TI Practice: All the benefits of yoga. None of the risks.
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on February 13th, 2012
Yesterday I ordered the Kindle version of a new book “The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards,” by William Broad a NY Times Science writer who has practiced yoga since 1970.
One reviewer sums up the book this way: Broad’s objective is simple enough: to evaluate in scientific terms the claims made for yoga. But this turns out to be more complicated than it seems. For one thing, there are the sheer number and variety of those claims: yoga, it is said, can prevent heart disease, reverse aging, eliminate pain, and bestow serenity and peace. Broad patiently and exhaustively examines the evidence for each of these assertions, revealing surprises along the way. Yes, yoga can reduce anxiety and improve mood. No, it won’t help the overweight shed pounds.
What I found intriguing was a recent surge of interest by scientists in the health benefits of yoga. The National Institutes of Health recently put up millions for one such study These studies have documented benefits that practicing yogi’s have long reported anecdotally. On the physical side, yoga’s gentle range-of-motion exercises and focus on alignment keep the spine strong and supple–in part by reducing a common aging effect, the drying-out of the disks that cushion your vertebrae. The controlled breathing in yoga also lowers blood pressure. On the emotional side, yoga .makes you happier and calmer by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system – the part that strengthens reflective and optimistic thinking.
At the same time Broad debunks other health claims about yoga that have become rather widespread.Two examples: (1) Yoga has aerobic benefits: In fact it has no effect at all on the aerobic system. (2) Yoga increases metabolic rate, helping produce weight loss. In fact the opposite is true. Yoga slows metabolism; if you practice it regularly, you’ll gain weight unless you reduce calorie intake.  Why are yoga teachers so often lean and lithe? Well, teaching 3 to 5 hours a day can burn a lot of calories.
Broad is also the first high-profile writer to describe a darker side to yoga–instances of serious spinal injuries; it surprised me to learn that a high percentage of yoga teachers have required surgery or long periods of rehab. Back and hip injuries occured from pushing too far in bending or twisting poses. Of far greater concern are instances of disabling strokes, and even fatalities. These resulted most often from people flexing the neck nearly 90 degrees,damaging blood vessels that supply the brain, while doing Shoulder Stand and Plow.
Yoga’s rapid growth is at least partly to blame. As tens of millions have taken it up in the last decade, there are ever more  novices and older folks, ‘blissfully’ unaware of the dangers of overexuberance, striving to match the extreme flexibility of their teachers–or the young and supple women that one so often finds on the next mat. Rapid growth has also resulted in a flood of  inexperienced, poorly-trained and uncertified teachers leading  students who are also inexperienced and ill-suited–because of age and years of sedentary living–for advanced poses. As well, the ‘yoga-industrial complex’  has created a confusing profusion of yoga styles. Broad writes that there are a ‘jillion schools of yoga’— many  making breathless and unsubstantiated claims. So Broad’s book performs a valuable service in making it possible for ‘yoga consumers’ to be better informed.
The beauty of TI is that it offers all of yoga’s benefits, along with many more, yet none of the risks.
  • TI does improve aerobic health and–when your skills are ready to be practiced at higher tempos–increases metabolism.
  • TI drills and skills improve the strength and suppleness of the spine and work all the muscles of the body, with a particular emphasis on core muscle.
  • TI Mindful Practice improves brain function,stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system.
  • TI makes your stroke longer–and TI drills require a degree of breath control. This combination of drills and stroke length makes breathing deeper, steadier and more rhythmic, and  improves exchange of carbon dioxide for oxygen in the lungs, bloodstream and muscles, while lowering blood pressure.
  • TI’s Kaizen emphasis on targeting skills that can be refined and expanded over decades can give you a higher-functioning brain, and maintain mental sharpness into advanced age.
  • The nature of the movements we practice, along with the aquatic environment, is entirely risk free.
  • And finally, most of the examplars people aim to emulate in TI, and the people you typically find in a TI class or group practice, are not those with unusual physical gifts, nor the young and athletic, but people who are distinctly ordinary in a physical sense, and usually middle-aged or beyond.
To be clear, when practiced in a regular  sound and sensible way, yoga is unequivocally beneficial. I’ve practiced since my early 40s,  have mostly managed to avoid injury, and have gotten great benefits–including to my swimming practice. I intend to practice yoga regularly for the rest of my life. But TI is unequivocally an ideal complement to yoga, which brings all of the benefits–and more–with none of the downside.  I’m certain that the combination of TI and Yoga is better than anything else I might do to realize my goal of being strong, supple, happy–and still pursuing personal growth–at age 85 and beyond.
Read a NY Times review of “The Science of Yoga.”

