In recent months, yoga news and journalism has focused extensively on whether or not yoga can lead to physical injuries. This passionate conversation about the safety of yoga has led to yoga blog sites that are now flooded with articles containing information on how to align and protect the body during an asana practice. While there are no promises in yoga or life, there are additional steps—beyond posture modifications—that you can take to help ensure a safe practice.
Whether you’re a newcomer to yoga, have a health condition or have been practicing for decades, it’s important to establish—and maintain—a good foundation. For beginners and those working with physical limitations, your first challenge will be figuring out where to start. If you don’t know the lingo, it can be challenging to figure out what studio, class and teacher is going to be the best fit. You may not hit the nail on the head the first time, maybe not even the first several times. That’s okay—you’re still getting familiar with the poses and the terminology. You’ll soon start to notice what feels good and what doesn’t.
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If you are new to yoga or have a health condition:
• Talk to your doctor. If you are pregnant or have a health condition, you should always discuss starting any new exercise program with your doctor. Some hospitals and health clinics offer classes too, so turn to them for recommendations.
• Start slow. Look for gentle, level one, beginner or back care classes. You may also be able to find classes tailored to your specific needs, such as yoga for osteoporosis, depression, etc. Avoid classes that use the words warm, hot or vigorous in their descriptions.
• Talk to your teacher. Tell your teacher(s) if you have an injury or health condition. Speak to them before class, and remind them from time to time about any injuries that may be ongoing. That said…
• Don’t rely on your teacher to take care of you. Even the most fantastic teachers who have studied extensively and offer you modifications during class might not always remember. (See “educate yourself,” above.)
• Don’t compare yourself to your neighbor or your teacher. Also, don’t compare yourself to yourself in past practices, or yourself to your expectations of yourself.
• Don’t rush. Where you are is perfect. Pushing yourself into harder poses, classes, or styles before you are truly ready is an ego-driven recipe for disaster. With that…
• Remember, the pose is not the goal. If you don’t get there in this lifetime it doesn’t matter.
• If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it.
If you have an established practice:
• See above.
• Practice with a beginners mind. Take a beginners class if you haven’t in a while, or take a class in a different style than you usually do.
• Remain open to learning new ways of practicing poses, even if you’ve been practicing for a while. (See “practice with a beginner’s mind,” above.)
• Listen to the instructor’s words. Do what they say, not what you think they mean. If it works for you, stick with it. If it doesn’t, change it.
• Re-evaluate your foundation. Have you been taking short cuts, getting sloppy, lazy or anxious to move on to “challenging” poses? Do you find yourself following your ego and pushing too hard—even though you “know better?”
Sometimes all good ideas and intentions will fail, and people get hurt. You can learn a lot about yourself and your teacher in these circumstances. Tell your instructor as soon as you feel you have hurt yourself. You won’t hurt their feelings, and even if they don’t know how to help or what happened, it is good feedback for them and will help them improve their teaching. Also, examining your actions and thoughts just before the moment you were hurt may offer some clues as to where you may be weak, or how involved your ego was.
How do you keep yourself safe during yoga? If you’ve been hurt, what did you learn from the experience?