New York Times Article about the Dangers of Yoga for Men

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.”

Anyone?…

This entry was posted in Health and Fitness, Yoga and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to New York Times Article about the Dangers of Yoga for Men

  1. I just finished reading Broad’s book… it’s right here beside me actually… loved his rigorous attention to science in his examination of yoga

  2. I want to strongly endorse the comments in this blog post. According to Broad’s book, the most undersold positive aspect of yoga is that there is NOTHING one can do that more strengthens the relaxation response than yoga done with breath awareness. I would go further than the authors and say that it is NEVER appropriate to “push past pain,” or even to push an asana in any way. (Pushing will always take you beyond your capacity in some sense.) The deeper, and especially the intangible scientific benefits of yoga are only obtained by relaxing into the depth of the posture. It doesn’t mean you can’t do asanas deeply; you just can’t do them fast. Two asanas in an hour is great plenty given warming up, variations and holding for some time. Any posture is an adhara, a support, for going into samadhi (Yoga Sutras II.47).

    While I like Broad’s effort very much for its empirical observations, whenever he starts to comment on tantra or the intangible depths of the tradition he goes wildly off the rails. I was shocked that someone who has practiced in some way since 1970 could have such a poor grasp of the deeper dimensions of yoga. In particular, his assertion that sexual relationships between students and teachers should not surprise us because hatha yoga derives from tantric practice which is about having better sex is riddled with serious misunderstandings. This is the same as saying that Christianity’s terrible relationship with many peoples derives from its central ritual being cannabalistic. The physical practices of yoga predate the formal hatha-yoga text tradition by millenia. They are referred to under different terminology in the Vedas and the Upanishads. Tantra is not about having better sex (although many choose to misuse it in that way). It is the science of sex-positive celibacy. Interested readers should look at the work of Stuart Sovatsky from California.

    In sum, there is no extra margin of risk for men or anyone else if yoga is done is done in the meditative context for which it is intended. The first verses of the Hatha-yoga-pradipika clearly state that the purpose of the hatha-yoga system is to serve the accomplishment of raja-yoga, which, according to Patanjai and Vyasa, means samadhi. (Not exercise, or weight loss, or therapy or better sex.)

    • Let me add to the last comment that these aspects of contemporary uses of yoga are positive side effects, but they are side effects, not main effects.

    • Agree whole heartedly. The goal of hatha yoga is to relax the body (nervous system) so the mind can focus and then go into a state of samadhi. It is that simple. Patanjali used the word “asana” which means in sanskrit “a position of comfort”- one that makes you at ease to support you in your meditation practices. Unfortunately, the western mind has to have addictions and habits and has now turned yoga into that which is the antithesis of it meaning.

  3. Sam Rao says:

    Responsibility for wellbeing of my students is mine.
    I personally make sure that every “macho” in my class ( both men and women ) are given permission to NOT to push or go for end game.
    ALL men and women respond to permission from the teacher.
    Are the injuries mentioned in this overrated article results of yoga teacher’s egos and lack of responsibility?

    • melissa.gutierrez says:

      Thank you, Stephen and Sam, for taking the time to share your thoughts! This is exactly the kind of conversation we are looking to start, so that as teachers (and students) we can elevate the practice of yoga. We agree that so many students would benefit from hearing a teacher tell them not to push. What Sam is pointing out probably isn’t communicated enough or effectively in many classes. Bravo, also, for knowing “macho” (ego) can show up in each person regardless of gender. But we also agree with Stephen about the breath and breath awareness. In the unfortunate times/spaces that students are not being told or are not hearing “not to push” then if they could learn to listen to the voice of their own bodies that would be even better. The breath is one of the ways that internal voice can be heard. We hope that more yoga classes will focus less on performance and more on helping students to connect with that profound sense of self. (Mel)

    • kim.lien says:

      Hi Sam, thanks for your response. I’m happy to find teachers who do give this permission to their students. To answer your question, I am not entirely certain, as I do not know how specific the data was that Broad used for this. It seems that he took the data from emergency room records, which would not indicate who is to blame. I have, personally, seen a bit of both. I have seen several people become injured from a teacher directly (through manual adjustments) moving them into a dangerous place. I have also seen students who ignore the advice of the teacher and push themselves into injury. As far as which scenario predominates, I would not even guess.

      Students’ responsibility in yoga classes has been a much debated topic among teachers, and is certainly a conversation worth having! Every teacher has a different teaching style and every student has a different relationship to his or her body. Personally, I have kicked students out of my classes (and refunded them) for not following cues if I felt that they were endangering their bodies. This is why I choose not to teach group classes. Some teachers, however, like to provide a playground of exploration to their students, knowing that each student will ultimately do as they please. Both methods, I feel, or any method are fine as long as the teacher is VERY CLEAR in their intention and do not give people cues that will endanger them, which requires them to be somewhat familiar with human kinesiology. However, no matter how clear we are about our intentions, as teachers, there will still be students who will not listen to us. Because of this, I feel that it may be too difficult of an endeavor as a teacher to hold ourselves personally responsible for everyone in the room (again, this is just my humble opinion). I make it a personal goal of mine to give my students the gift of self responsibility. I find that when people take responsibility for their own practice, it can be quite empowering. This process, of course, can take a very long time, so it can be difficult, if not impossible in a group setting. I think each teacher needs to find his or her own way. EXCELLENT conversation topic, and thanks again for your thoughtful response! (Kim)

  4. Larry says:

    Many of my male students want to “progress” from beginner classes to intermediate as quickly as possible. Regardless of how often permission is given to soften and back off, many males will muscle their way into a posture.

