During the past 10 years, Yoga has become a staple practice by spiritualists and fitness enthusiasts alike. On a personal level, I think that’s kind of cool. It is good to see that a discipline such as Yoga, which until recently was limited to a very specific subculture, has found more widespread growth and is providing benefits to a much larger group of people than ever before. It has followed a similar path that martial arts have in the past 20-30 years, going from something generally viewed as obscure and quasi-mystical to more mainstream acceptance as a viable pursuit in terms of fitness and wellness.
Yoga, however, is not for everyone. Certain movements and postures within the various disciplines can be not only difficult but downright dangerous. Some movements are bad news for the lumbar spine and several poses and positions have been blamed for leading to brain related injuries.
Most of the issues that I have with Yoga stem from potential risk to the spine. Over the past 5 years or so, a great deal of information has come forward about how certain exercises affect the spinal column, especially that area known as the Lumber Spine. If you go to a gym you are going to see people performing crunches for the abs and hyperextension movements for the muscles in the lower back. Current research is suggesting that both of these movements are bad for the lumbar region of the spine and cause the discs that exist between the individual vertebrae to degrade and potentially burst. Crunches flex the lumbar spine. Hyperextensions extend the lumbar spine.
Another movement or position that is terrible for the lower back is rotational pressure or twisting the spine. Until recently it was not uncommon to walk into a strength and conditioning facility and see the students or clients going through a variety of twisting and rotational motions with the intention of creating greater lumbar mobility. The problem is that the lumbar spine is not meant to be mobile… it’s a series of joints specifically designed to provide stability. Rotation is about the worst thing that you can do to the lower back. At most, the lumbar spine can only rotate about 10 degrees. I often tell my clients that rotating the lumbar spine has the same effect on the discs as a cheese grater has on a chunk of parmesan cheese.
Now here’s the kicker… We find all three of these movements in several poses and positions commonly practiced in Yoga. If you are overarching your back, that’s bad. If you are hyper extending your back, that’s bad. If you are twisting your lower back, that’s bad. It doesn’t matter if the discipline that teaches it is 5,000 years old.
Lumbar spinal injuries are not the only potentially damaging effects of Yoga practice. Hyperextension and flexion of the neck can be dangerous as well. Extreme movements of the cervical spine can cause problems with arteries that run in the neck, thereby decreasing blood flow and resulting in a number of problems ranging from headaches and dizziness to more severe problems such as strokes and potentially death.
There will probably be people out there who will be offended by reading this, thinking that it is an attack on something that is both ancient and revered across the globe. For many people out there, Yoga is more than a component of fitness, but an entire belief system; criticism of it will probably come off not only as an attack on the physical practices but also of everything they hold dear. That’s not my intention. I do feel that as other ancient disciplines have evolved over the years, such as martial arts, yoga should as well. There is no reason to continue practicing a movement if we suddenly learn that it is detrimental to a person’s overall health. I would also recommend that Yoga instructors seek additional knowledge about the human body by pursuing personal training certifications and attending workshops on basic anatomy and kinesiology.
The big issue here is not about attacking Yoga. I personally feel that it is a beautiful discipline and has benefited the lives of millions of people worldwide. The goal is to make people tread carefully. If you are in good health and have no pre-existing physical issues, such as lower back problems, think twice. If you do have some type of pre-existing issue like lower back or cervical spine problems, or if you’ve had a stroke or some other limitation, think a lot more than twice. It also wouldn’t hurt to seek out an instructor who has a background in personal training or strength and conditioning; someone with a knowledge base who can tell you what is safe and what isn’t.
There are certain movements and positions that are good for the body and certain ones that are wrong and can cause both minor and major injuries. It doesn’t matter that that these movements are part of an ancient discipline. Just because something has been practiced a certain way for 5000 years, it doesn’t make it right. It just means that people have been doing something wrong for a long, long time.