One of my students asked me recently: how do you protect yourself from injuries in yoga classes? While there are no guarantees, these five steps will help.
1 Attend a class with a well-trained teacher
A teacher with good training and knowledge of their subject will give clear instructions so students can achieve the poses safely. They will observe the students to check that they have followed the instructions and are not performing an incorrect or dangerous action. Does the teacher moves around the class, paying attention to individual students’ poses and correcting them, or do they stay at the front? Notice if the teacher gives advice about how to avoid actions which could cause injury. If in doubt, check what training the teacher has undertaken and how long they have been practising yoga.
Iyengar yoga teachers undergo very thorough training and assessment. Before beginning the two years’ training, they have had three years’ tuition with a certified Iyengar yoga teacher – most have had many more years before beginning their training. During the training they teach under the guidance of teacher trainers and also observe classes taught by other teachers. They have to teach a practice class for a year once they pass the level one qualification. There are two assessments before final qualification. These include demonstrating – to assessors who have never met the candidates before – over 70 poses as well as written tests. Although there are many very good yoga teachers who have not done Iyengar training, there are also many other teachers with much less training and knowledge about how to sequence a class and how to adapt poses to help students with injuries or health problems.
2 Attend a class where poses are tailored to the individual
Some exercise classes, including some yoga classes, are taught with all students expected to perform the same pose in the same way, irrespective of the particular limitations of their bodies.
But we all have different bodies. Some people are stiffer than others. All of us will be stiffer in certain parts of their body more than others.
Seek out a class where the teacher advises stiffer students how to achieve the pose despite their stiffness, for example, by not bringing their hand so low in standing poses. They can use a brick or blocks instead of bringing their hand to the floor. Most beginners need to use such equipment to enable them to achieve the pose correctly and safely; the amount they use will depend on their level of flexibility. If they don’t use the equipment, they will either be doing the pose incorrectly or be at risk of injury by doing too much, too soon.
Flexible students also need to take care not to overwork flexible parts of their body; they can injure themselves from overstretching. A good teacher will observe and advise students on this.
If you join an established class as a beginner, the teacher should not expect you to do all the poses immediately, in the same way as the more experienced students. You should hold the poses for a shorter time and be given alternatives, or alternative methods, when more difficult poses are being taught.
3 Start with easier poses, build up to the harder ones
Any class where complex, extreme movements are expected immediately, or right at the beginning of a class, is to be avoided. Each class should be structured so that more difficult poses are attempted only after simpler, preparatory poses have been done. Over the course of a few months, a class should build up to more complex poses, when the students are more experienced and they are ready for them. For example, in the Iyengar system, backbends – more extreme, challenging poses (see photo below right) – are not taught immediately. Instead, standing poses (see photo below left) are emphasised in the first few months to build up strength and flexibility. These allow the students to tackle backbends more effectively when they are ready. Standing poses continue to be a feature of most classes, even at higher levels, but a wider variety of poses is added.
4 Take into account your own recent exercise regime and general health
Choose a class suitable for your needs. Do not attempt a class for more experienced students, or a higher level class, if you have not been exercising recently, or have had poor health. Some forms of exercise, whilst keeping you fit, may also make you stiff or less flexible – for example running and cycling. Yoga can help counteract this stiffness and bring more flexibility. Make sure you tell your teacher of any injuries or health problems you have. Some students will have injuries or health problems before starting yoga. In their case, poses will need to be adapted, or another pose given, so as not to worsen their problem.
Always discuss health problems with your teacher and check that they are qualified to deal with them. Regular classes may not be suitable for certain health problems and a more senior teacher’s class may be advised.
5 Tell your teacher if you feel any strain in a pose
They can observe you, see what may be causing the problem and hopefully find you an alternative method, or an alternative pose. They may also be able to advise you on how to alleviate the strain. It may be that the strain you feel in one part of the body originates with a stiffness in another area. For example, lower back pain can be caused by overuse of the lumbar spine (lower back); this overuse of the lumbar is likely to stem from stiffness elsewhere in the spine, for example the dorsal spine (the part of the spine between the shoulder-blades). Your teacher may be able to identify the source of the problem and advise you on how to improve flexibility in the stiffer area.
Over time you will develop your own knowledge, with your teacher’s help, of the poses and the best methods for you to achieve them. Once you know the poses, you will be able to deepen your knowledge of them in your own practice. With experience, you will begin to know how to do the poses safely and protect yourself from injuries. The gains from practising yoga safely can be very great, from increasing flexibility and strength, better posture to greater peace of mind.