After the 2015 publication of my article “Living in Brittle Bones: My Life as a Yoga Teacher With Osteoporosis,” I was greatly surprised by the response I received. It wasn’t just the number of comments or the enormous interest in the topic. What surprised me was some of the content in what has been an avalanche of emails, that even now continue to arrive in my inbox. The majority of these emails have been from yoga teachers or yoga studio owners who are dealing with the same thing—an osteoporosis diagnosis—and who, in some cases, were told by their diagnosing physicians to give up yoga completely. That surprised me.
Why would these yogis be advised to give up their practices? One reason is that yoga classes often include forward bending and twisting, which are often contraindicated for osteoporosis. Based on that alone, it’s understandable that a doctor might recommend that a person with osteoporosis avoid yoga. And it's understandable that people who have been diagnosed with osteoporosis may themselves be apprehensive about practicing those postures—and maybe with good reason. Especially when directed to do so by a doctor.
However, there are other considerations suggesting that yoga could be beneficial to those diagnosed with osteoporosis. Healthcare professionals tell us that not only lifestyle and diet but also weight-bearing exercises are important factors in living well with osteoporosis. Many yoga poses involve weight-bearing, after all. So, if we avoid the contraindicated forward folds and twists, might we not continue to practice other poses and reap their benefits?
Then, too, there is another piece of this puzzle that I have grown curious about: the soft tissue of our bodies. Very recently I took a severe fall on black ice, and one might have expected my bones to have shattered…but they didn’t. I wondered why, and then I remembered a story my friend Darcy once told me.
Darcy was part of a science experiment in high school that involved figuring out how to drop a raw egg from an airplane without it breaking. Out of some 60 students involved in the experiment, she was one of only two whose eggs landed safely. What was the secret? She had put her egg in a baggie filled with water, which cushioned its fall. I wondered if—similar to the way water had cushioned Darcy’s egg—the habit of softening unnecessary tension that my yoga practice had taught me (even as it helped me to grow strong) had provided cushioning for my bones when I fell and helped to prevent a serious break to my hip. Could it be that our bones are much like the egg in my friend’s science experiment—that they need a soft cushion around them to protect them from impacts?
Indeed, our bones exist as part of a complex musculoskeletal system that includes soft tissues such as muscles, tendons, ligaments, and fascia. When I consider bones in this holistic way as one part of a larger system, I wonder if a bone surrounded by tense muscle or rigid fascia could be more fracture-prone than a bone with less rigid support. I wondered if perhaps the bones shouldn’t be the only focal point in living well with osteoporosis. In my friend’s experiment, it was the type of packing with which each student chose to surround their egg that determined whether the egg broke or not. Perhaps, along with thinking about what to do to strengthen our bones, we should also be trying to improve the quality of the cushioning surrounding our bones.
For those of us who live with frail bones, finding this additional avenue to consider is a hopeful prospect in that it may give us another way to take better care of ourselves. It could mean that we not only need to safely allow our bones to receive impact to strengthen them but also need to safely decrease the rigidity hiding in the secret places of our soft tissue in order to take pressure off our bones. Yoga can help us do both.
Take the breath, for instance. When we allow ourselves to be seized by fear (which having osteoporosis can easily evoke), the tendency is to hold our breath, tense up, and move too timidly. When this happens, the body turns rigid, the bones are held tightly, and in this tightly held state, they may be at greater risk of breaking. Yoga teaches us to breathe steadily through our practice and to be mindful to release unnecessary tension from our bodies—a lesson we can also carry into life beyond the mat.
Yoga also improves our balance and coordination. Because of the variety of postures it offers, yoga can increase our range of motion, and we often find ourselves using our body in ways different from the habitual demands of our daily lives.
Yoga postures can also help to correct postural distortions, teaching us to use our body in an aligned manner. And they help to balance muscle strength, correcting any deviations that may be putting undue stress on a bone. In all these ways, a consistent yoga practice, done under the guidance of a knowledgeable teacher, can support us to safely receive impact and allow that impact to strengthen the bones.
If we can learn to respect osteoporosis without fearing it, we can allow the breath to soften our bodies and gently cushion our bones while we move. Our yoga practice can be a major resource in learning to move in what can be a safer way, even as it nourishes our sense of well-being.
Steady and comfortable, effortless effort, Patanjali reminds us. There is a lifetime of learning and experimenting in these two pithy sutras (2.46-2.47) if we let them guide all of our movement.
For me, guided by these sutras, the question is not “Should I or should I not do yoga,” or even “Should I or should I not do this contraindicated pose,” but rather “What can I do to make each pose safe and beneficial for me?”
I have found this approach to be one that not only allows me to continue to practice poses I might otherwise have given up, but also that causes me to give more heed to the intricacies of each pose. I now pay closer attention to how I move and how far I move because I don’t want to ask too much—or too little—of my body.