How To Not Let Yoga Wreck Your Body

The New York Times recently published an article entitled How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body, spurring outrage throughout the yoga community, insofar as yogis can actually be outraged.  For me, I read the article and had a number of reactions and feelings, so much so that I needed some time to organize my thoughts. The general message of the article highlights the growing number of yoga-related injuries and concludes that the vast majority of people should steer clear of yoga altogether.

I consider myself to be a yogi, no matter how pretentious that sounds.  I have practiced Mysore-style Ashtanga yoga for almost five years.  I have never sustained an injury.  My initial reaction to the article was that anything – anything – can wreck your body if you let your ego get in the way.  I’m in good shape, but I’m not a runner; if I suddenly started running 10K a day, assuming that I purchased running shoes, which I do not currently own, you can bet I would injure myself, pending my not collapsing and dying from that much cardio.  I mean, I am someone who ended up in the ER from playing recreational slo-pitch.  Any kind of physical activity can be injurious if you are not aware of your own body and your own limitations, or in my case, if you take a line drive to the throat. 

I have known people to injure themselves performing yoga postures, it’s true.  I know people with tight hips forcing themselves into lotus, blowing out their knees.  I have known people to do one of those dreadful hot yoga classes, overstretch and tear a hamstring.  Shoulders, necks, backs: I’ve known people to injure themselves doing certain postures.

If you try this in a “hot yoga” class you may tear your hamstring.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t practice yoga.

The Primary Series of Ashtanga is known as the “healing series”, something I truly believe because it healed me.  So why is yoga wrecking bodies, as the article suggests?

If you have back problems, don’t do backbends.  You can still practice yoga.

First, I think we need to address the matter of semantics.  Differences in connotations and personal interpretations can really fire up an argument.  I can tell you I used to get irrationally annoyed when people would refer to their toddlers’ daycare centre as “school”.  Honestly, did it matter what anyone called it?  Did it make a difference?  No.  But yet I would be bothered always by the switch in title.

And this is why simply using the word “yoga” in such a sweeping way bothers me.  What I think of as yoga and what the article is talking about are two very different things.

When I first started at my studio, a teacher said to me “There is a difference between going to yoga classes and having a yoga practice.”  And there, exactly, is the point.  Going to a yoga class and treating it as a kick ass workout – that is where the injuries happen.  Competition, ego, and envy are injury instigators.  Pressure from inferior teachers who don’t know individual bodies and limitations leads to injuries.  Attempting difficult or complicated postures in a crowded, sweaty room without first obtaining the proper knowledge, strength, and flexibility is an injury waiting to happen.  Turning your attention outward instead of inward, not paying attention to your body and what it is telling you, letting what happened yesterday affect your feelings about today can lead to pain and injury.

You can’t learn this in a led class.  You need a teacher to help you, one-on-one. 
But that doesn’t mean you can’t practice yoga.

In Mysore-style Ashtanga, students practice the sequence of postures at their own pace with a teacher to assist and adjust them properly.  The benefit of this style is that you do not go past your own limitations; you do not move to the next posture until you can properly and safely perform the previous postures.  The teacher deems you to be ready when you are ready.  The teacher works with you one-on-one and learns your body and your strengths and weaknesses.  As an example, here is a video showing this style of yoga (fun fact: I am wearing a pale pink top and light grey tights – can you spot me?)

But posture – or asana – is only one of eight limbs of Ashtanga.  Only one.  Of utmost importance is the limb of ahimsa, which means non-harming.  This includes non-harming to ones’ self.  My beloved teacher is known to say “Do this posture at the expense of absolutely nothing.”  Taking this advice eliminates the possiblity of yoga wrecking your body.  He also says “You want to do this your whole life.”  I do.  So I draw my attention inward.

