January 13, 2012

Yes, You Can Get Hurt Practicing Yoga.

But The Power Of This Practice Is Worth Every Bit Of Risk.

Another article about yoga hit the mainstream press last weekend. This one, by William J. Broad, has a very “exciting” title – How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body. (If you haven’t already read it, click here to do so.) If the fact that it was one of the main stories in the January 8, 2012 edition of The New York Times Magazine wasn’t enough to catch your attention, a title like that will do the trick, right?

Because I’m a yoga teacher whose business depends on people coming to yoga classes each week, it may seem counter-intuitive, but I hope this article does capture a lot attention among the 20 million or so people it is said practice yoga in the United States. While I think the stories it shares of yoga-related injury are extreme, its message is an important one for all yoga students. Like any physical activity done often over a long period of time, you can get hurt practicing yoga.

Is the practice worth the risk? Absolutely. Yoga can be a truly life-changing practice.

It is great for the body – building strength, increasing flexibility, releasing stress and developing a desire to take better care of ourselves. It is also great for our state of mind. It is a way to find some calm in an ever more chaotic and frenetic world. By practicing we can become less reactive, instead acting more mindfully even in wildly stressful moments. Yoga is also great for our relationships. As our practice develops, we may find we’re more patient, more accepting, and more willing to go with the ebb and flow of life. Yoga can also re-ignite a spiritual yearning in us that may have been dimmed by our all-consuming, hectic daily lives. This spiritual awakening offers a powerful perspective as we navigate our days. It’s a reminder of what’s really important and of our unique significance.

So how great is the risk? Unfortunately, the answer to that question is the single most frustrating answer ever— It Depends.

On what does it depend? I’d love to be able to tell you that it depends on the style of yoga you practice or the quality of teacher you study with or even the kind of mat you use. And, most certainly these play a role in your yoga experience. After all, a slippery sticky mat (yes, mysteriously, they are out there) can make it challenging to find a safe, sturdy foundation in downward facing dog. That said, there is merit to the old maxim “a poor craftsman blames his tools.” It could certainly be said that you are less likely to injure yourself in a slow-moving, “gentle” yoga class than in a power yoga class. But injuries can happen whether you’re holding a posture for minutes at a time or flowing relatively quickly from one to the next. Clearly, you want to study with a teacher who inspires you, who you trust, and with whom you feel safe. But you could get injured in a class with a master teacher who has worked with thousands of students over the course of decades just as easily as you could with a brand new registered yoga teacher at your local health club for exactly the same reason.

That reason is you.

It is your approach to the practice that determines the magnitude of your risk of yoga-related injury. In fact, it could be said that your approach determines whether what you’re doing on your sticky mat is yoga or calisthenics. We must be mindful for the stretches and “moves” that make up our practice to be considered yoga. What is mindful? It’s simply paying attention. Really close, careful, eyes-wide-open attention. It’s staying off “auto-pilot” no matter how familiar a movement is. It’s staying present to explore the sensations of the stretch. It’s a willingness to take baby steps when learning something new. It’s constantly assessing whether you’re at your limit in a posture. It’s keeping an open mind to the fact that you will have tight days and loose days. It’s respecting yourself, honoring your limitations, and trusting your instincts.

Being mindful also keeps your eyes on your own mat. This is crucially important to your safety as you practice yoga. Competitiveness has absolutely no place on a yoga mat. Just because your neighbor in class can fold forward so that she is lying on her extended legs does not mean that you will be able to do this too. In fact, your forward bend might be more aptly described as a forward tilt. What you miss if you’re consumed with trying to look like your neighbor is that you’re both experiencing the same sensations. You’re both receiving the same gifts from the posture. What you risk by competing to look like your bendy neighbor is a torn hamstring or sore lower back. Yoga requires us to be completely absorbed in our own experiences. When we are, we are simply not able to compare ourselves to others in the room.

Mindfulness also protects us from teacher error. Whether a teacher is inexperienced or just overly enthusiastic, there may come a time that he or she suggests you try something new. Your mindful approach to your body will illuminate whether this is a good idea or not. Because you’re paying such attention to your experience, you will know whether this suggestion is beyond your capabilities or a possibility worth exploring. And you should always trust yourself and speak up. In the end, you know way more about your body in that moment than any teacher possibly could. It is this trust in your instincts that will keep you safe on your mat.

So, can you get hurt practicing yoga? Sure you can. A reminder of the risks of the practice (like the one provided by Mr. Broad’s article) is valuable for everyone who practices yoga. Such reminders can shake us out of auto-pilot, re-open our eyes to our experiences on our mats and re-inspire us to mindfulness. It’s this mindfulness that will allow yoga to continue to sustain us and transform us for the rest of our lives.

Practice well,
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