You want to get healthy. Maybe you want to be a better person too - kinder, more peaceful... Yoga has a reputation for health, but is it safe?
First, I need to address the crucial fact that "yoga" is used to describe a VAST landscape of practices that on the surface would appear to have nothing to do with one another. People use "yoga" to describe deeply spiritual, ritualistic practices of self awareness and self control, but they also use "yoga" to describe a full body, cardio and core workout with weights.... On a mat. I'm not here today to say any of these IS or ISN'T yoga, but to focus on safety.
Yoga is ANCIENT, but not all things called yoga are ancient. To put it very simply, the breathing techniques (pranayama) and meditation techniques (dharana/dhyana) are the oldest parts of yoga. We'll get to "downward facing dog pose" in a moment, but are the truly ancient practices safe?
Mostly yes. Sitting on a cushion, controlling your breathing in various ways is perfectly safe, although your bum may get sore after a while. There are however some very extreme practices done in the name of self control (tapas) which are categorically dangerous. These "austerities" include fasting to the point of starvation, and raising an arm above one's head for your entire life, until the limb is fuzed in place forever. Yoga is commonly associated with ayurveda as well, which is mostly safe, but has some needlessly dangerous practices. The ayurvedic Shatkarma practices range from silly but benign to outright damaging for the body, such as swallowing salt water until it flies out the other end, or sutra neti where you floss a string through your nose into your mouth. If you don't immediately recognize why these things are damaging, drop me an email or comment and I'll give you the research on this.
NOW FOR MODERN YOGA POSES
Is yoga safe as a form of exercise? It depends.
There are so many styles of modern yoga that I cannot simply answer yes/no to this. I also can't go through each style with a rubber stamp of approval, and that would be boring anyway right? You need to be able to identify what is safe or not on your own. Here's a simple rule:
Do we regularly move our joints BEYOND "full (normal) range of motion"???
I'll explain what that means in a moment, but if the answer to this is "yes" then your yoga practice is NOT safe. Sorry, but neither is joining the circus. It's okay to do unsafe things, but you must accept the trade-off of enjoyment now for joint degradation later.
HERE IS AN EXAMPLE:
This is trikonasa, triangle pose. Same pose, done two different ways. In the top version I use the strength of my legs and core muscles to hold my upper body tilted like this. In the bottom version I grab my big toe and force as much flexibility as possible from my body. One works against gravity for strength and stability, and the other gives in to gravity and promotes weak ligaments and hypermobile joints.
Basically, if you are always looking for a "deeper" pose, then at some point it is not going to be safe.
You can and should use full and healthy ranges of motion, but never force, and avoid combining maximum flexibility WITH lots of force/weight/stress/load. Be gentle. You have nothing to prove.
ANOTHER RULE IS THE CRINGE TEST:
If you showed a picture of your yoga pose to your grandmother, would she cringe? If so, it's probably because of the excessive range of motion. Hypermobility is a disease state, not a talent. Don't work to worsen it and flaunt it.
Yoga has the reputation of being all about flexibility. When flexibility is your number one goal, you are not promoting balance in your soft tissues. Even really common poses are excessive and destabilize your joints, so use your own sense and don't force anything. Never PULL yourself into a stretch, and don't use external forces like gravity, straps, or partners to make you go deeper into a pose. Forcing will actually give you worse results later on in terms of flexibility, so there is no use in doing it, even if you are a contortionist or gymnast.
Yoga is perfectly safe if you show restraint and slow down.
I also want to be clear that yoga shows INCREDIBLE benefits for human health, but that isn't the purpose of this particular blog post.
Enjoy your practice, peacefully and intentionally.