Yoga can injure you. Here’s how to find a class that won’t

What is yoga? Sport, therapy, or is it a religion? If you’re not a yoga insider and you heard the director of the British Wheel of Yoga (BWY) clash with a Hindu monastic over these questions on the BBC this week, you’d be none the wiser. Their prickly duet sang of a subculture-turned-industry that not only can’t decide which of the three it is, but for decades has based its mystique on the tensions between them.

The question prompting this debate is whether or not yoga is ripe for regulatory intervention through a national occupational standard for teachers. The BWY, which has instigated this idea, says yes because yoga is causing physical injury, although it can’t say how much, and because some teacher training courses are too short – although they won’t say which ones. Swami Ambikananda Saraswati says no, because she claims yoga is a religion, and regulation would constitute a “neocolonial” intervention into an ancient tradition.

Both suffer from a cultish charisma that outperforms their evidence.

When BWY director Paul Fox asserts in scientific terms that yoga practice can deliver medical benefit via expert instruction, but it can also injure people if the instruction is poor, he sounds reasonable. However, data on both the good and bad of yoga postures is thin, because yoga is hard to study. Researchers face huge definitional, methodological and conflict-of-interest obstacles to finding the answers that would-be regulators would require. Whose yoga is being tested is the first question, followed by what that yoga consists of. Yoga tests are impossible to control or double-blind. And from the beginnings of modern yoga in 1930s India, researchers have been invested in positive outcomes. Many have been self-promoting teachers, propagandists, unwitting pseudoscientists, or a blend of the lot.

I can understand Fox’s warnings about injuries. When I started publishing on yoga, I too used to be outraged that people were getting hurt by yoga when they were looking for something that made them feel better. But I quickly realised my concern was about something deeper than the torn hamstrings and shoulder dislocations that could more easily happen at the gym or playing tennis. I learned that what little hard data we have shows that injury rates in yoga are quite low. And in more than 200 interviews with subjects injured doing yoga, I’ve found that “expert” teaching is as much a predictor of injury as a preventer.

‘Seek out independent, low-key teachers who don’t put on airs.’ Photograph: Alamy

Why? Because those “experts” who led yoga’s globalisation in the 1970s had some downright medieval ideas about the human body. Renowned yoga practitioner BKS Iyengar suggested that placing the full weight of the body on to one’s head in headstand was a great idea among other things. Pattabhi Jois – Fox’s own root-guru – named his joint-punishing Ashtanga Primary Series Therapy for the Body. Along with the echoes of their abusive childhoods, they passed these axioms down through harrowing training regimes in which devotion served as tuition.

My research has led me to believe that if there are injuries to worry about, they’re not primarily from particular postures or inadequate teacher training. They come from dysfunctional learning relationships in which the abusive attitudes and behaviours of top teachers are internalised by students. I’d be less interested in the resumés of ordinary British yoga teachers than in sussing out how to prevent personality cults which risk normalising questionable teaching methods. Think of Iyengar’s habit of slapping students to correct their positions .

For her part, Swami Ambikananda Saraswati seems keen on a different kind of micromanagement: to protect the image of yoga from business-oriented interlopers. But when she claims that she stewards a 5,000-year-old tradition that’s religious in nature, and Hindu in essence, and that regulating it would continue the barbarity of the British Raj, she stretches the ligaments of credulity. Her argument must surely make atheist, agnostic, Buddhist and Muslim yogis nervous, even as it neglects to note that regulatory oversight might have prevented some branches of yoga from falling into sociopathy cloaked by traditionalism.

Regulating yoga teaching could even protect her own school. Her Traditional Yoga Association claims its spiritual heritage through relationship to Swami Sivananda. Unfortunately, so does the Satyananda school of yoga, which has been rocked by allegations in Australia of historical child sexual abuse.

Yet, Swami Ambikananda is right to say the BWY’s regulatory initiative is needless. Questions of physical safety in yoga classes are working themselves out through simple market pressures. Many teacher training courses now hire physiotherapists or osteopaths to teach anatomy and physiology, and the new buzzwords of yogaland are “biomechanics”, “functional movement” and “trauma sensitivity”. Consensus is sure to develop around touchy issues like the safety of the headstand, heated studios or passive stretching. This will happen because people want it to happen, not because organisations like the BWY says it must.

While it all shakes out, people who just want to feel the loveliness of yoga can remember a few simple pointers. If you move with the simplicity and curiosity of a small child, you’re unlikely to hurt yourself. If a teacher seems to have an agenda for your body you don’t understand or didn’t consent to, they need to go to therapy.

Yoga bureaucrats cannot guarantee yoga safety. Nor can yoga priests. But if you seek out independent, low-key teachers who don’t put on airs and don’t lay their trips on your body, you might feel they naturally offer something that neither regulation nor religion can guarantee: humility.

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