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Is Yoga Risky?

Thankfully not often, but on occasion I will have a student approach me and tell me that they were injured during one of my classes. In the 18 years that I have taught yoga, I can think of only two instances where the student’s injury was a direct result of my inattention, and that is two injuries too many.

Yoga is advertised as a safe, healthy exercise alternative for us. Doctors recommend yoga classes, we see pictures of older adults doing yoga, yoga philosophy promotes the practice as a way of healing injuries and curing ailments, yoga classes are popping up in hospitals and treatment facilities, what could possibly go wrong?

The physical practice of the postures (asanas), are just that, a physical practice. As with any physical practice, whether it’s tennis, running, pickleball, weight lifting, and so on, there lies an inherent risk of injury. Our bodies may be stiff, out of shape, older, not accustomed to a particular movement, or just too much strain placed on them, and we can sustain an injury. If we’re lucky, it is a minor injury and will heal quickly and hopefully we will gain some insight into our bodies and our own limitations.

But what about the mindset that we approach yoga with, we think that just because it’s called ‘yoga’, that it couldn’t possibly hurt us. WRONG!

My number one priority as a yoga teacher is to do no harm (Ahimsa). Therefore, I feel terrible when a student informs me that they injured themselves during one of my classes. I always take time to talk with the student and figure out how and why they were injured, not in an effort to alleviate myself of any blame, but to gain knowledge, not just for the student, but for myself as well.

What part of the body was injured? Do they know what they were doing at the time of the injury, or did the pain show up later? Is it a muscular strain, a tendon or ligament, a joint, or spinal injury?
Often times these injuries show up later, the student may feel fine during class but notice soreness, stiffness, or pain later. Sometimes the injury occurs abruptly and painfully during class.

I have spent many years studying yoga and movement. I am aware of many common contraindications for different ailments and injuries that I see in day to day classes. Much of my work is done with older adults, which can create its own unique challenges.

At the risk of sounding redundant in my classes, I am constantly warning of potential risks of certain postures (asanas) for particular issues. Can I warn of every potential risk, can I hover over every student at all times to make sure they’re not going to get injured, can I tell when a student is over-stretching beyond their safe limits, of course not.

There are some things that I have removed from my classes due to safety concerns. I no longer teach headstands, I feel the inherent risk is too great for any benefits derived from the posture. Do I feel that no one should practice a headstand, of course not, many people can safely practice them and do, and good for you, but I will not teach them.
I also do not offer ‘hands-on’ adjustments to assist a student to get deeper into a posture. Again, I feel the inherent risk in pushing or pulling a student deeper into a pose is too great. I am not ‘in’ their body, I have no way to determine if their muscles, tendons, and ligaments are prepared (or ever will be) for certain postures.

Because I’m a yoga teacher and fairly flexible, I have been injured during classes by other teachers trying to take me deeper into a pose. I have had my shoulders injured by a teacher trying to press my clasped hands towards the floor in a wide legged forward fold, not knowing that I have pre-existing rotator cuff injuries. I have had a teacher lie over my back in a seated forward fold, in an effort to get me to fold more deeply, pulling a hamstring muscle.
And I’ve even had a teacher be a little too enthusiastic in pressing my hips towards my heels in childs pose, hurting my knees.
All of these teachers were good teachers, none of them had any intention of causing harm, yet they still did. They determined how deep I should take a posture, without considering what was beneficial for me.

I am human, I will make mistakes during my classes, but I will also try and teach as safely as I can, while still offering my students the ability to explore their own bodies, to challenge themselves and gain strength and flexibility.
Is Yoga risky, yes it can be, but it can also be safe and effective.
I believe the benefits of a consistent yoga practice far outweigh the risks. And remember that yoga isn’t just about the physical practice, it’s about the breath, the self-awareness, to learn to become less reactive and more responsive, to learn that we may not always be happy, but we can be content and grateful.

So practice your yoga, listen to the guidance of your teacher, but most importantly, listen to the guidance of your inner self and your body, and understand that it may change from day to day.

Tips to Avoid Potential Injuries

  • Maintain a steady, calm breath. Be aware of when the breath begins to change, signaling a change in the nervous system and the body’s reaction to a stretch.
  • Move slowly, give your body the time it needs to react to a particular movement or stretch. Notice any ‘red flags’ that show up as pain or extreme discomfort.
  • Make sure your postures are done from a space of respect, not from ego.
  • Do your research, check out different class styles, teachers, and most importantly- levels.
  • Make sure you are going to a qualified teacher, and you choose a practice level that is suitable to you at that time.
  • Be willing to modify your postures by using props or adjusting your posture to suit your body on any given day.
  • Don’t give your ‘power’ over to someone else, you know your body better than anyone else does, yoga should not hurt.
  • If you sustain an injury, give yourself adequate time to allow healing to take place and if the pain persists, see your doctor.
  • Depending on the injury you may be able to continue your practice with modifications. Talk with your teacher and get recommendations for your practice.

The one thing I say over and over to my students is~ ‘if it hurts, STOP doing it’.