Terrifying bumps on the head, chunky dandruff, weird growths and non-sex related rug burn are in a day’s work for the dedicated yogi, says our yoga columnist Genny Wilkinson-Priest
Ever since William Broad of the New York Times wrote the 2012 book Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards that highlighted the dangers of yoga – even as he extolled its virtues – yoga teachers have found themselves on the defensive when asked the question ‘Does yoga cause injuries?’
Here’s how I answer: Yoga does not cause injuries. Repetitive action causing stress to the musculoskeletal system while practicing yoga can. Misalignment and overstretching can. Overzealous adjustments from a yoga teacher can. Chasing a yoga high can. Equating pain with a necessary step to spiritual enlightenment can. Disregarding yoga as an inner quest for the benevolence of the spirit can.
Yes, injuries happen. But there are ways to practice it that mitigate your chances of strains and sprains and in rare circumstances, dislocation and nerve damage.
Currently leading the discussion is the excellent researcher/writer Matthew Remski, whose project WAWADIA, or What Are We Actually Doing In Asana? can be found here
Any yoga student, whether new to the practice or vastly experienced, should consider the subject attentively, and ask themselves whether they need to change the way they practice it in order to avoid injury no matter how minor.
But I would like to examine a different kind of yoga injury here. The kind no one ever talks about … the truly embarrassing ones.
1. Rug burn
A few weeks ago, my teacher gave me a new pose: Viparata Salabhasana (inverted locust pose.) This posture begins prone on the belly with the arms together under the torso, palms down. From there, you kick the feet up and direct your straight, held-together legs over your head with the arms and hands still pressed into the mat. Basically, you’re balancing on your chest, neck and chin in an extreme thoracic spine back bend.
Two things I noticed while struggling to get, and keep my legs up: First, I couldn’t breath. Second, I felt like my head was going to detach from my spine and roll away on to my neighbor’s mat. The more I panicked at the thought of literally losing my head, the more difficult it became to breath let alone relax. Consequently, I didn’t notice the burning sensation spreading under my chin as it pressed into the rug on my mat.
Emerging from the shower an hour later, I saw in the mirror a deep red rug burn spreading the width of my chin – it looked like a chin strap of a sports helmet. Only this wasn’t the kind of rug burn one got while having sex in your university dorm room. This one I got from yoga.
2. Chunky dandruff
Examine the scalp of any yoga student who frequently practices headstands and you’ll find a 10p-sized flaky scalp at the crown of their head. Every five days or so of daily practice, it starts to lift away from the scalp. In one, massive dandruffy piece. You just hope it doesn’t emerge during an important meeting, or make its appearance at the school gates as you pick up your child, or sprout during a romantic date with a new boyfriend.
It’s a consequence of the majority of the weight of one’s entire body pressed into the crown of the head. That repetitive friction rubs at the scalp, and it begins to peel away. It’s disgusting to some, but a thing of beauty to others. Take my husband, who like a gorilla with his young, likes to pick at it and lift it out whole. What can I say? Love is expressed in strange ways …
3. Ostrich egg head
Virgin arm balancers face a certain amount of danger when first practicing balancing on their hands, though they are usually protected by their own fear – the emotion that holds them back from achieving fuller expression of postures like Bakasana (crane) or Bhujapidasana (shoulder pressing posture.) As a teacher, I see two kinds of student: those too apprehensive to lift their feet off the ground, and those who go full tilt without core control or shoulder engagement. The latter usually results in a face plant.
Two years ago 37-year-old comedienne Liz Frances Hobbs, after congratulating herself for getting into Bhujapidasana (shoulder-pressing pose), was finding it difficult to find her way out of the arm balance where the legs are crossed in front of the arms, head lowered to the floor.
‘My half-witted solution to getting back up was to start rocking backwards and forwards like a mechanical rodeo bull on the highest setting,’ Hobbs said. ‘This merely had the effect of propelling my face at full speed into the hardwood floor of my living room.’
The resulting injury was shocking – it looked like a red ostrich egg was emerging from the front of Hobbs’ skull. Two black eyes soon followed. ‘On the plus side, strangers gave up their seats for me on the tube, reaffirming my belief in human kindness.’
4. Premature hair loss
Bryony Bird swears her hairline is receding not from old age (she is all of 27 years old) but from getting stepped on one too many times while in Supta Kurmasana (supine turtle pose). In this demanding hip opener, yogis (prone on the floor, legs wrapped over upper arms) wait for the teacher to come around and adjust them, lifting their legs to cross behind the head at the ankles. Inevitably, the teacher will step on some hair and when they lift the legs up, hair is literally ripped out from the front of the hairline.
5. Weird growths
When Healthista editor Anna Magee first started practicing shoulderstands, she developed a lump at the top of her spine. Years later, it’s still there and now calcified. ‘I didn’t even know the lump existed until about a year after starting to practice,’ she says. ‘I was at a wedding in a halter neck, my hair in a chignon. My husband turned to me in the middle of the ceremony and asked loudly, ‘What the hell is that?’ The top of my spine was like a small golf ball. Needless to say, no more chignons and halter necks.’
6. Pointy tailbone (its a thing!)
Sally Hutchinson Griffyn, a music manager at Sweet Life Media, has what she calls a pointy tailbone. She finds herself wobbling in any yoga posture where she has to balance on her butt, like Navasana (boat) pose. ‘The more rigorous the (teacher’s) adjustment and the hotter the room, it becomes easy to skin my arse,’ Griffyn said. ‘I have skinned my upper arse on numerous occasions. I have to let it heal before I can return to my practice because it really gets in the way of so many postures. It hurts!’
7. …and bruises that look like sex injuries
Mysterious bruises on the inner thighs, dislocated toes from overzealous jumping back, gouged out ankles from lazy jumping through, getting slapped in the face from other yogis who stretch their arms out too far in a sun salutation – it’s all in a day’s work for professional and amateur yogis.
That they keep coming back to the mat in a testament of their passion and ever-deepening relationship with yoga. To them, the risks of yoga’s external quest – whether serious, humorous or embarrassing – are worth the pursuit of the internal one that brings steadiness of mind and strength of heart.