Stretched to the limit by yoga

I’ve been a fan of yoga for years. That doesn’t mean I practice regularly, but I am convinced I should. Now I’ve got to rethink my routines. Despite my resolve to make no New Year’s resolution, I’ve been making an effort to pay more attention to the lump of flesh which I use to navigate this life. It’s been sorely misused over the past year or so, stuck in a car and at a desk for ten hours a day with little or no exercise.

I joined a gym. I’m making time for exercise and, motivated by this forward motion, I enthusiastically showed up on January 2, towel in hand, and introduced myself to an elliptical machine (They don’t say much in return). I looked around, made sure no one was looking, faced my rear toward a wall (nobody needs to see that), and began the obligatory stretch. I used to touch the floor flat-handed, but now I’m lucky to reach my ankles. I slowly let my back stretch out, feeling my spine grumble and my hamstrings shriek.

And then I made my mistake.

My introduction to yoga 40 years ago had been a magazine article that showed how to do the Sun Salutation. It was beautiful. When I did it, it felt ugly. The model had been a panther stretching. I was an armadillo. But I did it.


I’ve done a lot of yoga since then but on this new beginning, the Sun Salutation seemed like the appropriate stretch. The armadillo is a lot older now, and I literally had to grab my foot and pull it into one of the movement positions. And when I completed the final asana (pose), I stood erect, palms together in a graceful and somewhat self-conscious “namaste” as I felt a distinct “ping” somewhere in my lower back.

I chose to ignore that warning, and did half an hour on the elliptical, which insisted I climb mountains even though I’d hoped for mercy by approaching it with respect.

The next day I was crooked. My left leg, normally a bit shorter than the right, was a good three-quarters of an inch off the ground when I stood on my right. My entire upper body veered left, and I was one big ache.

My chiropractor, who always treats me kindly even though I only see her when it’s an emergency, rubbed my back and assessed the situation.

“That’s really inflamed,” she observed. “What were you doing?”

“The Sun Salutation,” I said, feeling slightly cool for knowing what it was and very stupid for having hurt myself in its execution.

“Yoga,” she said, “can be really hard on the spine. That one in particular is really challenging, particularly if you’re just warming up.”

Really? I thought yoga was always good for you. That’s what I’d been told. And I’ve seen evidence: I had a friend who took up yoga at age 50. Twenty years older now, she’s still spry, erect as a tree. She even took up horseback riding when she was 60. She’s an inspiration.

But apparently the word it out — yoga can be overdone. A New York Times article on the upcoming book The Science of Yoga: Risks and Rewards by William Broad was called “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.” It featured a yoga teacher whose entire practice is built on helping people hurt by yoga. It described a young man who had nerve damage in his legs after a long term practice of sitting in a pose for hours a day, chanting for world peace. The syndrome now has a name: yoga foot drop. The cure? Stop sitting like that for so long.

Other reports of injuries are more serious. One says a young woman suffered a stroke and permanent brain damage while doing yoga. Doctors say the extreme hyperflexion of her neck narrowed a major artery and cut off blood to her brain. A young man had similar symptoms after a pose that put extreme pressure on the back of his neck.

This is controversial, I know. People who don’t do yoga will use this information to argue with those who are convinced of its health benefits. People who love yoga will think it’s an attack on a practice that they know can not only improve their flexibility and health, but offer them some mental quiet.

Millions of people now do yoga. It’s big business. It has improved flexibility and health in many. But this article pointed out the boom in yoga classes, including newer and more difficult forms of the discipline. Americans are never content: We must always make it bigger, better and more extreme. And doing anything to the extreme is inherently risky.

With any injury, it’s always interesting to go back and try to think just what precipitated the collapse. In my case, I realized it wasn’t yoga, it wasn’t the elliptical. And it wasn’t a weight training circuit. It happened when I was stacking a cord of wood. It wasn’t even that. I had shifted a massive piece of lumber to make room for a new stack. That’s when the first and most ominous ping signaled I’d hurt my back.

I had kept going because rain was coming and the wood had to be stacked. My back held together and let me keep going through all the subsequent activities, but that Sun Salutation was the final straw. Fine, my spine said, “if you’re going to be an idiot and ignore me, I’m going to stop trying to hold you upright. Try this on for size!” Ping! And I began to list to the left.

So — armed with all this information, will I continue to do yoga? You bet I will. But I now have a greater respect for its difficulty and I understand that my body requires a lot more persuasion before it’s ready to do some of the bigger stretches. I will avoid the urge to force the armadillo to be a panther and just let it be the most flexible armadillo it can be.


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