While yoga is typically viewed as a safe, low-impact form of exercise, concerns have been raised over the last few years regarding the safety of the practice. Inciting this discussion was perhaps the best-selling book by William Broad, The Science of Yoga. Outlining the existing information regarding yoga-related injuries, this was the first time many had even considered the possibility of injury with the practice of yoga. This book has remained controversial, especially within the yoga community, as many have expressed their disapproval of the way in which the information is presented. Despite the massive attention that this book has received, it was not based on any collective, published research evidence. In fact, it was only recently that the first study on the risk of injury with various forms of yoga was published in the October, 2013 issue of the PLOS.
This study, “Adverse Events Associated with Yoga: A Systematic Review of Published Case Reports and Case Series,” was the first to report the reported cases of yoga injuries collectively. They examined several of the most practiced forms of yoga in the U.S. including Hatha, Bikram, Vinyasa, Pranayama, and Siddha yoga meditation as well as commonly practiced postures like headstand, shoulder stand, lotus, and forceful breathing.
Of the 76 cases reported, 51 were female and 25 male with an overall mean age of 44. The style of yoga most associated with injuries was surprisingly not the physical practices at all, but Pranayama (yogic breathing) with a reported 5 injuries followed by Hatha and Bikram with 4 and then Siddha meditation and Vinyasa yoga with a reported 3. The yoga postures most associated with injuries were headstand with a reported 10 cases followed by shoulder stand, lotus, and forceful breathing with 3 cases each.
There is always the potential for injury while engaging in physically demanding activity of any kind and yoga is no different in that regard. The question is to ask is “do the potential health benefits outweigh the risk of injury?”
Traditional exercise is recommended by health professionals across a broad spectrum, despite the fact there is the potential for heart attack, stroke, musculoskeletal injury and several others as a result of engaging in cardio or weightlifting. The reason for this is that while likely thousands of injuries have been reported, there are tens of thousands of studies that have documented the benefits of exercise as well. Thus overall, according the research, the potential for beneficial results far outweighs the risk of injury.
While there are far fewer studies on the benefits of yoga as compared to traditional exercise, according to the existing evidence, it appears that the benefits of this practice are many while the reported injuries are few by comparison. There are now more than 2,000 publications on yoga and likely hundreds more studies ongoing worldwide. As with any form of exercise, proceeding with caution is your best bet.
Stacy D. Hunter, PhD