This Woman Says She Suffered a Stroke from Doing Yoga
In 2017, yogi Rebecca Leigh found out she had torn an artery and suffered a stroke after practicing hollowback handstands. Today, she's still dealing with chronic pain as a result of the stroke.
When it comes to yoga, pulling a muscle isn't the worst-case scenario. Back in 2017, a Maryland woman found out that she had suffered a stroke after doing an advanced pose in her yoga practice. Today, she's still dealing with health issues as a result.
Rebecca Leigh mostly populates her Instagram feed with yoga photos, but two years ago, she posted a photo of herself in a hospital bed. "5 days ago I had a stroke," Leigh wrote in her caption. "I am of the 2% of people who have a stroke due to something called 'carotid artery dissection.'" After experiencing vision issues, numbness, and head and neck pain, she went to the ER, where an MRI revealed that she'd had a stroke, Leigh wrote. A subsequent CT scan showed that she'd torn her right carotid artery, which allowed a blood clot to go to her brain, she explained. She ended her post with a word of warning: "Yoga will still be part of my everyday life. But the days of crazy headstands or inversions are over. No pose or picture is worth what I have been going through."
Leigh has since returned to yoga, but her story is currently drawing media attention. She told South West News Service that she spent weeks in constant pain and still deals with symptoms, per Fox News. "I know that I will never be where I was before 100 percent," she told the news service.(Related: This Woman Fell Into a River After Attempting an Instagram-Worthy Yoga Pose)
The Insta-worthy pose that Leigh had been practicing was a hollowback handstand, according to Fox News. The super-advanced pose involves hyperextending your back while in a handstand so that your legs line up behind your head.
So can a yoga pose actually cause a stroke? "Certainly the pose that she was in related to why she had the injury, but I think it would definitely be considered a freak occurrence," says Erich Anderer, M.D., chief of neurosurgery at NYU Langone Health. Artery dissections like Leigh's are rare, he explains, and they can happen for many reasons outside of yoga, usually relating to some form of trauma. "I've seen it in dancers, athletes, and football players. I've even seen it in someone picking up a suitcase." If you have a condition that predisposes you to a dissection, like high blood pressure or a genetic disease that makes you very flexible (such as Ehlers–Danlos syndrome), you should be especially careful while practicing yoga, notes Dr. Anderer. (Related: I Was a Healthy 26-Year-Old When I Suffered a Brain Stem Stroke with No Warning)
In general, proper alignment is crucial when practicing inverted yoga poses. "Inversions are not something to play around with if you're not with somebody who really knows what they're doing," says Heidi Kristoffer, yogi, and creator of CrossFlowX. Properly warming up beforehand, keeping your core engaged throughout, and possessing adequate upper-body strength are all key, explains Kristoffer. And hollowbacks are even more advanced than straight headstands and handstands. "Particularly in the hollowback handstand, part of the issue is that some people end up looking toward the floor, which ends up extending your neck unnaturally, and you probably should be looking a little more straight ahead so at least your neck is neutral," says Dr. Anderer. While it feels scarier to look at the wall behind you in a handstand, doing so protects your neck. (Related: Yoga for Beginners: A Guide to the Different Types of Yoga)
It's certainly rare to suffer a stroke as a result of a yoga pose, but honoring your limits during your practice lowers the risk of injuries, both major and minor, says Kristoffer. "You need to take your class with an experienced yoga instructor and not just look at an Instagram picture and just replicate it," she explains. "You don't know how many hours and decades that person has been prepping for it at this point."