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New York Times Article about the Dangers of Yoga for Men

Recently, William J. Broad, author of The Science of Yoga, wrote an article exploring men’s experiences with yoga.  Some of those experiences are not so pretty.  But does that mean yoga is a dangerous practice for men in general?  This newest article has stirred up quite the conversation. Here’s what we think:

We like that William Broad, as well as others like Loren Fishman (check out our previous blog posts) are examining Yoga under a scientific lense.  Much like ourselves, they are scientists at heart who practice yoga enthusiastically (not dogmatically), because they understand the true benefits, but who are not afraid of applying critical thinking to the practice. Since mainstream yoga in this country revolves around the idea of a physical practice, it is not exempt from the scrutiny of exercise science, and must be examined from a biomechanical standpoint. People like Broad and Fishman have collected data and case studies over decades, and like true scientists, analyze the data in order to present reasonable conclusions to the public. The flip side to this is… what is the general public to do with this information? In Broad’s newest article in the New York Times entitled “The Perils of Yoga for Men,” he writes about data that he has collected, that seems to indicate that men who practice yoga incur more injuries than women. While this is certainly a conversation that we need to be having, our fear is that it will drive men away from what we see as an essential practice in this day and age.

The ironic thing is that when the physical practice of yoga started to blossom in India, the practice (at least from what we have read and seen from numerous textbooks) seemed to be largely male dominated, and the types of injuries outlined in Broad’s article didn’t seem to be frequent enough to take notice of the public eye. Perhaps the frequency of these injuries among men speaks more of a cultural specificity, rather than gender specificity. Should this phenomenon be examined? Absolutely! We should be asking WHY this is happening. However, we want to express our opinion that gender stereotypes may not be a useful piece of the argument. This is a topic of an entirely different debate and is not why we are writing this post, BUT we felt it would be irresponsible of us not to speak from our experience that generalizations are not always helpful. For the sake of simplicity, let’s just ASSUME that there is a large disparity between men and women in the practice of yoga and let’s assume that men are “tighter” (again, another misleading word that merits a topic for a different debate) and that women are more elastic.

There are a couple of things to examine here. Current physiology tells us that the only sensory feedback that our brain receives from our muscles come from the spindles, which primarily sense stretch and the rate of stretch. If men do have “tighter” muscles, their spindles would send a signal to their brain much faster than someone more elastic when they enter into a pose that is beyond their current range of motion. The choice to ignore such a loud and screaming signal, in that case, would require a lot of willpower. And we do see this in class! People grimacing in poses, losing awareness of their breath and pushing themselves beyond what their body is telling them to do. Once these signals are ignored, it is easy to see why one might end up in the emergency room with an acute injury! However… it takes a certain kind of person to ignore these loud signals! My guess would be that the kind of person who would ignore these signals in yoga, would ignore the signals in ANY physical activity he or she chose to do and would most likely wind up with an acute injury later on down the line from that activity.

So do we blame yoga? Or is there something else we should be looking at? The data that Broad collected is indeed telling, but what would happen if we compared this to data from other types of physical activities (and he may have already done this)?

Another point we should examine is… what do we mean by injury? A lot of this data seems to be taken from emergency rooms, but what if we step into the realm of chronic injuries, which can in some cases be more devastating and may not land us in the emergency room? From personal experience, I can say that, although women may not be the ones frequenting the ER in this context, they certainly seem to be prone to chronic injuries like labrum tears (non-acute), chronically “pulled” hamstrings that have lasted for years (it is actually so common, it is termed “yoga butt”), osteoarthritis (from bony surfaces rubbing together and causing bone growth), nerve damage (non-acute), etc, etc, etc… So while some women may seem to walk out of class without injury, later on down the line their “flexibility” may actually harm them. What is useful to say here is that this is NOT an occurance specific to yoga.

These kinds of injuries, chronic or acute, happen with any physical activity and ESPECIALLY with lack of physical activity. It has been shown over and over again that being sedentary is more harmful to the body than being active. So why talk about yoga?  There has been an underlying assumption that yoga is “safe” and somehow exempt from other activities in that regard, and that is just not true. The attention Broad focuses on yoga is important.  

But that does not mean people should be afraid of yoga. In order to not drive them away from the practice, it might also be helpful to compare this data to the data (for instance, Dr. Fishman’s) or testimony of those who have been helped by the practice of yoga. We would be willing to bet that, even when only taking this information from men, this data will far outweigh the negative. This is just to say, that we really need to look at this information in context.

Does this mean that men should stop doing yoga? Absolutely not, and we know that Broad would agree. The problem with writing this kind of article is how the public will interpret it. A lot of men might read this article and be scared away from practicing yoga, thinking that it is specifically unsafe for men. With all the known benefits of yoga, it’s sad to see the media shedding such a bad light on it within the past year. Because we personally interviewed Broad (check out the blog post), we know that this was not his intention.  He even mentions that he is a yoga enthusiast, has his own practice and a good portion of his book is dedicated to the benefits of a yoga practice. He says in the article “I’m a yoga enthusiast, not a basher. I do my routine every day and want the practice to thrive — but to do so honestly, with public candor about its real strengths and weaknesses.”  We want yoga to be safer also! This is certainly a conversation worth having, but we need to be careful about scaring people away from a largely beneficial practice.