The other limbs include breath control, inner peace and inner observation, and living ethically.  It doesn’t really matter if you can hold your leg behind your head then float back to chaturanga if you roll up your mat and resume your life as an asshole.  That’s not yoga.  Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, the Guruji of Ashtanga yoga, said that yoga is for ALL people, except for lazy people.  I really believe that.  I have a friend who is featured in this video; he is amazing, he has a beautiful practice, I am inspired to be in his presence.  But also inspiring are all the people I see every day, every morning at yoga practice, all those people in the previous video.  Our practices all look different; our bodies are all different, but we are all there, with intention.  From the very beginner who struggles through sun salutations to the very advanced practitioner who takes my breath away with their physical stamina; those people who are true to themselves and their practice, those who live an ethical, compassionate life, those who cultivate patience and kindness, those people are true yogis and are inspirational, always.

Practicing asana is important – it gives concentration, it gives physical strength and stamina, but of greater importance is to live the yoga, to take it off the mat and live a life of compassion and inner reflection and non-harming – to others and to yourself.  That is yoga, true yoga, and it cannot wreck your body.


  1. This is awesome. I know nothing about Yoga except you do it and look amazing. I thought they were all the same. My SIL did hot yoga and it sounded horrifying, instructor barking at them, room cranked up and she ripped a bunch of muscles in her back. So, while I wanted to try it (and maybe someday look a quarter as amazing as you) I was nervous.
    Those pictures are amazing.

  2. You are beautiful, inside & out & I’m so lucky to have you as a friend.

    We have a family friend who is a surgeon & has seen rotator cuff surgeries on 9-17 year old softball players spike 800% in the last 5 years.

    It’s not the sport that is suddenly hurting kids, it’s the weird drive to be THE best, to not listen to your body, to push & push. To expect some sort of prize or monetary gain, or to look hotter than your neighbor, & to need those results NOW. We’ve forgotten how to do things out of simple enjoyment, or because they make our hearts happy.

    And then we get hurt.

    (All I know about hot yoga is from that best of craigslist ad. )

  3. Weird it deleted the “htm” at the end of that link.

    Or “Best of Craigslist Yoga mat for sale. Used once.”


  4. What a great post. A great, gentle but strong rebuttal to the ‘yoga breaks people!’ panic that I’ve seen floating around the Internet. How ridiculous. It’s like puppies breaking people.

    Anyway, your kind of yoga sounds delicious. I had no idea it existed. I have only ever done community centre yoga and it has been beneficial to me. There was one yoga instructor who came to my workplace and did classes once a week, and he was awesome, but he moved to Mexico with his boyfriend and I just can’t afford to follow him.

    I also hate it when people call their daycares schools. I thought i was the only one.

  5. Sweet Balucanag says

    I have taught myself some yoga by looking at videos over youtube and i haven’t incurred injuries, so far…

  6. I’ve been doing yoga for a couple of years now and um, I couldn’t even begin to do those poses. You are amazing! I really like what you said about there being a difference between taking a class, and having a practice. I’ve never thought about that before, and I’ve definitely been doing just a series of classes (with sneak peeks at the people next to me for comparison purposes, of course). I have a renewed focus! Thanks.

  7. Well said. I am impressed with the last pose.


  8. All good points. I’m generally skeptical of articles that make sweeping generalizations about how some kind of food or exercise or whatever is going to hurt people. I enjoyed yoga as a relaxing stretching exercise on days I didn’t do cardio until my gym got a new teacher who was too intense and tried to insist I do moves I was not able to do. I stopped going. I don’t see how that kind of thing is any different from some aerobics or kick boxing instructor who tries to push me too hard. Any physical activity has the potential to injure if not done right.

  9. A well written article Nicole (as they all are) on a subject close to my heart.

  10. I have a jacked back…like I have a 90 year old spine…with that said, I took a yoga class for bad backs and let me tell you…it was glorious.
    The stretching; heaven.
    The relaxation; awesome.
    If I had the money, I’d go again.

  11. I hurt myself playing Wii golf, so who am I to judge? And I co-sign everything that Eryn wrote.

    Also, I’m taking it personally that my CAPTCHA word is “unpure.” That hurts.

