Twists and turns

Sujata Mukherjee tells you how yoga can wreck your body

By Sujata Mukherjee
  • Published 29.11.17

You have decided to take up yoga inspired by some television yoga guru or a mass yoga camp. Do not think you will be able to take to it like a duck to water. In fact, your muscles, bones and tendons are likely to revolt. 

Most urban Indians lead a Westernised life. Unlike in the olden days, we rarely sit, squat or lie down on the floor. Therefore, we hardly fold our knees or stretch like our forefathers did. A seemingly easy yogic asana such as Padmasana (Lotus pose), Vajrasana (Diamond pose), Sarvangasana (Shoulder stand), Matsyendrasana (Lord of the Fishes pose) or Surya Namaskara (Sun Salutation) may be dangerous for a person who is not used to it or has an undiagnosed orthopaedic problem. While yoga is picking up new fans everyday, very few are aware that it needs to be personalised — just like modern medicine or any of the other forms of exercise, there’s no one-size-fits-all formula.

If you start doing yoga without knowing about your fitness level and the status of your knees, shoulder, wrists and back, chances are you will do yourself an injury. 

A study published in the International Journal of Yoga Therapy in 2008 tracked 110 practitioners of Ashtanga Yoga (a physically demanding style that uses standardised sequences of yoga postures with synchronised breathing) and found that 68 of these people (62 per cent) developed injuries, mainly strains and sprains. While half of them reported full recovery, the other half recovered partially. A 2012 study on 2,500 practitioners found only 21 per cent suffered from injuries caused by yoga. The principle reason was that these people were taught and supervised by experts. A systemic analysis of yoga-related injuries in the journal Plos in 2013 revealed that approximately 1 out of 10 yoga practitioners hurt their hands (wrists, elbows and shoulder) badly. 

The postures that were most commonly associated with injuries were headstand, shoulder stand and variations of the lotus pose. A study says, “Yoga teachers and practitioners should never push themselves (or their students) to their limits. Beginners should avoid advanced postures such as headstand and advanced breathing techniques such as Kapalabhati.” The paper suggests that yoga should be performed only under expert guidance. Many respondents regarded yoga as generally safe and associated adverse events with excessive effort, inadequate teacher training and medical preconditions.

Some yoga poses are so complex that you should never attempt them without expert guidance. Unguided Kundalini yoga (that incorporates movement, dynamic breathing techniques, meditation and chanting) can lead to acute anxiety, depression, insomnia and complex mental problems including suicidal thoughts. Similarly Hatha Yoga (that emphasises physical exercises to master the body and mind) is not easy unless you’ve been properly trained. Also “hot yoga” — practiced in a room with 100°F temperature and over 40 per cent humidity — remains controversial. 

Divyasundar Das is a yoga expert practicing for years. He says, “The yogic asanas you see on TV or videos are suitable for the young and healthy. You should be careful of even these if you have crossed 30.” According to him, therapeutic yoga — the asanas meant to address medical problems — must always be done under expert guidance. “You have to learn the postures from a qualified expert and then follow the regimen advised at home. Also, you have to make follow-up visits. The expert may modify the ‘dosage’ for you,” he says. 

Your body will give a warning if you are pushing limits, even in simple asanas. Ignoring these will likely lead to a muscle pull, tear in ligament or tendon, and, in some cases, slipped disc. In middle-aged people, a sudden interest in yoga may bring to the fore an undiagnosed case of arthritis. 

Patients suffering yoga-inflicted injuries often visit orthopaedic surgeon Dr Indrajit Sardar. “Even if you seem hale and hearty, you can’t start doing yoga all of a sudden. Age, a sedentary lifestyle, undiagnosed or hidden disorders of muscles and bones, and flexibility are some of the conditions you need to consider first,” he says. Also, yoga can’t solve all orthopaedic problems. “A frozen shoulder can be addressed by yoga but there are a few types that don’t respond. On the contrary, yoga aggravates the problem. In such cases one may need surgical intervention.” His advice is to do yoga under the guidance of an expert who has scientific knowledge and understands all the physiological functions of the body. And no, the Internet ot TV do not qualify.

Yoga can hurt 

• If you have glaucoma or a family history of it, avoid have inverted asans including the Padahastasana (Hand Under 
Foot pose). 

• People with a spinal problem should avoid all asanas that need you to bend forward or twist, such as the Ardh Matsyendrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes pose) 

• Those with knee problems should not do Padmasan, Bajrasan or Surya Namaskar

• If you have an injured spine, Shirshasan (head stand) may be life threatening


Sujata Mukherjee has a PhD, in Inorganic Chemistry and is a hospital administrator