All of this begs the question: Is yoga unsafe? If you observe a general class being taught today, where people are contorting their bodies into what seem to be unnatural shapes, then maybe it is and the “yoga” that Broad talks about in his article is this kind of practice. Men who were interviewed in the article explain their injuries by blaming it on “pushy teachers who force them into advanced poses while urging them to ignore pain.” Our question is: Is that really yoga? We are inclined to say no. No decent yoga teacher should EVER tell their students to ignore and push past pain.  If you read our previous blog post about what yoga is and isn’t (or you just do a quick google search), you will find a plethora of information that may not match what you currently know of as “yoga.” To us, yoga is a chance to build a stronger relationship to your body, not a weaker one. Yoga gives us a chance to listen to the body, not to ignore it. What these men are doing is not yoga. It is contortion, which can be dangerous.  A REAL yoga practice would actually be essential to these men and can ultimately help them avoid injury.

Lastly, we were very confused by a portion of this article and  would love clarification on one quote in particular,  because as it stands, this does not make physiological sense to us: “Tara Stiles, a yoga teacher who runs a popular studio in Manhattan, told me that guys have more muscle (one reason for their relative inflexibility) and can thus force themselves into challenging poses they might otherwise find impossible.”


Women Can’t Do Pull-ups?! Oh, Come On!

There was an article recently published in the New York Times entitled “Why Women Can’t do Pull-ups.”

Obviously, this is an inflammatory title and the article contains various inaccurate and untrue assumptions.  Furthermore, the circumstance under which the study was performed resulted in conclusions that leave a precarious, at best, sense of validity.

To start, the hypothesis presented is this:  women have a harder time performing a pull-up than men.   As a former biochemist (Kim) who spent many hours in laboratories it leaves me agog that they restricted the study to women only (instead of comparing them to men). Setting up the study with just women leaves too much room for the “researcher’s” bias to influence the results in a self-fulfilling way.  If the hypothesis is that women have a harder time performing the movement than men, why were no men included in this study? Secondly, the sample size of this experiment was 17. Not 50, not 100, not 500, but 17. I can safely say that this is most likely NOT a sample size that one would have been considered adequate in an academic setting,  It is a mystery to me that this study met acceptable criterion to be published in the NY Times. Another point that I find to be inadequately discussed is that  these women were said to be of “normal-weight”. By what standard? What is “normal?” There is no mention of their previous movement experiences (I would say that a gymnast has a better shot at learning a pull-up than a couch-potato as gymnasts do movements that require pulling themselves up) aside from the fact that these women were unable to perform a single over-hand pull-up. Before the study had even started, it was terribly flawed.

On to the study itself. These women were directed to practice exercises to strengthen the appropriate muscles used during a pull-up.  BUT… Just because you strengthen the muscles that are supposed to be involved in a particular exercise, doesn’t make you better at that exercise. I could strengthen my left glute and make it as strong as I want, but that doesn’t mean I could do a one-legged squat on my left leg, there are WAY more factors to account for. I would actually have to … try a one legged squat! Also, one’s relationship to gravity plays a VERY important role. If they were practicing on an incline (as in the study), they were NOT practicing pull-ups, where you are vertical. In addition to this, it seems that he only trained the women using open kinectic chain exercises. This does not often prepare us well for closed-chain exercises, such as pull-ups as we are required to move our bodies through space as opposed to moving an object through space. If I have a female client who wants to do a pull-up (which I have), I know I can teach her how to do it. Why? Because I know how to train her. This trainer did not. There is also a mental/emotional aspect to exercise.There was no mention of the emotional/mental attitude of the women involved and whether or not the trainer was able to properly motivate them or if they even had any desire to do a pull-up or if they were given biased information to begin with (if they were aware of the hypothesis, this would certainly affect performance). Current exercise sciences and methods, such as Movement Efficiency Training, show that neurological and emotional factors are critical to success

The author continually makes statements that should make readers question his credibility. He discusses the impact of body fat percentage between men and women…. as if this matters? Weight definitely plays a factor in the ability to lift yourself off the ground. Weight, yes. Body fat? Maybe not. It all depends. If we are sure that muscle weighs more than fat, body fat percentage is almost a non-issue… His concluding statements about human movement are questionable.  The author proposes that we are a combinations of levers, which WOULD be true if we were machines. We are not machines, modern science will tell us that fluids and other body processes play ENORMOUS factors in movement.

It’s never too soon to start training. That’s the motto Kim’s 2 and a half year-old daughter, Mya, lives by. Anybody who knows Kim is not surprised.

