Yoga is bad for you?
It doesn’t take much to stir up the discussion about what’s good and bad for you in today’s digitised age. So it only takes one London-based physiotherapist to comment on the rise of the number of yoga teachers he has seen complaining of hip injuries. What followed next was entirely foreseeable. “Yoga is bad for you“.
I was pretty easy pickings in the office the next day. “Did you see the article in the Telegraph Scott, about yoga being bad for you?”, some colleagues commented. My reply:
“it’s not that yoga is bad for you, it’s the way that yoga is done that is bad for you.”
If yoga were so bad for you, it wouldn’t be practised by millions around the world, unless there is a hidden time-bomb out there, (just like smoking was before the reality kicked in that smoking really is bad for you). But I doubt it.
That said, I have my own theories about why people are seeing an increase in injuries, especially around the hip, for those who practice regularly. Here’s why – in my view – when done in a certain way, yoga is bad for you.
“Square the Hips”.
If you haven’t been in a yoga class recently and heard this cue, then you are one of the few. It is as common as gin is to tonic. Let’s see what happens in the hip joint and why ‘squaring the hips’ is in my view, not an optimal cue from a physiological perspective.
First, in an asymmetric pose (such as Warrior 1) where the back leg is behind the pelvis, there should be a natural level of internal rotation in the back inner thigh to counter the extension of the femur (thigh bone) at the hip. This creates a strong and stable pelvis though the co-activation of two opposing muscle groups.
This is known as a ‘kati bandha‘, which creates a kind of ‘lock’ around the hip joint. Any attempt to tilt the pelvis forward to ‘square the pelvis’ will result in the femur grinding into the acetabulum (the hip socket) causing wear and tear of the hip labrum (the ring of cartilage around the hip socket). The cause of injury is often due to action on a repetitive, focused basis (ie repetitive strain injury), whereby after time, the hip joint simply wears out.
Secondly, if you try and ‘square the hips’, you end up putting tension on the sacro-iliac joint through the action of tilting the pelvis forward, away from the sacrum. The goal of yoga is not to stress the ligaments, but to improve the tone of muscles and overall body strength. Whilst the SI joint is inherently stable, for some people, especially many women, it can suffer from instability and cause pain.
In short, ‘squaring the hips’ is not in my view a helpful instruction in yoga. For occasional practitioners, it’s unlikely to do much, but for those who practise regularly, long-term harm may result.
In yoga, the label “hip openers” is often given to classes, where the emphasis is on the hips and making them go ‘wider’. This term is actually anatomically incorrect, since they can only rotate or tilt, either medially (towards the midline) or laterally (externally or anteriorally (forward) or posteriorly (back).
Whatever you call it, drawing the hips wider has become a bit of an obsession amongst some yoga practitioners, even to the point of placing sand bags on the knees to make the hips rotate further. Try this for yourself and you’ll see how pushing the hips beyond their natural level of rotation is going to cause stress on the ligaments.
Gentle releasing of the inner groin muscles is wonderful. Trying to actively widen beyond their natural range of movement is not.
“Extreme Yoga Poses”
Hatha Yoga as a practice and discipline is relatively gentle. You can go through a whole sequence and practice, moving the body in a relatively safe way, whilst at the same time experiencing the full benefits of yoga.
That said, for some bodies there are natural limitations in the range of movement a person has, especially in the hips. In particular, the way the femur bone articulates with the hip socket determines the amount of external rotation that a person has through the joint. This means that for some people, no matter how hard they try, there will be limits on what they can do with certain postures.
Encouraged by teachers or instructions given by people who should know better on social media, that doesn’t stop people ‘trying’, often with disastrous circumstances. This included myself who was lucky only to get away with a sprained medial knee ligament, as I blindly followed a teacher who led us through a challenging variation of a twist.
In particular, the most common yoga pose you see is ‘lotus’ pose. For some, it is incredibly easy and comes naturally, even without any yoga experience. For others, it just doesn’t happen. Their hips aren’t designed that way. For me, I can do the half-lotus version, but not the full one.
For those for whom nature has made it harder, sometimes the consequences are catastrophic when trying to push it a little further – ACL injuries, requiring surgery. Oh, and don’t get me started on the leg around the shoulder pose either.
Is Yoga Bad for You?
To summarise, yoga isn’t bad per se. It’s the way the physical aspect of yoga is done or performed that’s hurting people and giving it a bad reputation. Performed in a way that is careful, avoids unnecessary repetitive strain as well as respecting the individual needs of the body, yoga is entirely a safe practice. Yoga’s many health benefits have been well documented and millions of people continue to practise around the world with no ill effects. Don’t think twice about it & find yourself an experienced teacher. Your body will thank you for it, including your hips.