From Bikram to Vinyasa, it seems like yoga has become the exercise experience of choice these days.
In “The Science of Yoga,” New York Times science writer William J. Broad examines the growing popularity of yoga and some of his findings are surprising. According to Broad, while yoga’s “low-impact nature puts less strain on the body than traditional sports, increasing its appeal for younger people as well as aging boomers,” some yoga positions, such as head and shoulder stands and the plow position, raise real injury concerns. “The idea of damage runs counter to yoga’s reputation for healing. Few practitioners anticipate strokes and dislocations, dead nerves and ruptured lungs,” writes Broad, a longtime yoga practitioner who injured his back doing an advanced yoga pose.
To pursue his theme of risks and rewards, Broad cites psychiatrist Carl Jung, who posited that yoga can either improve your mood, or “let loose a flood of sufferings of which no sane person ever dreamed.” Among yoga’s well-known positives supported by actual studies: relaxation, mental calmness, flexibility, reductions in blood pressure and, Broad says, a better sex life. Among the negatives: possible weight gain, because all that yoga-induced relaxation can lead to a reduction in your metabolic rate; joint instability; even brain damage or stroke from positions that demand extreme bending of your neck. Another claim for which Broad says there’s no scientific evidence: Yoga gets more oxygen into your blood.
Broad isn’t saying don’t do yoga. On the contrary, he makes the argument that yoga will — and should — remain a good source of exercise and relaxation, but he says practitioners and teachers alike need to be more attuned to potential downsides.
When you sustain an injury, your body sends a host of white blood cells to repair the damaged tissue, which can become red and swollen; then there is chronic inflammation where a variety of triggers cause your immune system to go into overdrive.
“What makes low-grade inflammation deadly is that it can operate in stealth mode for years until it reveals itself as a heart disease or stroke,” according to Christopher Cannon, a cardiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
Chronic inflammation is also associated with diabetes, arthritis and lupus.
According to nurse Monica Reinagel, “a major player is a diet that is more pro-inflammatory than anti-inflammatory.” To minimize inflammation, dietitian Matthew Kadey suggests avoiding trans fats, sugary drinks and fruits grown using pesticides; instead, choose inflammation-fighting foods, such as extra virgin olive oil, whole grains and dark leafy greens, as well as turmeric, hemp seeds and ginger.
Another potential cause of inflammation is a food intolerance, such as to gluten or lactose, because the body perceives these as foreign invaders that the immune system must fight off. If you feel sensitive to certain foods, Kadey recommends removing them from your diet for at least two weeks to see if you notice a decrease in inflammation.