    • kim.lien says:

      Thank you for your comment, Larry. I do certainly agree that many students want to progress faster than they perhaps ‘should’, regardless of what the teacher says, and try to force themselves into poses. I have seen this, however, in both men and women.

      Students’ responsibility in yoga classes has been a much debated topic among teachers, and is certainly a conversation worth having! Every teacher has a different teaching style and every student has a different relationship to his or her body. Personally, I have kicked students out of my classes (and refunded them) for not following cues if I felt that they were endangering their bodies. This is why I choose not to teach group classes. Some teachers, however, like to provide a playground of exploration to their students, knowing that each student will ultimately do as they please. Both methods, I feel, or any method are fine as long as the teacher is VERY CLEAR in their intention and do not give people cues that will endanger them, which requires them to be somewhat familiar with human kinesiology. However, no matter how clear we are about our intentions, as teachers, there will still be students who will not listen to us. Because of this, I feel that it may be too difficult of an endeavor as a teacher to hold ourselves personally responsible for everyone in the room (again, this is just my humble opinion). I make it a personal goal of mine to give my students the gift of self responsibility. I find that when people take responsibility for their own practice, it can be quite empowering. This process, of course, can take a very long time, so it can be difficult, if not impossible in a group setting. I think each teacher needs to find his or her own way. EXCELLENT conversation topic, and thanks again for your thoughtful response! (Kim)

  5. Yogi Simon Gill says:

    HARI-OM
    I have gone through the New York Times Article “The dangers of yoga for men.” written by William J. Broad.

    Since last 24 yrs, I,m living the life of a yogi, at Rishikesh, in the foothills of the Himalayas.
    I,m practicing, experiencing, teaching and learning yoga. I never found yoga a dangerous thing, Since the ancient times yoga is being practiced by the yogis and sages. Even today, in the modern world, thousand of people getting benefits by yoga practice.

    It is also true that most of the people practice yoga for physical fitness only. No spiritual importance of yoga for them. They practice some hard postures directly without the guidance of any teacher or guru. In less time, they want to gain more by practice.
    So they practice with wrong way. By over-practice and by over-stretching of muscles, nerves and joints, they get injuries.

    In my yoga center, I have experienced many cases like this. People come from Western or European countries and in one week or two week they want to learn the maximum.They want to make their bodies flexible in short period or they want to loose their weight in less time.I found some people practicing at night also.At the same time i found practicing people all the time.It is a wrong way. Yoga does not teach these wrong things.

    So, the people get injuries by their own fault. Therefore please do not blame to YOGA.

    Namaste

    • melissa.gutierrez says:

      Hi Simon. Agreed: The quality and results of the practice are dependent upon the attitudes and intentions that students bring to it! But the physical aspects (asana and pranyama) of a complete Yoga practice should still be discussed in the context of modern science, bio-mechanics and physiology. This way we can all be better informed students and teachers.

  6. Siddharta says:

    My general sense is that yoga means different things to different people. Like it or not yoga has also become a physical practice and because so people that do not listen to what their bodies are telling them get injured. Perhaps the fact that man get more injuries (if that is true) is given simple to the fact that man have been programmed (by society and so on) to display power. I have practiced yoga 22 years now and I had to go through my injuries (for example a broken meniscus perhaps due too forcing myself to lotuses postures and pigeons). ALso yoga can be different things in different times of our life for the some person. I would like also to mention that despite of Patanjali’s meaning of yoga were the some Indians that developed and performed yoga asanas as a form of body-mind practices starting from the body, shape your body and your will shape your Mind (see Mr. Ayengar and Mr. Pattabhi Jois amongst others).

    However I strongly believe that a through yogi learns to learn from any given situation. And that suffering is very much part of the lesson that the practice of yoga share. I learned through the wrong practice to redefine what yoga means to me. But I also learned that no matter how careful and tuned I am, pain and sorrow are bound to be experienced, simple because we are humans. The important is learning to accept where we are at and keep practicing a yoga personalized to out own needs.

    I have enjoyed all the comments and I do agree that if we are to contextualize yoga in the framework of bio-mechanics and physiology that the more we know in scientific terms the better it is. But yoga is a science in itself that when learned by using the right texts teach us on other levels that transcend our personal physical dimension and moves as to the energetic-spiritual and transpersonal level, which at the end is part of our own consciousness or being.

    Thanks everyone for sharing and I hope I contributed a little for someone.

  7. Pingback: Is Yoga Actually Dangerous for Men? |

  8. Erik Carlson says:

    I have taken a number of yoga classes over the years and I teach Chinese bodywork(Tai Chi). My biggest fear with my beginner male students are the 30 and 40 somethings. Whether they take yoga or tai chi, they think they are still 20 years old. Rather than listening to their own body and respecting their current limitations; they try to hold asana deeper and longer than they should. My past students in their sixties and seventies never had a problem in my classes, because they were apprehensive in what they could do. They slowly worked their way into deeper and deeper body positions over a longer period of time. I personally believe that thirty and forty year old males get this competitive mind set, which pushes them into trouble. I constantly remind my students (especially the 30 and 40 somethings) to take their time, to not move into pain, listen to their body, and respect their current range of motion. …Range of motion and flexibility can change to their benefit and without pain with enough mindful practice.

  9. Mel says:

    good converstation…Yoga is to heal, not to hurt. Yogaaaaaaaaahhhhh :)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>