~ awake in this moment, at home in the world ~

How Not To Get Hurt

February 1, 2012
There’s a dirty little secret in the yoga world: It’s possible to get hurt doing yoga. In fact, some yoga poses, done over the long haul, can be dangerous and risky. Hang around in the yoga world long enough and you are sure to meet someone who has torn a hamstring or blown out a knee or injured their back while practicing yoga.

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 for yoga teachers in this country, certification can mean anything from a teacher having taken a one-day workshop to having spent years apprenticing under the watchful eyes of a renowned yoga master.

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 of students in the room, who make aggressive and sometimes unwelcome physical contact, and who even who create a hostile environment. If this happens to you, trust your gut, back off and look elsewhere.

Find someone who offers a supportive environment, who has healthy boundaries, who offers modifications for students of varying abilities, and who responds to your specific needs. Remember, the yoga world is vast, and there are many different styles of yoga, as well as many different styles of teaching. You’ll learn best from a teacher who matches your style and your temperament.

Check your achievement-oriented 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 isn’t about achieving a perfect shape. Remind yourself that while strength, stamina and flexibility are wonderful byproducts of the practice, they’re not actually the aim of yoga.

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 that person is 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 stars or door prizes in yoga!

Pay Attention. Mindfulness - paying attention to the present moment in a balanced and welcoming way - 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 that your body and mind offer you. Tune in to 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 your own wisdom?

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

Exploring the limits and possibilities of movement can be gratifying, but it's not the point of yoga and it can even be counter-productive. The yoga world is slowly waking up to the fact that moving into extreme shapes - to the far end of our physical range of motion - can be a recipe for chronic pain and injury. So be wise and spare yourself future pain. Stay within your zone of comfort and ease.

Follow the advice of Victor Van Kooten, one of my favorite yoga instructors, who once told a class of experienced yogis to aim for 85 percent of maximum effort, 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 first ethical precept of classical yoga is ahimsa, usually translated as non-violence but sometimes defined as non-injury. Yoga teaches us that aggression toward ourselves and others leads not to peace but to peril.

Pushing your body too far, making unreasonable demands on yourself, and even judging yourself harshly are all forms of violence. So when you climb onto your yoga mat, 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.