Proven Approaches for Safe Practice
Courtesy Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health
Between 15 and 20 million Americans practice yoga, spending an estimated $5.7 million annually on classes and accessories. National Yoga Month, in September, reminds us to always make personal safety a guiding principle during practice sessions. Experts advise the following guidelines for practicing injury-free yoga.
"Like any kind of movement, yoga involves some risk,” says Devarshi Steven Hartman, dean of the Kripalu School of Yoga, headquartered in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. “The level of risk depends on the individual’s age, physical condition, limitations, emotional state, previous injuries, strength, time of day, awareness, type of movement and how much weight bearing is taking place.”
It’s not uncommon for both seasoned athletes and yoga neophytes to push too hard in the beginning. Dr. Loren Fishman, medical director at Manhattan Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation, says, “The three leading causes of injury are an overenthusiastic student, improper alignment and poor teaching.”
Many aspirants feel they have to master a pose right away; thus, a “Type A” person may have the most potential for injury, observes Sadie Nardini, New York City-based founder of Core Strength Vinyasa Yoga and host of Cable TV’s Viera Living’s daily yoga show, Rock Your Yoga. Some instructors may have a vigorous Type A attitude, as well. “Keep looking if you feel pushed,” she advises.
Choosing a style is less important than choosing the instructor best suited to the student’s needs. “Finding the right teacher,” says Nardini, “is kind of like dating. Keep looking until you find your match.”
Here are some safe approaches and injury-prevention tips from experienced yogis.
Research the teacher. Investigate a yoga instructor’s credentials before signing up for a class, advises Meredith Montgomery, a board member of the Yoga Health Foundation and publisher of Natural Awakenings’ Mobile/Baldwin edition. Read the instructor’s biography to verify his or her professional training, certification and level of experience. YogaAlliance.org maintains a wellrespected registry of instructors that have been certified as registered yoga teachers (RYT).
Analyze the class level. Consider the name of the class, plus the level of advancement. New students may want to begin with a gentle, restorative or yin-type class. To reduce any risk, “Sign up for classes that are one level lower than where you are,” advises Fishman. Ask how many students are allowed in the class; a smaller size means more one-on-one attention.
Speak out. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions,” Fishman emphasizes; get to the class early, introduce yourself to the teacher and perhaps audit various classes. Good instructors always ask students about their health and fitness history.
Look for special needs groups. “You can get really specific in choosing the right yoga class, whether it focuses on back care or other therapeutic yoga,” notes Nardini.
Exercise caution. Certain areas of the body, like the back, neck and limbs, are particularly prone to injury, counsels Hartman. “Twisting and contorting poses can cause undue pressure,” so take things slowly and stop if pain occurs.
Practice correct alignment. Experts agree that proper alignment is key to injury-free yoga. “There’s a lot to proper alignment; it’s integral to being a yoga teacher,” says Fishman. A good one will walk the room to make sure everyone has the correct form, keeping the vertebrae more or less in line, even in a twisting pose.
Seek modifying options. Instructors must teach modifications in poses to accommodate the individual, often using props such as blocks and straps.
Learn to breathe. Proper breathing cannot be overemphasized. “Kripalu’s teaching methodology, for example, emphasizes coordinating movement with breath because it is one of the leading ways to prevent injury,” Hartman says.
Go with a teacher that understands anatomy. A teacher with such a background knows not only how muscles move, but also how they move together. Experts in yoga understand kinesiology—the natural synergies and limits to muscle and joint movement, according to Fishman. Nardini further emphasizes the importance of teaching transitions between poses.
Consider prior injuries. “People think of yoga as a healing practice. That does not [necessarily] mean it will help heal a previous injury,” says Nardini. “It’s possible you can make it even worse.” Those with previous injuries, plus elderly individuals and expectant mothers, must take extra safety precautions.
Remember that yoga is not about competition. “Don’t be afraid to take a time out,” says Fishman. “Or go into a child’s or modified child’s pose if you need to.”
In the end, “Yoga is about increasing awareness of the body. A wellschooled yoga teacher intends to create individual, empowering experiences,” concludes Hartman.
Lynda Bassett is a freelance writer based near Boston, MA. Connect at LyndaBassett.com.