Even before reading a piece called CrossFit’s Dirty Little Secret, which was recently shared by several of my friends on Facebook and Twitter, I was vaguely familiar with rhabdomyolysi—a “serious and potentially fatal condition resulting from the catastrophic breakdown of muscle cells.”
While many commented that they were horrified to hear about this and others commented that they had tried CrossFit and other similar programs and felt they pushed too hard, I thought about the number of injuries I had seen or heard of as the result of yoga over the years.
Despite its reputation as being “gentle” and non-competitive, anyone who has been in the yoga community for any length of time can tell you that this simply isn’t true.
The list of injuries I have seen is extensive: torn/pulled hamstrings, broken ribs, dislocated joints, shoulder injuries, etc. In fact, it seems impossible at times to meet a long-time practitioner who has not had an injury at some point.
Although I am not personally aware of anyone developing rhabdomyolysi from yoga, it can happen especially in hot yoga classes.
Speaking as someone who has a chronic shoulder injury as a result of yoga, I kept wondering how I let it happen. For the most part, I was fortunate enough to have very good teachers for the majority of my yoga journey.
However, if I was being completely honest with myself, I had to admit that most of my injuries were the result of my own stubbornness and pushing myself too hard.
I am hardly alone in that either.
Despite what yoga teachers preach about the importance of listening to one’s body and not going beyond the edge, the dirty little secret is nearly all of us do it.
I know it, because I see it all the time.
In a worst case scenario, minor injuries become major ones and may over time become chronic, such as the nagging pain I have in my shoulder.
If I had to start yoga all over again, there are some things I would have done differently to prevent that injury and all other injuries I have incurred over the years.
Therefore, whether you are a newbie or have been practicing for years, here are three simple steps to take to protect yourselves from injury:
1. Realize that more is not more.
“Feel the burn” and “No pain, no gain” were popular mottos in the 1980s and have survived to this day.
However much like dayglow legwarmers and mall hair, some things from that era should remain in the 80s. Study after study has shown that more is not necessarily better. That familiar post-workout burn, whether from aerobics, weightlifting, or yoga is merely a build up of lactic acid in the muscles.
In yoga, it is not uncommon for an instructor to tell students to breath through the “sensations.”
Over time, it is possible to learn the difference between uncomfortable sensations or burn vs. bad pain, but early on, it is often very difficult to differentiate between the two. (Or at least it was in my case and in the case of many of my students.) Therefore, I advise a less is more approach to beginners, those who are returning from a hiatus and those who are trying a brand new style of yoga.
2. Try not compare yourself to the instructor or fellow students.
This is a tough one because nearly all of us do this or have done this at some time. When I catch myself doing this, I remind myself that this is not a competition. I am not going to win anything by twisting myself into an advanced pose. Even praise from the instructor or admiration from fellow students is fleeting, whereas dealing with injuries usually are not.
If there is someone in class whom you envy or admire and is seamlessly going from one advanced pose to another, then perhaps ask them after class how long they have been practicing and/or if they ever took teacher training. They may answer yes to both.
Knowing that it took years to get to that level may make those competitive feelings in you subside.
If they are one of those naturally bendy people who are relatively new to yoga, then try to keep in mind: they are the exception, not the rule.
Plus, as someone who happens to be naturally flexible myself, it isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be. In fact, many of us tend to be more injury-prone than our less flexible practitioner friends and often suffer worse injuries.
3. Do not put all your trust in your instructor.
Generally speaking, I tend to believe there are more good instructors out there than not-so-good ones, but there are some bad instructors out there. In fact, some should be not be teaching at all.
Even good instructors can sometimes do foolish things.
For example, I once had an instructor use me as an example of how not to do triangle pose in a front of a group of 15 or so people. As she pointed out the incorrect alignment and various other issues, she kept me in the pose for close to 20 minutes.
It wasn’t my favorite pose to begin with, but after the first 5 minutes, it was getting really uncomfortable. However, I did not speak up because I wanted to please her. Finally, one of the other students who happened to be a massage therapist spoke up and said something like,
“Get her out of that pose now. She’s in pain.”
He was right. Somehow, the fact that he spoke up snapped both the instructor and me back to reality.
As I returned to my mat, the massage therapist gave me a look of empathy and muttered, “You’re going to be feeling that tomorrow!” He was right. In fact, I felt it for days.
However, I did walk away with one important lesson from this: just because an instructor wants to put you and keep you in a pose does not mean that you have to do so. Looking back, I wish I had exited that pose as soon as it started to hurt.
The tips I offer on how to prevent physical injuries have more to do with the mind than the body.
Namely, for so many of us, our biggest obstacle is getting past the ego or believing that more is always better.
Also, it involves trusting one’s self and being able to say no, not only to yourself, but in some cases, even to instructors who think you should do more when in fact you shouldn’t.
Needless to say, this isn’t easy.
However, I know better than most what can happen if one chooses not to do so. Looking back, a few minutes of awkwardness or frustration would be preferable to being injured and even being faced with the possibility of having to give up yoga for good.
Remember: your body is your temple, and we only get one of those per lifetime. Therefore, guard it the way a shaolin monk would.
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Ed: Catherine Monkman