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Whew! I never have to do this, or that

A new book has given those who have resisted peer pressure to try yoga a real reason to relax

By Beth Teitell
Globe Staff / January 19, 2012
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At 31, Leah McCarty, is, by her own description, really tense. “Everyone tells me I need to do yoga,’’ she said during a break from her job as a receptionist at a Brookline salon. “But it’s too boring, and I don’t have time.’’

For years, McCarty’s arguments have failed to silence the proselytizers. But in early January, help arrived. “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body,’’ read a headline in The New York Times.

Adapted from a forthcoming book by New York Times senior writer William J. Broad, “The Science of Yoga; the Risks and Rewards,’’ the long magazine cover story warned of yoga-related injuries, some mild, and others, while rare, quite frightening. Brain and nerve damage, degenerated hips, back problems, torn Achilles’ tendons.

“Many come to yoga as a gentle alternative to vigorous sports or for rehabilitation for injuries,’’ the article read. “But yoga’s exploding popularity - the number of Americans doing yoga has risen from about 4 million in 2001 to what some estimate to be as many as 20 million in 2011 - means that there is now an abundance of studios where many teachers lack the deeper training necessary to recognize when students are headed toward injury.’’

The story enraged the yogaverse. Some devotees said it lacked enough research, or lumped all kinds of yoga together, or sensationalized rare problems. And yet, for those who’ve felt guilty or lazy or out of step for avoiding the fitness trend, the report was the best yoga-related news ever.

“I’m off the hook,’’ said McCarty, at last in her Zen place. “I’m going to throw [this story] at them.’’

Finally, she and other non-practitioners got the stress relief that yoga promises actual practitioners. (From a national mental-health perspective, word that yoga may not be the cure-all it’s made out to be could be good news. A 2008 Yoga Journal study found that more people want to practice yoga than actually do practice yoga - 18.3 million wannabes compared with the 15.8 million parading around with yoga mats slung over their perfectly squared shoulders.)

Never mind that endless reports praise yoga’s psychological and physiological benefits, offering relief from everything from hot flashes to back injuries. Now that the unspoken commandment - Thou Shall Not Speak Ill of Yoga - has been broken, the yoga-free say, the shame of never having done the child’s pose has been eliminated.

Gone, too, is the need to splurge on lululemon yoga pants, to buy Groupons for yoga classes that will never be taken, the pressure to resolve, New Year after New Year, to do a downward-facing dog.

“I was kind of relieved,’’ said Tonielise Tepfer, 26, a preschool teacher in Boston. “Everyone always talks about how great yoga is, but I feel like it’s not all it’s hyped up to be.’’

Tepfer takes spinning, zumba, and pilates classes, but never felt right after doing yoga. “You always hear no pain, no gain,’’ she said, “but maybe pain isn’t so great in that situation.’’

“I felt so vindicated,’’ said Zayna Gold. She’s the cofounder of Boston Body Pilates, and a former yoga teacher and practitioner who stopped for fear the poses would damage her spine and joints. For years she’s felt that to say something bad about yoga was to reveal a weakness within.

“If you speak negatively about yoga - if you say, ‘When I do this pose my hip joint hurts,’ it’s because you have a physical/emotional/spiritual resistance which you should be working through. That’s what a lot of yoga instructors will tell people,’’ Gold said.

But Justine Wiltshire, director of Down Under Yoga, in Newton, sees it differently.

“It’s not a shocking revelation that you can hurt yourself if you don’t know what you are doing,’’ she said, “but any article like this does more to scare people than educate them.

“The reason yoga has so many millions of practitioners is that it works,’’ she explained. “It is well documented by the medical community now that yoga, well instructed, not only makes the body strong, flexible, and healthy but is now a doctor’s first prescription for a whole range of health issues from lower back pain, respiratory and cardiac issues, arthritis, osteoporosis, anxiety and depression, and more.’’

What’s a yoga novice - or an aspiring yoga novice - to do? Dayna Macy, Yoga Journal’s managing editor of international editions, advised people to look for a good teacher - and also look out for themselves. “Consumers need to be their own best advocates,’’ she said. “Don’t check your critical capacities at the door.’’

If you can even get yourself to the door, that is. Jeffrey Brown, an instructor at Harvard Medical School, with a therapy practice in Arlington, often sees clients who worry about not doing yoga. “There tends to be a very noticeable social pressure facing some individuals,’’ he said.

Even as patients fret about not doing yoga, he explained, the prospect of actually doing it can cause even more anxiety. “Sometimes people fear that it is not going to work for them in the way they hope it will,’’ Brown, coauthor of “The Winner’s Brain,’’ said. “By avoiding it, they can always hang onto the hope that it might work for them, therefore they never run out of options. But if they try it, and it doesn’t work, hope is gone.’’

But many people have tried, of course, and decided that yoga simply isn’t for them, even though everyone around them insists it will ground them and turn them into all around better people.

“Yoga stresses me out because it’s so slow,’’ said Gina Grieshaber, 40, a district manager for J.P. Licks. “I’m going to forward [the article] to people.’’

Meanwhile, as the conversation continues, perhaps the two sides can find some common space. Macy, of the Yoga Journal, reports that even serious practitioners feel guilty. “Sometimes,’’ she says they confess, “I only do it four times a week.’’

Beth Teitell can be reached at bteitell@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.

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