On the Mat and Out of Danger: Staying Safe While Practicing Yoga

The vast majority yoga students step onto the mat hoping that their practice will give them some relief from a nagging ache, a stressful day, or even a major health concern. But for the many students flocking to yoga classes, it’s not always easy to know which type of yoga practice is best for you.

So what can we do to make certain that yoga is as safe and as effective as possible?

Whether an elite athlete, achievement-oriented professional, busy parent, stressed out student, or seasoned couch potato, yoga introduces us to our edges. On (and off) the mat, we flirt with our physical limits, endurance and aspirations, and dance with our samskaras, or habitual patterns that cause suffering.

It’s healthy to cultivate a deep awareness of our physical body, not to mention how you cope with the ups and downs of life. While yoga can serve as the vehicle for self-discovery, it can also cause harm. This occurs when instead of dancing with our edge we push beyond it.

Debunking the Myths

There are a number of common myths about yoga. Understanding the myths and the realities can help you and your students to avoid some of the pitfalls of the practice.

Yoga is a one-size-fits-all exercise. In the United States, yoga classes are centered around asanas, or physical postures. Many yoga classes approach yoga as though it is appropriate for every body, but not all styles of yoga are suitable for the average American body. Factors such flexibility, strength, cardio-respiratory fitness, age, prior injury, and illness require teachers and students to consider what types of classes are most suitable, and which types of postures or practices should be modified or avoided.

Yoga teachers usually modify postures to fit students’ needs. While this certainly is the case for some teachers, this approach is far from universal. In mixed level classes, the wide range of student abilities makes it very difficult for yoga teachers to accommodate the needs of everyone. In addition, many yoga teachers have only cursory knowledge of human anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, postural contraindications, and other key factors that would allow them to make wise decisions for their students. This is the result of a lack of specific educational requirements and insufficient hours dedicated to formal yoga teacher training prior to registration.

Students are encouraged to proceed with care, and to experiment with different teachers and studios until the fit seems right. For yoga teachers, it is important to frequently remind students to listen to the wisdom of their bodies, and to back off if pain, strong discomfort, or unusual symptoms arise.

Yoga is like any sport or athletic activity. While you are now likely to find yoga classes at most gyms and athletic facilities, yoga was not intended to be an achievement-oriented, “athletic” pursuit.

In fact, yoga asana (postures) is the 3rd of the 8 limbs of yoga – the guidelines for living a meaningful and purposeful life. These include the yamas (ethical standards), niyamas (self-discipline and observances), asana (postures), pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (sensory withdrawal or transcendence), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation or contemplation), and samadhi (a state of bliss).

The art and science of yoga represent a lifestyle rather than an hour or two of rigorous exercise or restorative postures. In that respect, yoga is for everyone. Study these practices for yourself and observe which consistently improve your physical, emotional (and spiritual) health and wellbeing, then find teachers who support you in that effort.

Treat Your Body as a Living Laboratory

The best evidence for yoga’s benefits is personal experience.  One of the best sources of information for yoga teachers is your feedback. No, you may not have scientific data regarding your heart-rate variability, increased bone density, improved balance control, lower fasting glucose level, increased mental acuity or ability to combat stress, but you will know whether you consistently feel better or worse after a yoga practice.

If you reliably feel better, you’re probably on the right track. If you consistently experience pain, injury, fatigue, anger and frustration, or other unpleasant side effects, odds are your practice isn’t serving your best interests. This can be a difficult reality to accept for the devout athletes and intensity junkies among us, but the intention of yoga is not to get in a hard workout or to end up with your feet wrapped behind your neck – quite the contrary.

Awareness Is Your Best Friend

There is still a lot of work to be done before we can draw definitive conclusions from the research about the benefits of yoga. In the interim, it is essential for yoga students to hone their awareness of what does and does not work for their particular needs. It is also essential that yoga teachers continue to:

  • Refine their skills,

  • Teach to the specific capabilities of their students by offering accessible classes,

  • Inform students of the risks of particular postures or breath exercises,

  • Reduce the use of high-risk poses in all but advanced-level classes, and

  • Consistently offer postural modifications and options.

By listening to the wisdom of our bodies we can make yoga and its practices safe and accessible for everyone.

B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT 500, is the Founding Director of the International Science & Education Alliance, a firm that provides strategic planning, research consultation and assessment design to support the empirically rigorous evaluation and sustainable implementation of programs in education, leadership, health and human services. Grace is an intervention scientist, psychologist, yoga educator and author who has worked extensively in integrated behavioral health settings. Her research, clinical practice, teaching and writing emphasize the incorporation of empirically supported psychotherapy with yoga therapy and mindfulness practices to relieve the symptoms of stress, trauma, anxiety, depression and other psychological illnesses, and to promote healthy relationships. She is Faculty at the Integrated Health Yoga Therapy therapist training program, and Professor of Yoga & Neuroscience at the Taksha University School of Integrative Medicine. Grace is the former Editor in Chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy and recipient of a Francisco J. Varela Research Award from the Mind & Life Institute. For more information contact Grace at bgracebullock@me.com.

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