Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Fat Tuesdays : An unregulated industry

I've been doing yoga for years, just not as a routine. I would do yoga sometimes and not do yoga other times. I never looked into the history of yoga and I never bothered with anything other than postures, or asanas. A few years ago, I traded engagement photos for a private lesson in yoga so I could have a regular home practice. With that practice in place, I would work yoga into my daily life, sometimes take a free class somewhere in town, maybe work a few more poses into my life. But it wasn't until about a year ago that I started getting serious with yoga and one thing really impacted my practice; Instagram.

Instagram can be a great tool. For starters, pretty pictures. My mom follows all the cat accounts. But there is also a strong community, which I discovered when I started training for my first marathon. Instagram is full of niche groups who utilize the social network to connect. When I was a regular geocacher and used related hashtags, my following grew and I received several comments on every photo. As I talked more about running on Instagram, I found a large community of runners sharing their training practices, their race results, and so much support for each other. Through this group, I found Runners Love Yoga, a runner who uses yoga to run faster and longer without injury. Once I began participating in her Instagram challenges, I found a HUGE yoga community on Instagram.

Plow Pose is not only incredibly dangerous, but it also has no benefits. It has caused stroke and there is no scientific evidence to support the therapeutic claims associated with the pose. Avoid this pose entirely.

But this community is heavily flawed. In the running community, I was very happy for quite some time and then reached a point of disillusionment. Many of the runners I followed who were faster and more advanced than I were actually really rough on their bodies and suffered multiple injuries including injuries requiring surgery because they just overdid it. They had these amazing, inspiring accounts, until I found out the truth was that they were sidelined for months or years because they pushed through pain, ignored their own bodies and all sports medicine, and pushed themselves into injury. It was so depressing and I went through a period of unfollowing many of my favorite runner accounts because I couldn't support someone who would give such false advice. Running is fun and can be done safely, especially if injuries are treated and given time to heal, and I didn't want to be part of the "no pain, no gain" mentality that is actually contrary to accomplishing athletic goals.

Over time, I realized the yoga community on Instagram (and throughout much of the internet) is not any better than the first and second batch of runners with whom I tried to connect via Instagram. The yoga community on Instagram is full of beautiful images of very thin and classically good looking people, especially women, in extremely advanced and complicated poses. This creates a false reality where thin and extremely flexible is the goal and runs contrary to many yogic beliefs. Even worse, the captions included with these photos are entirely unhelpful, fail to address the dangers in attempting difficult poses too soon, fail to offer beginning modifications, rarely show beginning poses, and almost always include some version of, "Just work at it and you'll get it!" idealism. The reality is none of that is true or safe for many yoga practitioners. When a beginner approaches Instagram, it is a pressured world full of a race to achieve the most complicated pose possible without any regard to the dangers inherent in such a practice.

For over a year now, I've been considering becoming a yoga teacher and have been discussing yoga at length with friends and acquaintances who practice yoga regularly or even teach yoga. I've been following the yoga community on Instagram, and I've been doing a TON of research. What I've found is fairly alarming.

Standing Forward Bend Yoga(1)
Forward bend (and seated forward bend) can cause longterm damage to hip joints, especially in women. But the damage goes unnoticed until it requires surgery. This pose can also cause ruptured discs in the lumbar spine. Avoid this pose or practice it safely with a wider stance and deeply bent knees.

For starters, yoga is an unregulated industry that requires no licensing from state or federal governing bodies and no formal training. This means that your yoga teacher may or may not know...well, anything. There is no governing body that requires any sort of certification to become a yoga teacher, although most teachers become certified through a 200 hour training process.

The problem with these programs is threefold. 1. 200 hours, when broken down to 40-hours a week, is only 5 weeks of training. Five weeks of training to become a "expert" in your body and help guide you through complicated postures? That's not enough. 2. These classes require only a minimum amount of time be given to anatomy. So your yoga teacher has had no emphasis on anatomy and no regulated testing to assure he or she understands any of the anatomy she's learned. 3. Since yoga is an unregulated industry, the people teaching yoga are the people who have learned from the people teaching yoga. This means that no governing body has ever given anyone any sort of standardized training or regulated testing and anyone can become certified by anyone who has become certified. The ignorance of the teachers can be passed down to the students forever.

