When Yoga Turns Dangerous

Doctors often prescribe yoga to people with physical limitations – those who have sustained recent injuries, the elderly, the sick and infirm. Many studios offer classes specifically designed for people with disabilities or special concerns, and programs tailored for physically difficult times in life are always popular – visit any studio’s prenatal or post-partum classes and you’ll likely see a full house. Yoga has a reputation for being gentle on the body, making it the perfect exercise for people with physical concerns. However, that doesn’t mean that injuries can’t – or don’t – happen.

According to a 2006 Consumer Product Safety Commission report, approximately 4,500 people visited the emergency room for injuries sustained in yoga in that year alone. Even more disturbingly, that figure is up 18% from just two years prior.

Why this increase in yoga-related injuries? For one, yoga is gaining popularity – with many health clubs expanding their yoga offerings, a lot of new people are trying out these classes. Unfortunately, health-club yoga classes are not always the safest environments: inexperienced teachers, overcrowded classes, and people who attend advanced level classes without having a good foundation, are often a recipe for disaster.

However, even the most dedicated, experienced yogi can fall victim to yoga injuries. Most of these injuries are a result of overuse, where a student pushes himself too far. Soft-tissue injuries to the neck, groin and back can easily happen if muscles are overstretched.

Yoga is meant to be a safe, rewarding practice, but it is up to the practitioner to ensure that their experience is a positive one. To avoid common yoga injuries, remember the following “safe yoga commandments”:

1.    Know thy teacher. It is important to have a good, well-trained instructor observing and correcting your poses, especially if you are a beginner. Before embarking on a yoga program or starting a new class, ask about your instructor’s training. Make sure they studied at and are accredited by a reputable organization; just because someone spent years as an aerobics instructor and took a weekend certificate course in yoga does not qualify them to teach you this intense and often complicated ancient practice.

2.    Know thy limitations. Make sure your teacher knows of any physical limitations or concerns you may have – for example, if you have had knee replacement surgery, she or he might need to modify some poses for you to make them more comfortable and safe. If you are pregnant, there are a number of poses that are not recommended, depending on what trimester you are in. Again, a good, knowledgeable instructor will be able to adjust your practice accordingly.

3.    Know thyself. The biggest cause of injuries is people pushing themselves too far. The competitive nature of our society makes it hard to turn inward and focus on our own goals and limits. Just because the person on the mat next to you has a freakish amount of natural flexibility, doesn’t mean your pigeon pose needs to look exactly like hers. And the person on the other side of you who has been practicing yoga for ten years? It’s a safe bet that they can get into that headstand a little more smoothly than you can. Remind yourself that this is okay. Yoga is not a contest!

Instead, listen to your body. It is a fine balance between pushing yourself to make progress, and pushing yourself too far. While certain poses are supposed to be challenging, yoga should never be painful or scary.  If something hurts or makes you feel out of control in any way, stop and ask your instructor for help. After all, it won’t do your practice any good for you to “push through” and end up hurting yourself in a way that prevents you from doing yoga for the next three months!

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