Don't bend until you break

For yoga lovers, and yoga haters, it was the headline that ricocheted around the world. ''How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body'' declared The New York Times in January, followed by five pages of warnings about which injuries you could sustain if you practised a discipline that has been touted for decades as a cure for everything from high blood pressure to a sluggish sex life.

The damage includes, according to the science writer William Boyd, everything from the minor (shoulder strains) to the major (stroke, chronic back pain), and is the result of a variety of factors. They range from insufficiently trained yoga teachers who regularly push students beyond their abilities to classes that are too big, prohibiting teachers from effectively monitoring students, and inherently risky poses such as head stands.

The backlash was swift. One New York yoga group hit back with its own article (''How The New York Times Can Wreck Yoga'') and The Hindu American Association - along with countless yoga teachers and students - labelled the article a beat-up.

Of course, they said, practising risky poses when you have an existing injury will hurt you. Or,

as one writer from the online magazine Spaweekly put it: ''Why

not publish an article titled 'How Running Can Wreck Your Knees', or 'How Moving a Refrigerator can Crush Your Toes, Break Your Back

and Rip Your Rotator Cuff'?''

It is the dark side of an activity long touted for its new-age benefits, says a Camperdown yoga teacher, Sophie Langley.

''Because it can be such a healing thing to do, I think that perhaps [that aspect of yoga] is talked about much more [than the injuries],'' says Langley, who has suffered hip pain during yoga practice, although she is unsure whether moves such as back bends caused the problem or simply brought her attention to it. ''That means that [people] come expecting that it will be this magical thing.''

The fallout from this lack of understanding about the risks of practising yoga is something a Melbourne physiotherapist, Rebecca Wade, sees in her practice regularly.

''We have lots of patients that are dissatisfied with their yoga practice; they may not have done big injuries but pull up a little bit sore from their yoga classes,'' she says.

The main problem, Wade says, is that students who might have a ''directional bias'' - possibly because of a pre-existing injury - are often doing moves that run contrary to the way their body wants to move.

''So for a person who has a prolapsed disc, they don't like bending forward. And if they do it repeatedly, like with a seated forward bend, they'll aggravate it.''

Karyn Chapman, a yoga teacher from Brisbane, thinks much of the blame for injuries can be laid on negligent teachers.

Chapman specialises in the Alexander Technique, a physical regime that teaches optimal posture. She says she has had many students who have suffered injuries as a result of teachers aggressively correcting their bodies while trying a position.

''I have loads of yoga students where they've been pulled, have torn ligaments, pulled in split positions, all sorts of terrible things. Often it's not gentle, how the [teacher's] corrections are done. Often the teachers aren't that well informed about the problems [a student may have]. You've got to be quite careful.''

The president of Yoga Australia, Michael de Manincor, agrees. ''Don't let teachers correct you other than gentle correction or alignment,'' he says. ''In some cases yoga teachers are giving quite strong physical adjustments [without] really knowing the risk to that particular individual student, and injuries occur.''

The most common injuries he hears about in yoga practice are knee, back and neck strains.

As for certain positions being inherently dangerous, this, he says, is true, specifically of ''inversion'' moves. These include head stands, which can place undue pressure on the neck. Then there is ''the penultimate of yoga postures, the sitting lotus which has high risk on knees'' if the position is held for too long, or attempted by a student who is not ready to tackle it.

So what should yoga practitioners, or those wanting to give it a go for the first time, do in order to safeguard against injury?

De Manincor says those at all levels should opt for a small class, to enable teachers to give them individual instruction. Beginners unsure of which type of yoga to do might want to consider styles that are known to be gentle, such as Viniyoga (a type of Hatha yoga) and the Krishnamacharya tradition.

A caveat, he says, is that all prospective students should investigate the qualifications of the teacher, given that there is no standard that teachers in Australia must reach in order to lead classes.

''Anyone can do anything they want,'' he says. He also says different yoga training institutes adhere to different standards. Whereas Yoga Australia requires teachers to complete a minimum of 350 hours of training over at least a year to become a full member, other schools require only 200 hours. Sometimes this 200 hours training occurs over the course of only a month, and the training courses are sold as being ''internationally registered'' as such training adheres to American teaching standards.

Chapman agrees prospective students should take an active approach.

''The problem is that yoga has such a virtuous reputation, people think, 'I must be doing it wrong' [if a position feels bad]. They give up all thinking when they come to a class; they expect the teacher to do the thinking for them.''

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