Most people associate yoga with radiant health and peace of mind. Paradoxically, the first image that pops into one's mind when hearing the word yoga is a young, fit and presumably healthy woman in a contortionist pose. Viewing Instagram images of uber-flexible girls in poses defying gravity one might question the therapeutic value of yoga. Perhaps rightly so.
Contrary to what many yoga practitioners believe and surprisingly many yoga teachers preach, asanas weren't invented in order to improve health. The aim of the Hatha Yogis practicing headstands in the Himalayas wasn't well-being and relaxation but forcefully disciplining their bodies in order to channel subtle energies and reach higher mental states. No wonder then that some of those old, 'classical' asanas carry inherent risks, particularly for a Western desk-bound population.
It might come as a surprise that the oldest known asanas (apart from seated meditation poses) were developed only a couple of centuries ago. Even more shocking might be the fact that those oldest asanas are just a fraction of postures practiced today in yoga studios worldwide. The vast majority of asanas as we know them today were invented by 20th century teachers, mostly from the Krishnamacharya lineage. These teachers were undoubtedly well-intentioned but their anatomy knowledge was limited and they tended to create one-fits-all sets of sequences and alignment rules. Swami Sivanada and Vishnudevananda of the Sivananda Yoga lineage, Pattabhi Jois of Ashtanga Yoga and particularly B.K.S. Iyengar, the founder of Iyengar yoga, all claimed that yoga- or rather THEIR TAKE ON YOGA- is therapeutic.
Yet, many of the famous modern yoga teachers (and some of their more ardent followers) need to cope with chronic pain and serious injuries developed by years of overstretching and mastering 'advanced' poses. Being flexible has somehow become equated with being a good, successful, hard-working yogi. But the constant pushing beyond the body's limits comes with a price.
Injuries can happen during almost any activity, even as simple as walking or taking a shower. Moreover, most sport disciplines have a much higher level of traumatic injuries than yoga. Yet the yoga injuries, especially among those who practice intensely and are naturally hyper-mobile, are a hidden, dirty secret of the yoga world
This does not mean yoga cannot be therapeutic. Indeed for many it is a self-healing process, both on a physical and mental level. I often hear from my students their back pain disappeared completely as a result of regular practice or that their panic attacks are a thing of the past. Just a quick search through yoga blogs ends up with hundreds of personal accounts of how yoga almost miraculously healed this or that person from a particular condition.
Some yoga styles are more geared towards healing than others. In fact therapeutic and restorative yoga are both meant to do just that. If you are not a 100% fit and healthy person it might be wiser to steer away from more dynamic and intense styles such as Bikram or Ashtanga Yoga and choose those with a more individual approach for example Viniyoga or Scaravelli Yoga.
This being said, much depends on the teacher rather than the style she follows. With a competent, attentive and accommodating teacher you should feel you're in good hands. But ultimately it is your own attitude to yoga practice that makes a real difference. Are you honest with yourself and willing to accept your limitations? Do you practice to achieve some concrete goal (let's say, reaching your toes or 'nailing' the crow pose) or could you rather let the situation unravel and accept whatever you encounter on the way?
For further exploration of the topic of yoga, pain and intention behind practice I recommend getting acquainted with Matthew Remsky's WAWADIA project http://matthewremski.com/wordpress/multimedia/wawadia/