While taking a yoga class in February, Jeana LaVardera of Santa Monica went into a backbend-like pose from which she never fully recovered.
The 31-year-old, who had been taking yoga classes off and on for six years, had assumed a position known in yoga as an upward-facing bow. Her teacher tried to increase the student's arch by pulling her upper arms forward. Instead of gaining height, LaVardera collapsed. The adjustment--which experts say should almost never be done--severed the super-scapular nerve in LaVardera's right shoulder. LaVardera now goes to physical therapy three times a week and may need surgery. She has almost no shoulder strength and can't fully rotate her arm.
As more Americans take up yoga, related injuries are also on the rise. Some injuries are to be expected, of course, as happens whenever overzealous newcomers catch on to a fitness trend. But yoga experts also blame the injuries on inexperienced teachers hastily trained to meet the new demand.
"Five years ago, I used to see about one student in 30 classes with a yoga-related injury. Today it's more like one in five," says Mark Stephens, a well-known L.A.-based yoga instructor. "In the past people were drawn to yoga for the mind-body-spirit connection; today the motivation is a vigorous workout and a great body."
More than 18 million people now practice yoga, up from 6 million in 1994, according to a 1998 survey conducted by the Wall Street Journal and NBC. That number is expected to be much higher now. Yoga is among the fastest-growing types of exercise classes offered in gyms and health clubs. A survey of U.S. fitness centers conducted by IDEA Health and Fitness Assn. found that 69% now offer yoga classes, compared with only 31% in 1996 and 57% just last year.
Popularity, yoga experts say, has its down side. To meet the rising demand for yoga, many fitness instructors are signing up for quickie yoga training--some are jumping on the yoga bandwagon at the urging of their health club, others on their own. And, to make matters worse, consumers often don't check out the qualifications of the instructors they've chosen to guide them into yoga's sometimes-unnatural positions.
"I'm pleased people from all walks are embracing yoga and seeing its benefits, but becoming a skilled yoga teacher takes a long time," says Anne O'Brien, a yoga instructor who, as director of conference business for Yoga Journal, sets up national training conferences for those interested in teaching yoga. "I want to embrace all yoga, but I can't embrace all training programs."
The expedient courses include online, home study and video-based programs, as well as weekend workshops. Although participants may get the chance to call themselves yoga teachers, their diplomas are of dubious merit. No nationally approved certification or license exists or is even required for yoga teachers.
In LaVardera's case, the instructor, it turned out, had been practicing yoga only two years and teaching for less than one. Although that's more training than many instructors have, it's less than ideal, say experts in the field. "If I'd known her credentials upfront, I wouldn't have put as much trust in her," says LaVardera, a massage therapist, who currently can't work.
From Sacred Path to the American Gym
A Sanskrit word that means union with spirit, yoga started in India 5,000 years ago and to many there and elsewhere is considered the sacred path to divine realization. Visionary yoga leaders brought the practice to this country 140 years ago, after which Hatha yoga, the most physical branch of yoga, took hold. Hatha yoga uses poses (asanas) and breathing (pranayama) to enhance the mind-body connection. Other branches focus more on meditation, chanting, selfless service and devotion.
No one can say exactly why it has caught on with the American mainstream, but celebrities, athletes, corporate America, even the medical community, are espousing and embracing its benefits. Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sting, Shaquille O'Neal and Tiger Woods all assume the occasional lotus. Companies such as Nike, Citibank, HBO and IBM provide on-site yoga classes for employees. Recently yoga made both "Oprah" and the cover of Time. Moreover, Western medical practitioners--in a slow but increasing willingness to embrace Eastern medical practices--are recognizing yoga's benefits and are recommending yoga to more patients, including those suffering from heart disease, cancer and depression.
However, given our culture's appetite for fast food, fast fitness and a fast buck, American yoga has evolved much differently than its Indian counterpart. Such hurrying, especially for the sake of capitalism, is the antithesis of yoga, which emphasizes tranquillity and spiritual enlightenment.