Recently, William J. Broad, author of The Science of Yoga, wrote an article exploring men’s experiences with yoga.  Some of those experiences are not so pretty.  But does that mean yoga is a dangerous practice for men in general?  This newest article has stirred up quite the conversation. Here’s what we think:

We like that William Broad, as well as others like Loren Fishman (check out our previous blog posts) are examining Yoga under a scientific lense.  Much like ourselves, they are scientists at heart who practice yoga enthusiastically (not dogmatically), because they understand the true benefits, but who are not afraid of applying critical thinking to the practice. Since mainstream yoga in this country revolves around the idea of a physical practice, it is not exempt from the scrutiny of exercise science, and must be examined from a biomechanical standpoint. People like Broad and Fishman have collected data and case studies over decades, and like true scientists, analyze the data in order to present reasonable conclusions to the public. The flip side to this is… what is the general public to do with this information? In Broad’s newest article in the New York Times entitled “The Perils of Yoga for Men,” he writes about data that he has collected, that seems to indicate that men who practice yoga incur more injuries than women. While this is certainly a conversation that we need to be having, our fear is that it will drive men away from what we see as an essential practice in this day and age.

The ironic thing is that when the physical practice of yoga started to blossom in India, the practice (at least from what we have read and seen from numerous textbooks) seemed to be largely male dominated, and the types of injuries outlined in Broad’s article didn’t seem to be frequent enough to take notice of the public eye. Perhaps the frequency of these injuries among men speaks more of a cultural specificity, rather than gender specificity. Should this phenomenon be examined? Absolutely! We should be asking WHY this is happening. However, we want to express our opinion that gender stereotypes may not be a useful piece of the argument. This is a topic of an entirely different debate and is not why we are writing this post, BUT we felt it would be irresponsible of us not to speak from our experience that generalizations are not always helpful. For the sake of simplicity, let’s just ASSUME that there is a large disparity between men and women in the practice of yoga and let’s assume that men are “tighter” (again, another misleading word that merits a topic for a different debate) and that women are more elastic.

There are a couple of things to examine here. Current physiology tells us that the only sensory feedback that our brain receives from our muscles come from the spindles, which primarily sense stretch and the rate of stretch. If men do have “tighter” muscles, their spindles would send a signal to their brain much faster than someone more elastic when they enter into a pose that is beyond their current range of motion. The choice to ignore such a loud and screaming signal, in that case, would require a lot of willpower. And we do see this in class! People grimacing in poses, losing awareness of their breath and pushing themselves beyond what their body is telling them to do. Once these signals are ignored, it is easy to see why one might end up in the emergency room with an acute injury! However… it takes a certain kind of person to ignore these loud signals! My guess would be that the kind of person who would ignore these signals in yoga, would ignore the signals in ANY physical activity he or she chose to do and would most likely wind up with an acute injury later on down the line from that activity.

So do we blame yoga? Or is there something else we should be looking at? The data that Broad collected is indeed telling, but what would happen if we compared this to data from other types of physical activities (and he may have already done this)?

Another point we should examine is… what do we mean by injury? A lot of this data seems to be taken from emergency rooms, but what if we step into the realm of chronic injuries, which can in some cases be more devastating and may not land us in the emergency room? From personal experience, I can say that, although women may not be the ones frequenting the ER in this context, they certainly seem to be prone to chronic injuries like labrum tears (non-acute), chronically “pulled” hamstrings that have lasted for years (it is actually so common, it is termed “yoga butt”), osteoarthritis (from bony surfaces rubbing together and causing bone growth), nerve damage (non-acute), etc, etc, etc… So while some women may seem to walk out of class without injury, later on down the line their “flexibility” may actually harm them. What is useful to say here is that this is NOT an occurance specific to yoga.

These kinds of injuries, chronic or acute, happen with any physical activity and ESPECIALLY with lack of physical activity. It has been shown over and over again that being sedentary is more harmful to the body than being active. So why talk about yoga?  There has been an underlying assumption that yoga is “safe” and somehow exempt from other activities in that regard, and that is just not true. The attention Broad focuses on yoga is important.  

But that does not mean people should be afraid of yoga. In order to not drive them away from the practice, it might also be helpful to compare this data to the data (for instance, Dr. Fishman’s) or testimony of those who have been helped by the practice of yoga. We would be willing to bet that, even when only taking this information from men, this data will far outweigh the negative. This is just to say, that we really need to look at this information in context.

Does this mean that men should stop doing yoga? Absolutely not, and we know that Broad would agree. The problem with writing this kind of article is how the public will interpret it. A lot of men might read this article and be scared away from practicing yoga, thinking that it is specifically unsafe for men. With all the known benefits of yoga, it’s sad to see the media shedding such a bad light on it within the past year. Because we personally interviewed Broad (check out the blog post), we know that this was not his intention.  He even mentions that he is a yoga enthusiast, has his own practice and a good portion of his book is dedicated to the benefits of a yoga practice. He says in the article “I’m a yoga enthusiast, not a basher. I do my routine every day and want the practice to thrive — but to do so honestly, with public candor about its real strengths and weaknesses.”  We want yoga to be safer also! This is certainly a conversation worth having, but we need to be careful about scaring people away from a largely beneficial practice.

All of this begs the question: Is yoga unsafe? If you observe a general class being taught today, where people are contorting their bodies into what seem to be unnatural shapes, then maybe it is and the “yoga” that Broad talks about in his article is this kind of practice. Men who were interviewed in the article explain their injuries by blaming it on “pushy teachers who force them into advanced poses while urging them to ignore pain.” Our question is: Is that really yoga? We are inclined to say no. No decent yoga teacher should EVER tell their students to ignore and push past pain.  If you read our previous blog post about what yoga is and isn’t (or you just do a quick google search), you will find a plethora of information that may not match what you currently know of as “yoga.” To us, yoga is a chance to build a stronger relationship to your body, not a weaker one. Yoga gives us a chance to listen to the body, not to ignore it. What these men are doing is not yoga. It is contortion, which can be dangerous.  A REAL yoga practice would actually be essential to these men and can ultimately help them avoid injury.

Lastly, we were very confused by a portion of this article and  would love clarification on one quote in particular,  because as it stands, this does not make physiological sense to us: “Tara Stiles, a yoga teacher who runs a popular studio in Manhattan, told me that guys have more muscle (one reason for their relative inflexibility) and can thus force themselves into challenging poses they might otherwise find impossible.”