoga injuries is ego,” Fishman says. “And if there’s anything yoga ain’t supposed to be about, it’s showing off and being competitive.”