Yoga as a Holistic Treatment for Chronic Illnesses

Yoga is widely practiced for its health benefits (Alter, 2004; Singleton, 2010), especially for chronic non-communicable diseases (Holte and Millis, 2013). The Consortium of Academic Health Centers for Integrative Medicine located at Michigan, U.S. teaches yoga in most of its branches (Holte and Millis, 2013; https://imconsortium.org/)1. Yoga is one of the top ten complementary health practices used by adults in the U.S. where 45 percent of this population have at least one chronic illness (Wu and Green, 2000). Two meta-analyses were carried out to examine yoga in the context of stroke (Lawrence et al., 2017; Thayabaranathan et al., 2017). The authors of the meta-analyses concluded that yoga is effective but did not report any adverse event associated with yoga practice (Lawrence et al., 2017; Thayabaranathan et al., 2017). Despite this, safety is important during stroke rehabilitation, especially for practices which involve maintaining balance. Similarly, we found that in meta-analyses of yoga used for multiple sclerosis or cardiac disease there was a lack of information related to the safety of yoga interventions as adverse events related to yoga practice were not usually mentioned (Cramer et al., 2014, 2015a). Apart from this, when safety related data were reported there were no adverse events (Cramer et al., 2014, 2015b). Safety issues in yoga practice apply to all chronic illnesses.

The Need for Safety in Yoga Practice

An ancient Hatha yoga text gives importance to the method of practice, stating “….by the proper practice of pranayama (voluntarily regulated yoga breathing), all diseases are eradicated, whereas through the improper practice all diseases can arise” (Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Circa 1500 A.D., Chapter II Verse 16; Muktibodhananda, 1998).

William Broad (2012) attempted to highlight the adverse events which could occur with yoga practice in his book “The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards” (Broad, 2012). This evoked a wide range of responses, especially from those who have benefitted from yoga practice. However the adverse events related to yoga cannot be discounted.

Hence this opinion article has two aims. (i) The first aim is to cite published examples of adverse events occurring from yoga practice due to: (a) an unusually long duration of yoga practice, (b) practice of a yoga technique more frequently than is recommended, (c) excess strain on a specific joint during yoga practice, or (d) ignoring any health condition which would be a contraindication for yoga practice. (ii) The second aim is to suggest recommendations to improve safety and reduce adverse events related to yoga practice as therapy.

Search Strategy for Published Reports on Adverse Events Related to Yoga Practice

The search strategy was carried out in two stages. (i) The authors identified common reasons which could lead to an adverse event due to yoga practice, based on (a) the authors’ experience with yoga practitioners and (b) their awareness of adverse events resulting from yoga reported by conventionally trained medical practitioners. This information was in the form of oral reports from 1997 to 2018. The most common reasons for adverse events were (a) practicing yoga for an extra duration, (b) practicing yoga more frequently than is recommended, (c) excess strain on a specific joint during yoga practice and (d) adverse event related to a prior health condition. (ii) Two researchers independently searched PubMed abstracts from 1970 to 2018 for examples to demonstrate the four points mentioned above. Four examples were selected as the most appropriate and are described in the manuscript.

Published Reports on Examples of the Four Causes of Adverse Events Following Yoga Practice

An Example of Practicing Yoga for an Extra Duration

A 22 year old male, healthy college student who practiced the diamond pose (vajrasana, in Sanskrit) for 6 h a day for 2 months reported an abnormal gait due to foot drop (Chusid, 1971). The student had 18 months of experience in yoga. The subject recovered from foot drop after 9 weeks of discontinuing the posture. Practicing a yoga posture for 6 h a day is unusual; the recommended duration is 5–10 min for a beginner and not more than 30 min for an experienced practitioner (The divine life society2, http://yogaindepth.blogspot.com/p/detailed-description-of-yoga-asanas.html)3. In this case foot drop could be considered a consequence of practicing a yoga posture for a longer duration than is recommended.

An Example of Practicing Yoga More Frequently Than Is Recommended

In certain cases it may not be the duration but the frequency of the practice which was excessive. Regurgitative cleansing (kunjal-kriya in Sanskrit) involves voluntarily induced vomiting after drinking saline water on an “empty stomach” upto a point where the practitioner feels the urge to vomit (Saraswati, 2012). This yoga cleansing technique resulted in dental erosion in a 38 year old male who had practiced the technique every morning for 12 years (Meshramkar et al., 2007). While an ancient Hatha Yoga text describes kunjal kriya as useful to reduce digestive disorders, it is stated that the practice should be done once a week under the supervision of an experienced yoga teacher (Saraswati, 2012). Endogenous gastric acid enters the oral cavity during vomiting (José et al., 2008). The pH of gastric acid is approximately 1.2, which is below the critical value for demineralization of the teeth (José et al., 2008). This may explain the dental erosion in the 38 year old male in the study cited above, where a yoga technique was practiced more frequently than is recommended.

An Example of Excess Strain on a Specific Joint During Yoga Practice

Another factor which could be responsible for the adverse events following yoga practice include techniques which could either strain a joint or makes it unstable (Nagura et al., 2002). A cross-sectional study conducted in southern Thailand included 576 persons (276 females; 40 years or older) without any rheumatic diseases (Tangtrakulwanich et al., 2007). The aim was to correlate radiographic knee osteoarthritis with the habit of sitting on the floor for various activities, in sitting postures which resembled yoga postures as mentioned below. Those participants who reported squatting (similar to the chair pose or uttakatasana), side-knee bending (similar to the hero pose or veerasana), the lotus pose (padmasana) and total life time floor activities in highest tertile, showed a two time increased risk of osteoarthritis of the knee compared to those in the lowest tertile of exposure to floor seated activities (Tangtrakulwanich et al., 2007). These postures involve extreme flexion of the knee which causes excessively large contact stress on the knee joint (Dahlkvist et al., 1982; Nagura et al., 2002), which in turn causes cartilage damage and also acts as a precursor for degenerative diseases of the joint. Whether squatting is indeed harmful definitely needs thorough investigation, however the report cited above suggests the necessity for such studies and for precautions during yoga practice.