Read a transcript and hear a recording of William Broad on Talk of the Nation’s Science Friday.

Hear Terry Gross of Fresh Air interview William Broad.


10 Responses to “TI Practice: All the benefits of yoga. None of the risks.”

  1. Will says:

    FWIW, there was a related scare article in the Times last month about yoga being “deadly”…when the figures for actual injury, surgery, and death were presented, they were pretty paltry (a mere 46 visits to the ER in one year for millions of yoga students). I’ve known far, far more people to be seriously injured bicycling than doing yoga.

  2. An excerpt from Broad’s book. I’m grateful to have been made aware of the potential dangers of Shoulder Stand and Plow, no matter how few ER visits may have resulted. Those who suffered strokes and fatalities weren’t so fortunate.

  3. Brian says:

    Terry: I enjoy your blog. I have earlier written about the immediate, incredible benefits of simply watching the TI videos – I went from 4 gasping lengths to swimming a mile inside a week. But extreme claims help no one. “None of the risks?” If you want to count strokes by people practicing yoga not alert enough to realize they’re crushing their own arteries, you better count slip-and-falls by the pool as well. Drowning is, after all, the fifth leading cause of death for people of all ages in the US. Are you saying not a single one involved a person practicing TI, in a pool or offshore? I’m not knocking TI, far from it. I’m just saying you don’t help TI’s case by making false comparisons or outlandish claims. I’ll stand corrected when a study of TI is done as rigorous as Mr. Broad’s.

  4. I beg to differ with you. I cited specific yoga activities, practiced daily by millions, that have been documented as increasing health risk – Shoulder Stand, Plow, and overexuberant efforts at bending and twisting – which result from ill-prepared practioners thinking that super-flexible, long-practiced teachers and young supple women set a standard all should aim for.

    Slipping by the pool or drowning while swimming alone in the sea have nothing to do with TI Practice. I think everyone understands that TI Activities include Superman Glide, Skate, Spear and SwingSwitch — as well as whole stroke practice we strongly advocate should be done with fluency, rhythmically and conscious avoidance of strain.

    If you can point to any aspect of that which increase injury risk, I’ll accept your contention that what I wrote is false or even exaggerated. In fact the contrary is true. Countless people report relief from shoulder pain or injury and back and neck pain after beginning TI Practice.

    I unequivocally stand by every word I wrote!

  5. Lu says:

    Hi Terry!
    As yoga practitioner a certified Iyengar Yoga Teacher… I don’t think the article is exagerated in the facts – the facts are correct, but I think that the comparison is unfortunate. I don’t think it’s fair to compare something as specific as TI with something so general as “yoga”. Swimming using TI method reduces shoulder pain, but if you simply talk about “swimming”, well, there are many reports about shoulder injuries due to swimming. So if was a yoga practioner of a safe method (which I am) and didn’t know anything about TI technique, and only considered “swimming” in general, I could, using the same logic, defend the opposite argument – “yoga as all the benefits of swimming, but without the risks” – wouldn’t you find the comparison unfair? I would.

  6. A fair question Luisa. Mr Broad commented favorably on Iyengar as the safest and soundest school of yoga. I was fortunate to have practiced Iyengar-influenced yoga for 10 years before experiencing other styles. And I’ve never been attracted by the more faddish styles, or those where people seem eager to prove themselves ‘better’ yogis.
    When I say TI has none of the risks of yoga, I have very specific comparisons in mind. Every TI drill or position is inherently safe and ‘orthopedically friendly.” Yoga similarly has many positions that are either entirely safe and sound or have minimal injury potential.
    Those that doctors have specifically identified as requiring considerable caution are Shoulder Stand and Plough, because they put the neck in a position where a key blood vessel supplying the brain can rupture. After learning that I’ve decided never to attempt either again. While the risk may be small, it’s just not worth it. I now do Headstand, in place of Shoulder Stand, because it’s done with an aligned neck.
    But many additional bending and twisting postures–if done by someone who is ill-prepared or ill-suited–commonly cause less serious injury and strain. And as Mr Broad notes the rapid growth in yoga has led to many more instances of poorly-trained teachers leading students with a higher level of injury risk. More yoga teachers than ever before seem to recognize the importance of mitigating risk and counseling moderation.