Think about all the positions that allow someone to give you any sort of treatment to your body. Massage, nail technicians, and hair stylists all require state licensing and regulated training. Physical therapists, occupational therapists, their assistants, nurses, and every other lower level technician require regulated training and certification. Doctors require YEARS of training, but yoga teachers can just learn from any studio in the area that offers a 200-hour certification program. Even tattoo artists have to pass health inspection and use sanitary practices!

Of course, there are flaws in every system. Obviously. There are athletic coaches who have no formal training and yoga instructors who have pursued formal training on their own. So we can all come up with anecdotal evidence that attempts to invalidate this post. You're welcome to scour your local yoga studios for the one instructor who just happens to be a doctor too!

The major problem with the yoga industry is that it is unregulated. This lack of regulation means their is a vast chasm where instructors lack not only training in the human anatomy, but also the history of yoga.

Headstand has many dangers and no benefits. Any supposed benefit of headstand is either a myth (such as a need for increased blood flow to the scalp) or can be achieved with less dangerous inversions like legs up the wall. Headstands put extreme pressure on the cervical spine and eyes and is dangerous for everyone, no matter your skill level. Americans are particularly at danger to this based on our head carriage. Avoid this posture entirely. There is no need for it. Damage from this injury might not present itself until it is fairly extreme and possibly irreversible.

Yoga is a centuries old philosophy that has sometimes bordered on a religion. Philosophy is simply the study of something. It's someone having an idea and then talking to someone else about that idea...sometimes talking enough so that many people find they agree with the idea and talk about it some more. Yoga has changed over the centuries it has been around and there is very little in modern yoga that remains the same as one of the original yogic texts from the 15th century. Yoga was brought to the U.S. in the beginning of the 20th century and has evolved greatly in the time it was introduced. No matter what anyone tells you, even if they've gone to India to study, yoga is simply someone's interpretation of someone else's idea.

Another problem with the lack of regulation in yoga is that injuries are not required to be reported. If you leave your yoga class and find you have a strained muscle, burst blood vessel, ruptured disc, or worse; no one really has to know where it came from. That means that you could visit your doctor and simply forget to mention that you practice yoga regularly. (Something you might do, since yoga is seen as generally safe.) It also means your doctor doesn't have to ask you if you practice yoga. (Something a doctor might not do, since yoga is not seen as a risk factor.) If you injure yourself in a yoga studio, in any capacity, neither you nor the yoga studio is required to report it. Whether you stub your toe as you walk to your mat or suffer a stroke from a dangerous pose, no one has to know where, why, when, or how it happened. That means that the data for yoga injuries is not collected by any one organization, is not studied, and may as well not exist. Doctors might understand how one or more patients have arrived at an injury, but no one has to talk about it, so no one has to know what's happening.

Chin stands also put undo pressure on the cervical spine, can cause spinal hyperextension injuries, as well as a host of other injuries from stroke to problems with the shoulder joint. These are unnecessary poses created for the "wow factor" and should not be a part of any practice.

The reality is, not just yoga, but the entire exercise industry is not regulated. What I'm saying about your yoga is also true of Jazzercise instructors, Zumba instructors, Cross Fit facilitators, and personal trainers. None of these industries is currently regulated and the amount of training they have to go through varies from one day to several weeks. All of the training and certifications are created by private entities who determine their own rules. However, I would venture to guess that few people put as much trust in a Zumba instructor than they do in a yoga instructor or personal trainer. So it's important to know what you might not know about your yoga teacher. Always consult a physician when trying new fitness regimes...or at the very least, do your own research.

Since I started doing yoga more regularly, I've been doing my research, and the widespread myths of yoga are fairly astounding. Rarely does anyone talk about yoga injuries, because yoga wants to be seen as a way to heal injuries. However, yoga, in and of itself, is not inherently safe. Many poses are very dangerous, and many more are dangerous to any person with any number of medical issues. But does your yoga teacher know this? Probably not.


  1. This is super fantastic. You've definitely made me more aware of poses and danger.