November 23, 2013

How William Broad is Helping Yoga Be Safer & Smarter. ~ Michaelle Edwards

…And Why We Might Want to Leave Plow Pose in the Field.

I had to chuckle when I read some of the latest ways yogis are trying to discredit New York Times science journalist William Broad.

In his 2012 book, The Science of Yoga, as well as in the recent piece in the New York Times Sunday Review, he seeks to support the practice of yoga, but also to warn people of possible dangers in asana. Here is a link to his latest article showing the scientific research, and a call to action for yogis to understand how the practice of yoga asana can sometimes be very damaging to the female hip joint.

His writings have been a relief for some, and have created a backlash from others. Many in the yoga community have taken his work seriously, and others have come up with ways to try and discredit him that are not exactly kind, compassionate, or informed. Although The Science of Yoga has been printed in 14 languages, many yogis have not read a word of it, but still make blog comments that he is being paid by the religious right to discredit yoga, or by the pharmaceutical companies so people will take more pills instead of yoga.

These statements are at best, comical.

A yogi himself, Broad says in a post to elephant journal, “My own goal is to help promote smarter yoga, better yoga, safer yoga.”

Yogis, please take the time to read this post, especially if you have not read his book. It may be time to get informed not defensive; Broad is on our team.

The practice of yoga is supposed to be about finding the middle path of balance, but many yoga poses take our structure into extreme flexion, extension, or compression of joints, that go far beyond the ‘middle path’ of normal ranges of motion.

I have been involved with countless yoga injuries, including my own, for over two decades which is why I contacted William Broad about hip injuries and replacements in yogi women. As a bodyworker, posture educator and yogi, I saw a correlation between yoga practice and hip pain and deterioration in many women.

Broad listened to my concerns, and took the time to read my book, and then investigated hip replacements in yogis by interviewing orthopedists and specialists in bio-mechanics. His research resulted in the publication of the New York Times article confirming what I already knew to be true; that many yogi women were having hip surgeries. Reading the research from the Swiss doctors also helped me understand the problem better—they call it FAI or Femoral Acetabular Impingement syndrome, and often perform labrum re-attachment surgeries to sew the connective tissue of the hip back together, or hip replacements.

The surprising part about this article, presented at the International Hip Society, is that scientists concluded that hip problems are coming from how people are using their bodies, not just their genetics or bone shape. The research says the most damaging position for women’s hips is to sit in a chair or with hips at the same level as the knees while squeezing the thighs together.

The staff pose is an example of the 90 degrees hip flexion position with knees straight creating an internal rotation of the femurs or leg bones. What adds even more compression is by going deeper into a yoga forward bend. The hip joint flexes even further than 90 degrees flexion to 75 and even 180 degrees when the chest presses to the thigh. By keeping the knees straight and the ankle flexed too, there is a tremendous compression on the hip joints, and if one also considers the sacral lumbar joint, ligament tension for upright spinal alignment is getting stretched, undermining the necessary shock absorbing angle of the sacral platform. It is like the perfect storm for the hips!

I have dozens of female clients, some even in their 20s and 30s, already showing signs of groin pain and hip joint deterioration who primarily practice ‘traditional yoga poses’ requiring them to engage the body in 90 to 180 degree hip flexion with extended knees.

My message to the yoga world has been to consider how the body is designed to move, rather than what the pose is supposed to look like, as a way of deciphering what kind of asana practice will bring the most favorable outcome. Many tell me that their body stops hurting when they lay off their practice. We need to engage our body as a whole, and stop focusing on stretching or strengthening parts.

After the publication of The Science of Yoga, Broad was inundated with letters from yogis all over the world describing injuries, such as someone who suffered a stroke from doing the plow pose. People have tried to say these events are rare, but we need to consider that some poses in yoga actually create more harm than good, rather than chalking it up to an inexperienced yoga teacher, or incorrect practice. The plow pose in my experience is one of the more anatomically questionable poses, given that there is medical documentation of stroke.

So is it safe? Were these rare events that we should ignore?

Let your body decide. Stand up and draw your chin deeply into your chest, flexing your neck in the opposite direction of its natural curve. Bend over with your feet together and knees straight, until your torso is at a right angle to your legs, while keeping your chin to your chest. Some people may even take it further, but my guess is you will not be adding this pose to your yoga routine. But this is the plow, just done while standing up!

When doing the plow, the hips are in 90 degrees of flexion, and the neck is compressed by extreme flexion, while the trunk is in a inverted supine position with internal rotation of the hip/femur joint.  Does this make anatomical sense or contribute to functional movement?

Claims are made that the plow is decompressing the spine or stimulating the thyroid by doing the plow. But where is the science behind these claims? Just because we are inverted does not mean we are decompressing the spine, contrary to popular yoga beliefs. The spine is still compressed, just in a different direction. There is also no proven medical evidence that the plow stimulates the thyroid, but there is common sense knowledge that maybe this is not a kind or necessary position for the human spine.

All of this compression on the neck can also impede blood flow in the vertebral artery.

So maybe there is just a small risk of stroke, but cannot be overlooked is possible long term structural damage by over-stretching nerves, compressing discs, impinging artery flow, and undoing the necessary ligament tension needed to keep the curves of the spine ‘strung’.

It may in fact be time to leave the plow in the field.

As a posture reader, I have noticed that many yogis have a very flat look to their entire spinal column, as though all of the necessary curves have been straightened; robbing them of the shock-absorbing flexible-rod design of the human spine.

Yogis, consider checking your posture and pain levels too. If there is forward head carriage, a flat looking sacrum or butt, or hip and groin pain on a regular basis, perhaps there is a need for a practice that supports better posture, not better poses.

Since the publication of the latest New York Times article, like William Broad, I am inundated with emails and phone calls from yogis all over the world asking for information on why they have hip pain, or wanting to share about their hip replacements or labrum tear surgeries resulting from their yoga practice. Many are relieved to find out they are not alone.

Like William Broad, I want yoga to thrive, but I also see a lot of danger in continuing to teach poses and positions that do not follow the design and structure of the human body. We need to make yoga asana safer so that none are injured, driven away or afraid to take it up. Yoga is popularly believed to be a healing practice, and nobody should get injured doing it. Many yoga teachers who have received hip replacement surgeries are still teaching the same way, unwilling to consider that yoga poses may have been the cause.

Beyond this yoga injury controversy, what I am most excited about is having worked through my own yoga injuries, and birthing a system of yoga and bodywork based on supporting the curves of the spine and balancing the fascia tensegrity forces that keep us strung in alignment.

This is done by changing the way the nervous system directs us to move, and involves a deep communication of each practitioner with his own body. The creation of YogAlign began over 25 years ago and if asked who my teacher was, I consider the human body to be my guru. By tuning into the intelligence of the human body, I have come to the understanding that the most important yoga practice finding a sattvic balance in all aspects of our being. This can happen easily by aligning posture and breathing with nature’s design.

Although The Science of Yoga has received more attention than any of his previous books, William Broad has a prolific career as a science journalist and author that clearly displays his efforts to get us the facts.

Betrayers of the Truth is an investigation of how careerism, big money and academic pressure can tempt scientists to cheat, and in Teller’s War he writes how the supposedly foolproof safety mechanisms of science fail to detect and correct fraud.

William Broad is clearly a man of science, a yogi and a seeker of truth.

I also have a website called where you can read up on injuries, as well as take a survey on individual yoga injuries to help gain an understanding of how and why yoga injuries occur.

Let’s all work together to evolve the practice of yoga to support health and longevity.


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Editor: Paige Vignola/Bryonie Wise

Photos: courtesy of the author

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Michaelle Edwards