Lastly, and perhaps more significantly than all other points discussed, there is the insidious, sexist subtext that underlies the entire article. His conclusive remark is reflective of the sexist thinking that has been a challenge to women in the fitness industry:  “I look at a volleyball player and wouldn’t expect her to be able to do a pull-up, but I know she’s fit.”  Wow, really?  He knows she’s fit, because he sees a body-type that in his mind he finds attractive/acceptable?  Is this what leads him to the assumption that she’s “fit,” despite the pull “limitations” of her upper body?  How generous of him to acknowledge her athletic prowess otherwise!  He’s making a sweeping assumption that all volleyball players have the same proportions (interesting since, oddly enough, he uses body proportion as a criteria for whether or not one can do a pull-up). Critical thinking skills time!  What happens to this statement, made by an “expert” when you see a woman who doesn’t have the physique he’s talking about (that we can only assume he’s envisioning from the popular female volleyball players out there) who can run around and do a pull-up?  Does this make her more fit than the other volleyball player he talks about?  Does this fly in the face of his research? Would he say that a man who couldn’t do a pull-up is “fit?”  Would he rely on the visual assessment for a man the same way?   Actually, the conclusion you should be drawing is this: This man doesn’t know as much as he thinks he knows and should stop trying to make assumptions on women’s health and fitness until he is able to clear the convoluted and patriarchal lens through which we are sure he enjoys watching professional women’s volleyball.

Who let this guy write for the New York Times and what University allows this man to teach exercise physiology? Please tell me so I can tell all of his students where they can study to avoid misinformation.  Ladies, don’t be fooled by this article. There is NO REASON why you can’t do a pull-up if you want to. Just please be sure that you don’t have a sexist trainer that makes absurd assumptions.

What’s My Prognosis?

A lot of the clients that we see here at SMARTer Bodies come to us, because of an injury. Most of them have been to the doctor and some to physical therapy (unless that is what they are here for, alternatively), but are still seeking a more thorough recovery. One of the first questions we get asked is, “How long will it take to be back to normal?” or “Will I ever regain full function?” The honest answer to those questions is that… it is entirely up to YOU. Read More

Leslie Kaminoff Reacts to the New York Times Article

Once again here is another fantastically expressed argument about some of the issues yoga teachers are having with the NY Times article.  Of course, no surprise it comes from one of our beloved educators Leslie Kaminoff.  Leslie does such a wonderful job of critically addressing the scientific errors that made it into the article that has caused so much controversy.

Again to be clear we still think this article was important to point out that yoga like ANY OTHER physical activity you take on can have its own risks involved. But now with the emergence of video’s like Leslie’s and the blog post by Eddie Stern the real conversation can begin.  So let’s start digging in and see what we learn.  Thanks to Leslie for his excellent clarifications and support for an important dialogue necessary to the evolution of a better yoga in America.

Eddie Stern Blogs About the New York Times Article

Now THIS is more like an appropriate response to Broad’s New York Times article.  We agree with most of this and think this is the way to accurately structure arguments in order to maintain integrity. Now don’t get confused by our response from yesterday to our liking this article today.  This is the kind of intelligent debate that we want to see and think will benefit yoga.   But we were opposed to the irrational and emotional arguments that did not address those facts, but only defended the sanctity of yoga or the fear of it being demonized. The other issue here to be aware of is the disturbing amount of inexperienced yoga teachers relying on the superficial info they get in a 200 hour training to teach large classes.  We encourage teachers to continue their education, not just for the sake of their students, but for their own well being. Read More

What SMARTerBodies Thinks About the New York Times Article

There has been so much controversy within the yoga community ever since Glenn Black was quoted in last week’s New York Times article. Many teachers have been outraged and offended by the article’s seemingly new revelation that a physical yoga practice can hurt you. There is a plethora of reactionary blog posts, Facebook messages and tweets that accuse Glenn Black and NYT of producing at the least a sensationalist piece of journalism and at the worst threatening the place of yoga in mainstream America and in the hearts and minds of many followers. We have completely lost patience for many of these responses as they seem to reveal a lack of critical thinking, threatening the integrity of teachers as it seems they did not read the article thoroughly before responding. It’s time to put an end to all the emotional arguing and time to address what was actually being said. Read More

We Agree With This New York Times Article: Yoga Can Hurt You!

Quite often people who are either injured or sedentary and new to fitness will ask us what type of yoga they should take, assuming that yoga is a “safe” practice that cannot injure them. They are often surprised when we tell them not to take group classes due to the high risk of injury. Unfortunately, it is not too uncommon for people to suffer injuries such as: disk herniations, torn achilles tendons, rotator cuff injuries, degenerative hip joints and even stroke resulting from doing extreme yoga postures. When this article came out in the NY Times with Glenn Black talking about the dangers of yoga we were relieved and fired up to share it! Read More