  12. I can’t do Yoga at all without cracking up. For some reason I find the whole thing hilarious. I think it’s pretty awesome when people can do it though.

  13. Sharing the post all over the internet because it is WONDERFUL. Also, this: “It doesn’t really matter if you can hold your leg behind your head then float back to chaturanga if you roll up your mat and resume your life as an asshole” may be the single greatest sentence ever written.

    You’re my hero. My new yoga video as recommended by you should be arriving this week! Hubs & I are both excited to (gently, peacefully) start our own practice.

  14. I love yoga and it’s only helped me with problems I was having.
    Many people I work with have hurt themselves at Yoga but they take a class, they don’t have a practice…. it is a BIG difference and an important lesson to learn.

  15. Cherie Beyond says

    I love this so much. I used to have a very regular home practice, but I let it slide post-kids. I’m trying to get moving again, for the sake of my back and my sanity, and I have to constantly remind myself about non-harm. I’m frustrated, you see, that I can’t do what I used to do even though it has been five years since I’ve had a regular practice. So I push, and then I’m unsatisfied.

    I have never done much Ashtanga, mostly hatha and anusara, but I’m interested in the Primary Series as a way to rebuild my practice. Obviously, one-on-one is the best option, but what if it’s not available? Should I just stick with what I know, or is there an online/book/something that could guide me?

  16. Cherie, Mark Darby has an excellent video simply entitled Ashtanga Yoga (it’s available on amazon). It is the Primary Series but it includes modifications to all the postures. It also has the full series, a 30 minute option, and a 10 minute option, which I think is brilliant for home practioners who may not always have time for the full thing. His video also has a lot of wonderful tips on breathing, strengthening, and non-harming. Good luck!

  17. You really nailed it with “Going to a yoga class and treating it as a kick ass workout – that is where the injuries happen.” The very first yoga class I ever took was advertised for active, athletic people who wanted a good workout, which I was . . . a little too much, though . . . I jumped right in like it was a competition, and my back did end up getting injured.

  18. THIS was the post you were agonizing over? But you’re so balanced and reasonable – if I was going to agonize over a post, I’d try to offend at least ONE person.

    I agree with whoever said the thing about the sweeping generalizations (i.e. they’re dumb). I’m not very flexible and I hate trying to fold myself over my stomach, so I keep not trying yoga, but man I need healing, so I keep thinking maybe I should try it, but then I procrastinate so god knows if I ever will try it, but if I don’t it sure as hell won’t be because of some stupid article that says yoga breaks everyone. Also, could you stop recommending Mark Darby because I keep thinking you’re saying Mark Darcy and getting all excited (“Colin Firth has a yoga video???!!!! EEEEEEEEK!”). Also, now I want a pretzel.

  19. I have to say I feel like your comments about hot yoga in your article as overgeneralized as the article you referenced about yoga in general. Like every other kind of yoga, hot yoga is awesome for you as long as you pay attention to your body by remaining mindful and don’t overdo it.

  20. You are RIDICULOUSLY flexible. I can’t even tough my toes. I am in awe.

  21. Thanks so much for this post. I am really new to Yoga and I didn’t realize there was so much to it. I though it was just common sense not to stretch yourself beyond what you can stretch yourself. I am loving doing Yoga every day and I can understand why the yoga community would be outraged at such a sweeping statement. I guess people are so immune to hearing that McDonalds is bad for you that they have to start barking up the yoga tree? I also love your comments about living yoga – not just in the studio. I notice how my own body craves the moves and how I feel when I’m doing the moves. It just feels good on so many levels.

  22. What an interesting post! Also, you are cr-azy flexible. I really enjoyed the yoga classes I have taken. Unfortunately, I kept having to bail on them because my husband was away or whatever. Now that the kids are sort of occupied a couple mornings a week I’ve been thinking about signing up again.


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