Sunday, November 3, 2013

Be Mindful When Practicing Yoga (and other physical activities)

I read The New York Times article, “Women’s Flexibility is a Liability (in Yoga)” by William J. Broad yesterday and at first I really wanted to steer clear of getting involved in the redundant conversation that happened last time Broad published his even more sensationalized article on how injuries  can happen to people who do yoga.  The article was still on my mind this morning both since I had the article in from multiple people in my inbox and I also reminded myself that it is always better to clarify confusion than ignore it, especially on a topic that I dedicate my life to, love and believe in.

As Broad tries to explain at the beginning of the article, “the benefits [of yoga] are many and commonplace while the serious dangers tend to be few and comparatively rare.”  Yoga h
as endless benefits and has been responsible for miracles of health and happiness for all types of people, including myself!  I have seen and experienced how yoga change lives, bodies and minds.  I have also witnessed in my own students how yoga can prevent surgery and heal various injuries with care, patience and dedication.

As much as it is true and possible to injure yourself doing anything, surprise (again), it is also possible to do so in yoga.  As does any sensible teacher, I also believe this is an important topic for yogis to be aware of and for teachers to always consider when guiding a class.  However, Broad, while probably means well, once again skims over the subject and frames it in a way using broad strokes.  The article tries to support a thesis using general evidence and scientific research that neglects the entire picture and fails to ask the right questions, but will certainly get a big reaction for a story by making extreme statements.
The article makes superficial point  like "hundreds of women who did yoga were showing up" to orthopedic doctors for hip improvement or replacement surgery.  The writer fails to mention where these numbers come from, if the doctors are at all familiar with yoga postures (to draw any correlation between injury and yoga pose), who these women are, including their age, other activities, previous injuries and the most important questions like how often/what kind of yoga do they do and did they actually injure  themselves while doing yoga?

In nearly a decade of teaching the only injuries I have ever seen from yoga are when people hurt themselves outside of yoga and then return to the practice too soon and push themselves beyond their limitations, often out of fear or denial of the need to take off time from their routine (a subject I'd like to see more research on - all active people returning from an injury too soon).  The other much less common injury I have seen and have unfortunately experienced myself is getting an adjustment by an overly eager/inexperienced teacher to go further into an at first safe version of a pose when the body/mind is not ready to go any further.

The article mentions that injury is related to "extreme leg motion" repeated over time, yet what defines as extreme and the frequency of doing the motion is extremely unclear.  In my opinion, the good news is that poses people do in a general yoga class are not the poses that are aggravating or creating injuries. Fortunately, the extreme yoga poses that risk injury are mostly not accessible to average people, even flexible women (like the one used in the picture for the article, Tittibasana C).  Most people could not even get near these poses if they tried!  Correctly aligned basic yoga poses that most people do in a class, even hip openers like pigeon (eka pada kapotanasana) can be done safely if properly done and using props to support the pelvis or reclined on the back if necessary.

Of course, there are always different opinions on exact alignment of poses depending on the teacher's training and style of yoga.  Yet, all good teachers generally follow the basic rule of thumb that if you are struggling and it doesn't feel right then ease out of the pose a little or into a modified version until you can breathe easily and smile in a pose!

In conclusion, I think it is fair to say that the solution to anyone's concern of injury in any physical activity is to be mindful and conscientious, especially in yoga.  Another solution is for people to actually learn how to do poses correctly for their bodies, which may require private sessions with an experienced teacher (the best form of a practice).  While group classes are amazing in many ways, and good teachers always do their best to look out for all of their students and give special care and instructions to anyone handling an injury, it is possible for someone to hurt themselves if they aren't familiar with the pose alignment and/or push themselves beyond their capabilities.

In a private session, a teacher creates a class specifically designed for you and is able to adjust each pose and practice for your needs.  Since private sessions are clearly not an option for all, another approach for yoga students seeking a safe practice should both be to regularly review their basic yoga poses in a beginner class to ensure their correct alignment for their body and always talk to the teacher before class and ask them to specifically check out poses.

Ruah Yoga

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Flow yoga, prenatal yoga, beginner or advanced yoga and spiritual meditation with guidance from NYC yoga instructor Ruah Bhay, M.A. Discover your healthy body and mind with private sessions.