Stretch | When Yoga Hurts

The New York Times—July 24, 2010

As Cathy Lilly folded into downward dog at a workshop in January, a novice instructor, eager to help, lifted Ms. Lilly’s thumbs and angled them forward. Her thumbs are still recovering from the strain.

Isn’t yoga supposed to be good for you? After all, doctors prescribe it to injured athletes and cancer patients. And while tennis players can expect ripped-up elbows and runners know they may blow out their knees, yogis don’t usually anticipate having to hobble off their mats.
It is this “do no harm” mind-set that can lead to strained backs, pulled knees, aching wrists and slipped discs. Ms. Lilly is part of a growing roster of yoga practitioners on injured reserve.

“Yoga is a good thing, so you tend to push further than you would in a sport where you are actually more attuned to injury and afraid of injuries,” said Dr. Michelle Carlson, an orthopedic surgeon at Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan who specializes in arms and hands. She said she recently “saw four women in a row in my office with hand injuries from yoga.”

Nobody seems to keep careful track of the numbers. The most recent estimate comes from the United States Product Safety Commission, which tracks sports injuries: it listed 4,450 reported yoga injuries in 2006, up from 3,760 in 2004. But Dr. Carlson and several others said they had seen large increases lately, as yoga became more popular. “I have been doing this for 20 years, and I didn’t see yoga injuries 20 years ago,” Dr. Carlson said. “I can see a couple of injuries a week.”

The best way to avoid injury, particularly if your body is creaky, is to take it slow and make sure to nail the fundamentals, experts said. Injuries can happen with all forms of yoga, but one of the safer approaches is Iyengar, which moves at a slower pace, focuses meticulously on proper alignment and uses props. Iyengar teachers also undergo rigorous training.

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