Risks And Benefits
One of the most frequent questions I get from runners is, “Will yoga help prevent/fix this problem?” Seeing as how most people (mistakenly) place a high premium on stretching as a means of avoiding or treating injuries, this question does not come as a surprise; probably the #1 benefit most people associate with yoga is improved flexibility.
Putting the answer to that question aside for the moment, it should be known that ardent practitioners of yoga claim increased flexibility as only one of many benefits one can derive from this ancient form of physical and spiritual exercise. Overall improvements in health, fitness, mood, artistic creativity, and healing potential are just some of the pluses yogis claim can be obtained through the practice of this art. (Some of the claims of a few yogis are, in fact, quite extravagant, such as the alleged ability to place the body into a state of suspended animation or hibernation.) Many have accepted these claims as true simply by virtue of the longevity of the practice; yoga dates back more than two thousand years, so for something to last this long, there must be something to it, right?
Well, actually – yes and no. Like many things that gain respect from simply surviving a long time, much of the evidence to support this positive image is chiefly anecdotal. This type of evidence, though, hardly constitutes proof for these assertions to the scientific community.
A recently published book, “The Science of Yoga,” by William J. Broad, a senior science writer for the NY Times, examines these questions from, as the title suggests, a strictly scientific viewpoint. Broad’s exhaustive review of the available research into the validity of the claims of yoga advocates helps separate fact from fiction and provides a sound foundation from which a reasonable appreciation for the benefits of yoga may be gained.
The information Broad provides concerning the positive aspects of yoga is fascinating, as are the conclusion he draws regarding the fallacies and fictions conjured up over the centuries. Not surprisingly, given my profession, the topic that caught my attention most was the chapter on “Risk of Injury.” I have seen more than a few patients over the years that had hurt themselves while participating in yoga classes, so I was most curious to see what the research showed.
As Broad notes, injury resulting from yoga is contrary to all expectations, as this activity is usually portrayed as a gentle, extremely safe practice with virtually no risk. In fact, Broad states that the most famous teachers, the “gurus” of yoga, have consciously attempted to maintain a public silence on the potential for injury and to downplay any suggestion of a problem.
The injuries Broad catalogues range from your basic minor strains and sprains, to more severe injuries such as ruptured Achilles tendons, torn knee menisci, and hip joint degeneration, to truly catastrophic events such as strokes, eye damage, and spinal fractures.
Fortunately, these last few conditions are very rare, but are serious enough to warrant caution. According to Broad, they appear to be most often caused by certain poses, such as the head or shoulder stands, as well as the cobra pose with the neck extremely extended. Avoiding these poses is probably wise, and this is advice that Broad does not limit to the beginner.
The more common, “everyday” injuries to muscles, tendons, and ligaments are the ones I have more direct experience treating. Broad’s assessment of this problem validates my own suspicions that the cause is most often overzealousness on the part of the student and/or instructor. I have found that many folks just starting to practice yoga – especially runners – tend to treat the activity as a competitive sport. They see their extremely flexible instructor or fellow students and think “I should be able to do that.” Rather than perform poses gently and safely, they push themselves to the brink of tissue failure in order to achieve a certain goal, such as getting their head on their knees. This problem is often compounded by the fact that many yoga teachers have insufficient training to safely guide students through the poses. Some, according to Broad, approach their job as being not unlike a drill instructor. And without any licensure or certification standard for instructors, students have no way of knowing exactly what they’re getting when they sign up for classes.
Broad makes clear, and I agree wholeheartedly, that yoga can be a wonderful, beneficial activity, though it is limited in the positive gains one can realize from participating in it and is certainly not a panacea for all ills and conditions. While there are risks for injury, the bottom line for preventing your having a negative experience is to approach it as you would any new activity – slowly, gently, and moderately. Do not be fooled by the seemingly harmless image the practice has had over the years. You can just as easily suffer an injury from being too aggressive with yoga as you can from being too aggressive when first starting to run.
As for the original question – can yoga prevent or fix running injuries? The answer is still a big unknown, though the information in the book’s chapter on “Healing” offers some interesting evidence that may be the first indications that it can.