When I signed up for yoga classes two years ago, I confidently expected that I would be able to release stress and anxiety, bring mind and body into harmony, improve my sleep and get rid of my neck and shoulder cramps.
All this happened and more. As I progressed, I was delighted to be able to regain much of the athleticism and acrobatic ability of my childhood. I could still do the backbend! I could stand on my head! I could bend forward and put my head on my knees!
So far, so good until my enthusiasm for attempting ever more-advanced postures resulted in my developing a hernia and then dislocating a facet joint in my lower back. The hernia means I will have to go into hospital to have the spilling gut sewn back in place under general anaesthetic. I was in agony with the back problem until I had the joint yanked back into place by a chiropractor.
Before I started advanced yoga classes, I was in perfect physical health. So what went wrong? Isn’t yoga supposed to be gentle, relaxing, calming and safe?
Well, yes and no. Yoga is rapidly becoming the most popular method of relaxation and stress management, and recent clinical trials in hospitals in America and Europe have established that it can be extremely therapeutic, and help with diabetes and asthma, bring down high blood pressure and even reverse coronary heart disease.
When it’s taken very gently, that is. But there is also an “Olympic” side to yoga, which is extremely strenuous and highly demanding of the body, and if you suddenly take up strenuous yoga after years of physical inactivity, as I did, you can expect your body to rebel.
When I ripped and tore my gut and put my back out, I was doing advanced postures such as the cobra, whereby you lie on your stomach and arch the back in order to touch your head with your toes.
The other yoga fact is that although about 80 percent of practitioners in the West are women, it was originally designed more than 2,000 years ago for men’s bodies, which are generally stronger and more muscular and do not have an internal reproductive system.
Even nowadays, women are advised to abstain from some of the more exotic postures (such as the peacock, where the elbows are dug tight into the sides of the body in order to lift it off the ground) because of possible damage to the reproductive system. Inverted postures, such as the headstand and shoulder-stand, are not recommended during menstruation.
Dr Robin Munro, a former molecular biologist who since 1983 has run the Yoga Biomedical Trust to put yoga on a modern, scientific basis, agrees it can be dangerous.
“There are several different types of yoga, ranging from those which simply relax the mind and body to those where there is a strong emphasis on high-level performance. It’s here that injuries can occur,” he says. Typically the injury will be to muscles and joints: knee joints are particularly vulnerable.
“With the more strenuous types of yoga, there are exactly the same dangers as with any other sport. Most world-class athletes sustain many injuries and, in this, yoga is no different. People tend to think that yoga classes are all the same, whereas they vary considerably.”
For therapeutic purposes, Dr Munro suggests the yoga should be very gentle. Yoga, he adds, can be very good for conditions such as PMT and migraine, if it is related to breathing, rather than doing yoga which revolves around complicated postures. But people who are not in good health should not consider “postural” yoga.
“The problem is that people become very competitive,” Dr Munro says. “All good teachers will emphasize that members of the class are not in competition with each other, but it’s hard to stop people competing against themselves, trying to achieve a posture that has defeated them.”
There are special dangers, he says, for women. “You’ll notice in most yoga classes that the women are far more supple than the men. But that extra male stiffness is actually a protection against injury in yoga. One of the reasons men are less supple is because they have stronger muscles, and strong muscles are more difficult to bend.”
A good teacher should point all this out, Dr Munro says, and should also watch to see whether any members of the class are straining themselves beyond their limits. Although it is good to push yourself at first, the idea behind yoga is to sustain postures without pushing or straining.
As with most exercise classes, anybody can set up as a yoga teacher without having any proper training. Injuries are less likely to happen when teachers have trained with a recognized school, but of course they can never be ruled out.
Established schools of high-level yoga such as Iyengar and Sivananda, which are extremely strenuous, insist on proper training programs for their teachers. The British Wheel of Yoga, which runs classes all over the country, is gentle and relaxing, and would appeal more to people wanting to reduce stress.
“Most of the clinical studies have taken place with gentle forms of yoga,” Dr Munro says. “We now need to carry out trials with postural yoga, to see just what health benefits it can bring.”