Jemma Prittie (pictured) spent almost £700 on treatment for a lower back injury sustained in a yoga class
When Julie Thompson-Dredge started weekly yoga classes six years ago, she hoped to improve her strength and flexibility.
Instead, she was left with two slipped discs that required major surgery and left her struggling to walk, sit or sleep for four months.
Two years on, she’s still traumatised by the operation, which required the surgeon to access her upper spine through the front of her neck.
‘I’d never had a back problem in my life until I got into yoga. I’ve been through hell, with pain unlike any I’ve ever experienced,’ says Julie, 40, a mother of two who lives in London.
‘The operation was gruesome. The surgeon had to cut into my spine to fuse a disc with titanium. I have a visible scar on my neck.
‘I will never, ever do yoga again.’
Julie, a company director, isn’t the only devotee to suffer severe injuries, but it seems any mention of them is swept under the nearest yoga mat.
A recent study by scientists at Sydney University found yoga causes musculoskeletal pain in more than one in ten participants, actually worsened more than a fifth of existing injuries and is just as dangerous as other sports.
Yet it’s lauded by the NHS as a remedy for back pain, with official guidance stating there’s ‘some evidence that regular yoga practice is beneficial for people with high blood pressure, heart disease, aches and pains — including lower back pain — depression and stress’.
Julie had no existing pain when she started Bikram yoga classes in 2012 to boost her strength ahead of a skiing trip. Bikram is sometimes known as ‘hot’ yoga because classes take place in temperatures of up to 40c (104f).
‘I was soon hooked and doing up to four classes a week,’ Julie recalls. ‘I loved the sense of relaxation coupled with increased muscle strength and the way it made me look and feel.’
But two years in, she ended up in A&E after falling during a pose that involved placing all her weight on one leg — ‘My supporting knee gave way with an almighty crunch and I fell to the floor, screaming in pain.’
She put it down to bad luck and, after several weeks on crutches with a sprained knee, returned to the yoga studio.
‘I went back because I believed yoga was a healing and innocuous form of exercise. I never imagined it could give me an injury. It’s marketed as something to correct injuries.’
Fast-forward to 2016, though, and after being pushed to do deep, backward bending poses by one female tutor over a period of two months, Julie began to suffer excruciating pain in her back and arms.
As well as mental scars, Julie was left physically scarred after the operation which required the surgeon to access her upper spine through the front of her neck
‘I remember thinking it was strange, when I complained about how much pain I was in, that she didn’t seem to take it very seriously or even stop the class,’ she recalls now.
‘It became agony even to sit at my desk, and my GP prescribed high doses of the painkillers co-codamol and morphine.
‘When I attempted to get a glass of water, but couldn’t physically hold it and dropped it on the floor, I knew something was seriously wrong.
‘A doctor friend advised me to see a neck specialist privately straight away, which I did. I was diagnosed with two slipped discs [where the soft cushion of tissue between bones in the spine pushes out and presses on nerves] and needed surgery.’
Julie had a two-hour operation in August 2016 and has made a full recovery. She now swims instead of yoga.
‘I’ve since talked to various doctors who don’t recommend Bikram yoga,’ she adds. ‘I felt the studio basically weren’t interested and wanted me to leave.’
A recent study from Sydney University said that yoga is as dangerous as other sports (file photo)
Although an organisation called The British Wheel of Yoga is recognised by Sport England as its ‘governing body’, there is no statutory regulation of yoga. Anyone can set themselves up as an instructor with only a few hours’ training.
Sinead McGann is a specialist musculoskeletal physiotherapist at Pure Sports Medicine clinic in London. She says although severe damage is fairly rare, there are some injuries she sees frequently. ‘Typically, I treat yoga fans for strains in their back and hip muscles, plus wrist injuries,’ she explains.
‘Yoga is great exercise when done properly. But there are risk factors — some people may do too much, too soon. You must know your own limitations, even if you’ve got an instructor who’s telling you to push boundaries.
‘To help prevent injury, do strength training as well as yoga, under the guidance of a physiotherapist or personal trainer.’
Michele Pernetta, who first brought Bikram yoga to London in 1994 but subsequently distanced herself from it to launch Fierce Grace, her own yoga system tailored to individual needs, concurs: ‘One needs to work with an experienced instructor, particularly if you have a medical condition, injury or weak area.’
Michele runs a training programme for yoga teachers which takes 250 hours and focuses on safe practice. She acknowledges that a lack of regulation means there are unscrupulous teachers out there.
‘Reputable teachers are very concerned about the limited knowledge of some yoga teachers, particularly as more and more people are taking up the discipline to help with physical issues,’ she says. ‘I train my own teachers in injury modification and how to teach people to work within their limitations.’
English teacher Monica Troughton, 65, was also injured doing yoga and currently nursing two broken ribs (file photo)
That was far from the experience of English teacher Monica Troughton, 65, currently nursing two broken ribs after falling in a yoga class two months ago.
‘Lying down and laughing are agonising, and I’m in the throes of hayfever so my ribs are very painful every time I sneeze,’ says Monica, who lives in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, with husband David, 66, an artist.
‘I had a stroke a couple of years ago and the consultant told me exercise at my age is vital,’ she says. ‘So I started walking a couple of hours a day, and decided to try yoga to strengthen muscles.’
Monica broke her ribs during a hatha yoga class, which consists of stretching, breathing and headstands.
‘I was doing a pose where I had to wrap my hands around my ankles, then try to walk. I fell and heard my ribs crack. It was excruciating and I went to my GP fearing I might have punctured a lung. Thankfully, I hadn’t.
It’s a similar story for Jemma Prittie, 42, who is single, lives in London and runs retreats taking people swimming with wild dolphins in Hawaii.
She’s spent almost £700 on treatment for a lower back injury sustained in a yoga class.