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Friday Q&A;: Is Women's Flexibility a Liability in Yoga? Baxter's Response to William Broad

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge

Friday Q&A;: Is Women's Flexibility a Liability in Yoga? Baxter's Response to William Broad

The Flexible Melina Meza!

Q: So, Baxter, what do you think of William Broad’s latest claim that women’s flexibility is a liability in yoga?
A: Firstly, I want to thank Shari for her level-headed look at New York Times science writer and author of The Science of Yoga William Broad’s most recent assertion that women who do yoga are at great risk of injury due to their flexibility (see Women's Flexibility is a Liability in Yoga).  Thanks, as always, Shari, for your practical experience as a physical therapist and a long-time yoga practitioner and yoga teacher. I think your insights will go a long way in helping clarify articles like these that may have an unstated agenda that colors and lessens their credibility. I’d also direct some of you to this balanced response by yoga teacher Paul Grilley to the article as well. As always, William Broad’s articles do get us thinking and talking about yoga. 
But if I read Broad’s most recent article and his latest assault on yoga accurately, am I to understand correctly that both men’s tightness and women’s flexibility are liabilities in yoga? So is yoga now safe only for animals and children? I have always encouraged men to try yoga because they seem to hold so much tightness in their bodies. And women often master the more challenging poses in yoga from a seemingly more inherent flexibility. But I also have plenty of incredibly flexible male students and an equally large number of stiff and inflexible women in my classes. 
As a yoga teacher and also a student of yoga for several decades, I find most teachers today are cautionary to their students to be mindful of the feedback their bodies give them as they approach more physically challenging yoga poses. And yet, as if to throw one more barb of accusation at yoga and its teachers, the author offers this final warning: Unfortunately, yoga teachers too often encourage students to “push through the pain.” 
With all the supposed statistics the writer offers in the article, none are offered with this statement, and I am not certain where this impression comes from. I know that this can happen in some classes and styles of yoga, but this generalization, I believe, does not represent the overall state of yoga teaching in the US today.
And the tone used by the author implies that he has uncovered some hidden or unknown risk to yoga practitioners, and, more pointedly, women, that some of them could be at risk of hip injuries or impingements. As far back as 2009, the International Journal of Yoga Therapy published an article by Elaine Goodall "Preventing and Healing Injuries in Yoga: Acetabular Labral Tears.” In her detailed article, Ms. Goodall notes that gymnasts and dancers may have a predisposition for these kinds of injuries as well as some in yoga. So much for breaking news! 
One of my difficulties with the statistics—if they can be called statistics—that are offered in the New York Times article to back up the assertion that women are at a significant risk of hip injuries of a very specific kind is statements like this:

“Each year, he 
(Dr. Kelly) said, roughly 50 to 75 of his patients who danced or did yoga underwent operations. Most, he noted, were women.” 
The author goes to the effort of interviewing a surgeon, getting a guesstimate from said doctor, and never follows up with: how many were yoga related and how many dance related, and how many were a combination (as many yoga students, men and women, danced when younger)? And how many were men? What meaningful conclusions can a yoga teacher make from such superficial exploration?
In addition, the author points to a 2008 study done in Switzerland that looks at the kind of unique arthritis/traumatic changes to the hip called Femoral Acetabular Impingement, or FAI. However, he fails to mention that the women in that study had unusual hip anatomy, considered abnormal, though subtly so. The authors of the study go on to say, “The focus of the new concept (the theory on what underlies FAI) addressed those remaining cases of hip OA (osteoarthritis) in which the deformity (FAI) was considered mild, slight or even, in the eyes of casual observers, nonexistent.” 
So women and men who develop this impingement injury to the hip (prior to starting yoga) already had an anatomical reason that movements in the hip joint could lead to injury. Interesting. Developmental abnormalities that usually arose prior to adulthood were present in most cases. And this kind of FAI occurs in men and women, not women alone. Only once does this study mention that the pincer-type of injury is to women with underlying anatomically abnormal hips. And that these women often participate in “yoga and aerobics.” The authors don’t say the yoga caused the problem. As Paul Grilley so astutely points out, correlation does not mean causation! In fact, yoga is never mentioned again in the fairly lengthy article, and not at all in the final wrap up discussion that usually highlights the facts they find most compelling. They also don’t give statistics that clearly outline what percentage of women, with hip pain that requires surgery, have this kind of injury (FAI). So, again, the practical applicability for us in-the-trenches teachers is very unclear.
And statements like this are just mystifying: “I found that hundreds of orthopedic surgeons in the Mediterranean region heard a conference presentation in 2010 that linked F.A.I. to middle-aged women who do yoga.” If this was true, why does he not cite the study or the “presentation”? What was the presentation based on? Who made the presentation? Was there any study to back up these assertions?
And quotes like this: “Michael J. Taunton, an orthopedic surgeon at the Mayo Clinic, told me that he first learned of the danger a half decade ago and now annually performs 10 to 15 hip replacements on people who do yoga. About 90 percent, he added, are women.” This again does not help me much, as I don’t know how many hip surgeries this doctor does each year (about 20-30 a month, I would guess), so this may represent a small percentage of his annual surgeries, but the way it is presented seems really worrisome, if not epidemic, if you don’t have all the facts.
I have been teaching about the risks and benefits of yoga to future yoga teachers now for over 10 years. Some sort of classroom instruction on the topic is included in many 200-hour beginning level teacher trainings. So, from my personal experience and perspective, the yoga community is aware of potential dangers of certain aspects of the physical practices of asana and is better defining and sharing that information with each passing day.
Despite the author’s initial statements on the wonderful potentials of yoga in the first paragraph, little that follows in his article supports this assertion. I reminded myself that the final chapter of The Science of Yoga does give some insight into the author’s feelings and motivations regarding yoga:
“Yoga can grow up or remain an infant—a dangerous infant with a thing for handguns.” 
And a bit later in the epilogue, when discussing his concerns for the commercialization of yoga, he seems to pushing for huge government oversight of yoga with the following:
“Imagine if Big Pharma had no Food and Drug Administration and other regulatory agencies looking over its shoulder. The marketing of fake diseases and bogus cures…would be much worse.” 
And in the time since the release of his book, the three articles Mr. Broad has published have only dealt with potential negative aspects of yoga: the two on the dangers of yoga to men and women and one on the sexual scandals of yoga teachers.
How about a story from this self described yoga practitioner on the benefits of yoga next next time instead of sensationalist fearmongering?

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