Inspiring health and happiness in body, mind and spirit

How Not To Get Hurt

February 1, 2012
The yoga world was turned upside down by an article published in The New York Times called, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.” In it, science writer William Broad shared stories of individuals who have suffered debilitating injuries as a result of their yoga practices.

Many members of the yoga community have dismissed the article for both its sensationalism and its inaccuracies. And yet, most yoga experts agree that the discipline is not immune to injury. (If they’re honest, many of these experts will even tell you about their own yoga injuries - some minor and some significant.)

So, what’s a yogi to do? A few simple steps can help us prevent harm and foster healing in our yoga practice.

Choose your teacher carefully. Not everyone who calls herself a yoga teacher is experienced and well trained, so ask about an instructor’s background before you sign up. And don’t be satisfied by a teacher’s assurance that she is certified. Because there is no formal certifying organization in this country for yoga teachers, certification can mean anything from a teacher having taken a one-day workshop to having spent years apprenticing under the watchful eyes of a senior teacher.

Seek out someone who has been teaching for at least a few years, and who has been a student of yoga for several years more than that. Look for someone willing to go into detail with you about their yoga training and background. Ask what steps she takes to help students prevent injury. Steer clear of anyone who dismisses this question or tells you that yoga is “totally safe.” And be suspicious if the teacher only speaks of the physical aspects of yoga without mentioning its deeper, spiritual roots.

Follow your instincts. What if you’ve settled on a teacher you trust, but once you’re in the class you sense that something is a little off? Sadly, there are teachers who push students beyond the boundaries of safety, who teach without regard to the needs and requirements of the students in the room, and even who create a hostile environment through yelling or insensitive comments. If this happens to you, trust your gut, back off and look elsewhere.

Find someone who sets you at ease, who offers a supportive environment, who offers modifications for students of varying abilities, and who asks about and responds to your specific needs. And remember, the yoga world is vast, and there are many different styles of yoga - some sweaty and rigorous, others mellow and gentle - as well as many different styles of teaching. You’ll learn best with a teacher who matches your style and your temperament.

Check your ego at the door. Yoga is not a competitive sport. It’s a spiritual discipline that often includes a physical component. An easy way to hurt yourself is to push your body beyond its physical limits, especially when your practice is new. When you settle onto your yoga mat, remind yourself that yoga is an internal discipline, that it’s not about achieving a perfect shape, and that while strength, stamina and flexibility are wonderful byproducts of the practice, they’re not actually the aim.

Keep your eyes on your own mat to help you avoid the tendency to compare yourself to others. (I find it helpful to remember that just because someone is able to perform a perfect backbend doesn’t mean she’s spiritually evolved, or even happy). If you tend to be a perfectionist in the rest of your life, be especially careful because this tendency will follow you to your mat. Remember, there are no gold starts or door prizes in yoga!

Pay Attention. Mindfulness - paying attention to the present moment in a balanced and welcoming fashion - rests at the heart of an authentic yoga practice. As you practice, either in a class or on your own, pay close attention to the signals your body and mind offer you. Tune into your breath. Notice where you feel warmth or coolness, strain or release. Check in with these sensations continually.

When you sense physical resistance or discomfort, back off. When your breath grows ragged, slow down or take a break. And when you hear that little voice in your head that says, “I’m not so sure about this,” heed that wisdom and give yourself a rest. Your ultimate teacher lies within, after all. Why not follow her wisdom?

Remember that less is often more. Avoid the tendency to go full-throttle, which will increase the likelihood that you’ll hurt yourself. When a teacher offers modifications (as all good teachers do), consider the possibility that they may be for you. Try them out, even if you don’t think you need them - you may learn something new.

One of my favorite yoga instructors, Victor Van Kooten, once counseled a class full of experienced yogis to aim for 85 percent of our ability in order to respect our bodies’ needs, and also to leave room for experimentation, playfulness and ease. “You only get a headache when you try your very best,” he said.

Practice peace. The very first moral precept of classical yoga is ahimsa, usually translated as non-violence but sometimes defined as non-injury. Yoga teaches us that aggression toward ourselves or others leads not to peace but to peril.

Pushing your body too far too fast, making unreasonable demands on yourself, or even judging yourself harshly are all forms of violence. So when you climb onto your yoga mat, think like Gandhi, and commit to practicing peace. With this approach you’ll be well on your way to cultivating a yoga practice that avoids injury while fostering radiant happiness and health.