Yoga Injuries

Silhouette of a beautiful Yoga woman at sunset

You don’t need me to tell you that yoga is massively popular these days. In fact, nearly 37 million Americans participate in this ancient practice. Make no mistake, I’m on board: yoga is a great thing indeed. Combining posture, breathing, meditation, and stretching can have wonderful benefits for the body and the mind. That said, there is a risk of injury in yoga, which was explored recently in a study that I’d like to share and then discuss with you.

In this study, researchers at the University of Alabama studied reports of injuries incurred during yoga in the United States between 2001 and 2014. During this period, nearly 30,000 injuries were reported (we can assume that the majority of minor injuries in yoga never get reported… so the actual number of injuries is likely substantially higher). Most of these injuries were not serious: 45 percent were sprains and strains. Almost half of the injuries were injuries to the trunk of the body.

The researchers found that people between the ages of 18 and 44 had a yoga injury rate of 12 per 100,000. People between ages 45 and 64 had an injury rate of 18 per 100,000, and older individuals, ages 65 and over, had an injury rate of 58 per 100,000. It is not surprising that older individuals had a higher rate of yoga injuries, but it does point to the need for caution, and for knowing one’s limitations.

According to Thomas Swain of the Center for Injury Sciences, the study’s first author:

“Yoga injuries are relatively rare, and as you might expect, the incidence tends to rise with the age of the participant. We did find that the injury rate is increasing over time, which may be a reflection of the increase in popularity of yoga, leading to an increase in inexperienced participants who do not take the necessary precautions to avoid injury.”

Gerald McGwin, the director of the Center of Injury and co-author of the study, added:

“Yoga is harder and more demanding than some people believe. You need a realistic view of your own abilities, and you need to understand that some poses might be too challenging and inappropriate. A qualified, certified yoga instructor can help you with that assessment and is essential to a safe experience.”

In my office, I see people every day that do yoga as part of their regular routine. Many people who embrace natural medicine are obsessed with flexibility, and yoga certainly fits the bill. I’m in support of this — flexibility is fantastic, but not at the expense of strength. Many people who love yoga do just that… they overly focus on flexibility and not enough on strength, and that’s a recipe for injury.

I like to give the example of two opposite, extreme body types. First, picture Gumby… lots of flexibility, but not enough strength. If you are super flexible, but lacking strength, you are at risk of instability injuries, including strains and sprains. Now, picture the opposite of Gumby, the “muscle bound” bodybuilder type. We’ve all seen people who are huge and muscular, but have a hard time touching their toes. This is an example of strength at the expense of flexibility.

News flash: Ideally, there should be a healthy balance between strength and flexibility.

The problem with yogic flexibility exercises is that they are not often enough paired with strengthening. When yoga is combined with strength and muscle conditioning exercises, you can achieve stability as well as flexibility.

If you are doing a flexibility program that includes yoga, that’s wonderful. Please make sure that your program also includes appropriate muscle strengthening. This will give you a holistic, balanced workout, and reduce your risk of getting hurt.

– Dr. Joshua Levitt