    TI coaches routinely counsel moderation and remind people that swimming never responds well to strain. But even without those cautions, there’s simply nothing in our drill sequence, or the nature of the whole-stroke we teach than has any significant injury potential.

  7. Greg says:

    One of my best life coaches taught me ‘never practice struggling.’ Oh, yeah, that was Terry Laughlin.

    I think the analogy by Luisa above is very good, criticizing all of yoga, is much like criticizing all of swimming. There are a lot of really bad swimming coaches out there, and there are a lot of really bad yoga teachers out there too. Part of our mindfulness practice is in sorting them out.

    I have been a yoga student for many years, have been blessed with several very good, and mindful teachers, and have walked out on a few really bad ones. The best teachers taught me how to listen to my own body, and stop when my body told me I was doing something wrong.

    TI has taught me what great swimming felt like, and given me the courage to walk away from a few bad swimming teachers too. Caveat Emptor may be a western concept, but I think it applies even to eastern philosophies.

    I think that Mr Broad has some valuable information in his book, I think that he also has an axe to grind, and more than a little sensationalism. For a more balanced perspective, one might look at the reviews of his book on Amazon, especially the ones written by some of the best yoga teachers in the world. Most of them say just that.

  8. Frank says:

    I’m an Iyengar practitioner and I agree with the NTtimes article about the dangers especially around your neck. A good instructor will keep a careful eye on her students. Iyengar trains its instructors to watch and help students. A lot of yoga teachers are glorified aerobics instructors who took a certification class.

    As for swimming with TI I think the valid comparison is the mindfulness practices of Yoga and with practicing TI drills. It wasn’t until I took up TI that I learned to relax in the water.

  9. Robert Yoho says:

    I can only comment on my personal experience. I’ve been an off and on yoga student for decades, the past 5 years an off and on Bikram yoga student. I measured my heart rate in many of the Yoga classes I have been in, and only Bikram seems to kick it up, as high as 130 or so. This may be from the blood volume depletion the heat may cause. For me, when I can stand it, Bikram does the most good, I feel the best, but unfortunately hate the classes the most. I am 58 and have lots of muscles and if I don’t stretch I fall into back pain and other problems quickly. Even swimming seems to make me tight. As a physician I feel the “pancreatic” and “pituitary” improvement etc claims for Bikram and other yoga practices are ridiculous, but there’s no doubt I’ve been helped orthopedically (and to a lesser degree psychologically) by yoga. If you haven’t given it a try, Bikram is a remarkable experience, some positive and some negative, but after those classes I get a feeling that is almost like I had after high school athletics (and I can’t work out like this any more).

  10. Jay Gleason says:

    As in all things a little knowledge can be dangerous…
    one has too “read everything before doing anything”
    and size up the risk before… simple fact is most professionals do not know what they “should”. I am a EMT, personal trainer, massage therapist, and 30yr component/quality/mfg engineer…, Jack Barnathan (Dara Tories one time trainer) says in his seminars that a personal trainer should be a body guard… (teach clients what they need to know to avoid injury)
    His story is that he, not knowing who they were, drove off SF Chronicle, and Sports Illustrated reporters…
    and so they reported him as her new bodyguard.
    While I love most Iyengar trainers… He (Iyengar) himself was quite a piece of work… often very painfully forcing students into alignments…,as well as, his not emphasizing breath.. And I love Bikram but the militancy of some of his schools is legendary. I was a student of Kali Ray 88-94 and her assistant would give me all the dope… she learned at the big yoga conferences… one thing everyone should understand is external rotation of the shoulders and how it relates to the prevention of shoulder and neck injury. Technique taught in TI greatly reduces the chance of impinging (injuring) the shoulder.
    One thing to know is to keep your head still and facing forward after an auto accident until the emt’s arrive… this will probably prevent thousands of times more deaths etc. than occur in Yoga classes.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.