Om Safety

Recent debates over the risks of yoga practice have teachers and devotees up in arms. Here’s the bottom line for business owners.

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Mention yoga injuries in the wellness community and inner peace starts wavering. Yoga safety is a hot topic these days, and everyone seems to have a passionate opinion. The newest fuel to the fire is a book called The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards by William J. Broad. In it, Broad scrutinizes the origins and purpose of yoga, its modern adaptations and the worldwide yoga industry that has exploded in recent years. He also examines the injury risks, a component of yoga that isn’t often broached.

How safe is the practice of yoga for the average person? Some turn to yoga to heal injuries—but might the practice do them more harm than good? These are questions that yoga providers, such as day spa and studio owners, had best address.

The word yoga, from Sanskrit and meaning union, is actually a lifestyle that includes all aspects of living such as diet, mental attitude, self-care, meditation and spirituality. However, yoga’s asanas, or physical poses, and pranayama, attention to breathing, are the foundations of typical yoga classes. Yoga devotees consider their practice the path to health, longevity and enlightenment. Some consider it total medicine; others point to its restorative abilities to manage or cure specific health problems, much as complementary and alternative medicines are viewed in the context of integrative treatment. And, as with alternative medicines, conclusive clinical research on yoga is a challenge. The same treatment must yield the same outcome in a majority of test subjects. Yet studies crop up left and right reporting positive results.

Yoga has become a fixture in mainstream consciousness concerning wellness and well-being. Even conventional medical authorities such as the Mayo Clinic recommend it to reduce stress and increase fitness, and concede that the practice may help address serious and chronic illness by improving sleep and mood, and lessening fatigue. It’s likely that a man or woman walking out at the end of a yoga class feels better than when he or she walked in—if that person practiced correctly. If not, that unfortunate soul might be carried out instead, having torn a muscle, damaged a nerve or injured a back, neck or spine.

If you offer or are considering offering yoga at your day spa, you can serve and protect your instructors and clients with a few basic precautions.

“If you look at ancient yoga teachings, there is less emphasis on the perfect pose and more on the process. Good yoga is not achievement of a final pose.”

Individual Differences

One of the most important concerns surrounding yoga safety is the most basic, yet often overlooked, says Dashama, founder of the Pranashama Yoga Institute based in Boca Raton, Florida, Global 30 Day Yoga Challenge and Perfect 10 Lifestyle.

“People use the word yoga as if there’s one kind of yoga. There are hundreds of kinds,” Dashama explains. “It’s not that anyone can’t do yoga, it’s that not everyone should do a shoulder stand.” As Broad points out in his controversial book, some of the ancient yogis were contortionists who displayed their poses in order to win alms. Dashama explains that styles like ashtanga were developed by the Indian military as a way for fit young boys to burn off enough energy to sit still for meditation. In fact, she says, the idea of yoga as merely a fitness routine is a Western phenomenon. “People are drawn to that power kind of yoga because they love to work out,” she says. “But students need time and practice to get into poses, and those styles move too fast for that to happen.”

Although clients might clamor to practice yoga styles that celebrities are practicing or those that seem to promise benefits like weight loss, it’s important to place beginners into classes that fit their abilities. “Classical styles like ashtanga primary series, bikram, sivananda and even many iyengar classical poses carry substantial risks that many yoga teachers are not aware of,” says Stephanie Adams, owner of Flow Yoga & Day Spa in Hood River, Oregon. “These styles and their teachers have been a huge gift to us all in so many ways but a few of the postures that are taught, without options or adaptations, are of concern. I know many students and teachers who have been injured practicing these styles in their most classical forms.”

Dashama doesn’t use the word “beginner.” She places students at levels: one, two and three, based on their experience, flexibility and strength. Interestingly, someone elderly or overweight might be able to practice at a high level, whereas a lean but unpracticed gym rat might need to back up and approach yoga with caution. “Most classes can easily be taught with options for each level, and can make use of props like blocks or straps that really help,” Dashama says. “But for most people, the important thing is to be in a class that works slowly getting into and out of poses. Students need to practice them over and over. And they need a teacher who will encourage them to listen to their bodies.”

A Safe Journey

Yoga is, indeed, a practice—never finished, never static. Reaching a pose might take one person a month, another person a year and another, a lifetime. But that is the point. “Yes, I see patients with yoga injuries but I am still convinced it is one of the best exercises out there,” says Dr. Raj Rao, professor and vice chairman of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at the Medical College of Wisconsin and spokesman for the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons .

“However, people should be careful not to get carried away. If you look at ancient yoga teachings, there is less emphasis on the perfect pose and more on the process. Good yoga is not achievement of a final pose.” Accepting that, he says, is the burden of both the student and the instructor. “The student has to have humility for a long-term process, not an explosive burst. And the instructor has to understand that and make it clear to the student.”

However, in a big yoga class, sustained individual attention is difficult, and frequent internal self-checks are essential. “We start to learn that it’s not even the physical practice that is the reason we fell in love with yoga in the first place—it’s something much deeper, connecting to the heart of who we are,” says Adams. “If an instructor is emphasizing advanced poses and not offering modifications for every body, then their attachment is to the physical practice, which is really a narrow view of yoga, and a student is more likely to be injured in their class.”

Many yoga injuries are caused by students simply “overdoing” it. “It’s human nature to go a little further than you can,” says Dashama, who teaches awareness of the spine as a vital precaution. Adams points to knees, hamstrings, neck and lower back as common spots for injuries to occur. Dr. Rao typically sees patients with lower back complaints. “They have a preexisting condition or injury and they overextend during yoga,” he says. “For example, ‘downward facing dog’ is very safe if the movement comes from the hips and waist. But if you start with an arching back because your hamstrings are tight, that’s the wrong approach.”

Those who turn to yoga to relieve pain, or after injury or illness, should work cautiously. “For tight muscles and soft tissue injury, yoga is similar to stretches used in physical therapy,” says Rao. But if someone comes to yoga with serious medical problems or pain, they should first consult their physician. As Rao explains, “Pain might be neurological, pain with fever might suggest infection, pain could be coming from a tumor or an internal tear. You can’t browbeat all pain into submission with a vigorous yoga program.”

Adams reports that the Western yoga community is responding to safety concerns by creating options, among them, “maintaining hip-knee-toe alignment in hip openers; bending the knees to release tight hamstrings to align the pelvis and protect the lower back; and not teaching poses like shoulder stand and headstand until the student has created the necessary shoulder flexibility and shoulder girdle stability to keep the neck safe.”

Yoga studio safety begins with hiring qualified instructors. Adams recommends instructors be RYT (registered yoga teachers) who have completed a minimum of 200 hours of training recognized by the Yoga Alliance. Instructors should only teach the styles in which they have trained. Yoga safety precautions should begin at the front desk. Just as with spa services, an intake form should make note of any health problems, and emergency and medical information should be obtained. Students should inform instructors of any concerns or limitations prior to the start of class.

Sometimes the most important safety measure is one that goes against the business owner’s aim to make money and the yoga instructor’s tendency to nurture at any cost. Dashama explains, “Someone can come into a class that is completely inappropriate for them and most teachers will encourage them to stay. But they should tell those students that this isn’t the right class for them, and hopefully direct them to a class that is.”

Common Causes of Yoga Injury

• Students pushing beyond their own abilities
• Being led by ego—attempting to look cool in front of others and perform a pose being done by more advanced students
• A false sense of flexibility caused by being too warm in a heated studio
• Not being present with one’s own movements, breath or original intention
• Instructors pushing too hard, either verbally or via a physical adjustment

Andrea Renskoff is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.


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