One of the reasons people take up yoga is because they think it will make them healthier. Often they have lower back pain. Yet talk to any osteopath and they'll reel off a list of people who have put their backs out doing yoga. A recent New York Times article called How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body has caused quite a stir in the yoga community pointing out all the ways that yoga can injure and saying that most people shouldn't do it. But before you roll up your mat and head for the gentler delights of pilates, read this.
You wouldn't go jogging in high heels, like any activity it's important to practice yoga correctly. Yoga poses are designed for bodies which are perfectly aligned. So, if your back is a bit rounded and your shoulders roll forwards because you spend your days hunched over a computer, then you might struggle in class. Backbends are particularly dangerous for the desk-bound because they send the spine in the opposite direction. In fact a backbend can damage a weak back, especially if you throw your head back and cramp all the vertebrae together rather than extending the tailbone in the pose. So, to survive a yoga class, you need a teacher who nags you about alignment, uses props and will adjust your posture throughout the class.
The philosophy which underpins yoga tells us to practice with awareness. This means being aware of your body's limitations and breath in each pose. What it doesn't mean is being aware of everyone else in the class. Don't look at what they're doing. Ever. Everyone has a different body in terms of flexibility and length of limbs. So the person next to you might be able to bind their arms around the legs in a standing pose but that doesn't mean you should force yourself into that position. Yoga is about accepting where you are. Competition has no place in class, it leads to injury.
A lot of people are attracted to bikram yoga (the hot one) because they equate sweating with getting fit. In a heated room it's easier to touch your toes because your ligaments will loosen. The downside is that it's easier to over-extend, sending your back into spasm so that you can't bend over to put your socks on the next day. Your body can also be at risk in flow classes where the speed of poses means you can end up doing positions which aren't in Iyengar's Light On Yoga.
Speaking of which, approach yoga books and DVDs with caution. Some of Iyengar's poses are bonkers and most of us will never be flexible enough to rest our heads on the soles of our feet. And why would you want to?
But yoga is hugely beneficial to millions of people: it improves mobility for MS sufferers, soothes cancer sufferers and eases birthing. It would be a shame to scare these people away by portraying it as a dangerous activity.