I started martial arts, dance and gymnastics at the age of 5. By the time I started yoga at 9 it was already deeply ingrained in my cells that you do precisely as the teacher instructs without question or suffer consequences. I have had the pleasure of learning many different styles of yoga all over the world from an amazingly talented array of teachers. Some extremely traditional and severe in their rules and some a little more fluid. I followed teachers without a second thought. I tried any position, any challenge. I am sure along the way it was mentioned to me that I should listen to my own body but having suffered from trauma I was pretty good at tuning out any messages my body might be sending me.
Later in life I gained an autoimmune disorder that challenged my health and forced me to look more deeply at the therapeutic side of yoga. With the guidance of many skilled teachers and a lot of research, I was able to use the deeper practices of yoga to realign my health and replace hospital visits with opening a yoga studio.
Up until a few years ago when I became very ill, my yoga practice (in a studio) was as follows: I would close my eyes the entire time, tuning into my breath and the sound of the voice of the teacher. Whatever the teacher said, I did. I trusted completely in the guidance of this teacher, no matter who they were, I took what they were saying as complete and perfect truth. I stood on my head in headstand because I was told this was “the king of all poses” and to be perfectly honest, this pose challenged me deeply enough that I could totally tune out the noise in my head and find peace for a while. I did shoulder stand and plow because I had been doing it since I was a child and somewhere along the way a teacher or many teachers had told me it was good for me. I never questioned it, I never tuned inside to my own body deeply enough to ask whether what any of what I was doing was giving me any benefit. Overall, yoga was very good for me, so I assumed ALL yoga was good for me.
When I did my yoga teacher training, I learned 200 hours was not nearly enough to prepare me for teaching movement in the human body. Not even close! Even scarier was the fact that with so little knowledge of anatomy after a mere 200 hours yoga teachers are expected to physically adjust people. What I also learned when researching teacher trainings is some 200 hours courses only offer 100 hours of that IN PERSON the rest is made up in workshops, taking classes at their studio or other busy work. This made me really question how blindly I had followed so many teachers for so long. I continued my anatomy training, became a licensed massage therapist and bodyworker, more than 500 hours of training. I also studied over 800 course hours over a 2 year period to become a yoga therapist. Despite all of this, I still had trouble listening to my own body in a yoga class! My first serious injury occurred in a hot yoga class. I knew that going frequently from “open hip” poses to “closed hip” poses with speed was not a good idea for the SI Joint, and yet, I followed the teacher. The purpose of the sequence this teacher chose was simply for aesthetics and to keep class interesting. The sequence went as follows:
- A lot of unusual twists to “warm up”
- Warrior 3
- Half Moon
- Warrior 3
- Twisted Warrior 3
- A new made up pose variation that involved balancing and twisting it had some super hero name or something I cannot remember due to the intense pain that it caused.
- POP!!! My sacroiliac joint on my left side made a horrendous noise, I slide right onto the sciatic nerve and came crumbling to my mat.
I managed to hobble out of class. Angry at myself for not listening to my body. I never told the teacher. The next few weeks I was in unbearable pain barely able to walk. It took me weeks of rehabbing the injury to get back to my regular physical activity and I still must be extremely careful in my movement.
Another thing I learned in my anatomy studies is that though we have pretty similar physical structures when you look closer each and every human body is very different and it is almost impossible to know exactly how another person’s bones are shaped, what scar tissue they have causing limitation or simply where traumatic memory might be limiting physical movement! As a teacher, it is next to impossible for me to know what experience you as a student might be having because your body is not the same as mine. There are guidelines for sure and there are many common sense things that are unsafe in any body.
One of the things the yoga community tends to do is claim and spread wildly overzealous and highly unverified claims about the physical benefits of poses. What’s more, the yoga community tends to discredit any scientific studies to disprove such claims. Simply looking at the human spine carefully would disprove so many of these wild claims. Even after we see consistent injuries from some yogic practices, we continue to blindly follow our leaders assuming the injuries can only come from doing it wrong not the questionable practice in the first place.
Another thing the yoga community tends to do is offer advice in areas they are not trained in because they have found benefit in their own personal life. An average yoga teacher training does not include nutritional training. This means that unless your yoga teacher also a trained nutritionist, they are not aware of contraindications for supplements and herbs. An Ayurvedic practitioner has to study for many years earning a bachelor’s degree in Ayurvedic medicine, a yoga teacher may have taken a few Ayurvedic certifications and have some knowledge of Ayurvedic techniques but that does not make them a qualified medical professional.
Let’s go into a little history of yoga. There are many theories as to when yoga began, most likely yoga developed around the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, in ancient India’s ascetic and śramaṇa movements. Originally, movement in yoga was focused on increasing the ability to sit and meditate for longer. Fast forward to when India was occupied by the British. Under the guidance of the King of Mysore Krishnamacharya was sent around India to promote Yoga to increase moral in the young men of India. Much of what Krishnamacharya taught when traveling for the king were fetes of physical prowess that were only ever designed to make young men feel strong and powerful. They were not developed with long term health benefits in mind and though there are many reasons to do things to feel strong and powerful there are many reasons to also listen to your body and not do such things until the point of injury. Though Krishnamacharya firmly believed “Teach what is appropriate for an individual.”, many of the schools of yoga that evolved from his teachings developed a “this has to be done exactly a certain way” mindset without any adjustment for differing body types. Yoga theories have been around for a long time, they have taken many translations and adaptions over the years, many of which have been because a certain body type found a certain thing beneficial. This does not guarantee everyone will have the same experience. There is no one size fits all and therefore there are as many styles as there are types of people to try yoga.
What does this all mean? Well the first thing we need to do is question why we are drawn to a yoga practice. This is a question that is personal and can only really be answered by the individual. Perhaps it is to feel stronger, perhaps it is to quiet the mind, perhaps it is to feel more flexible. There are no “wrong answers”. The second is to question “is the practice I am currently doing achieving this benefit in the safest way possible and in a way that I can sustain long term health?”. To do this we need to break down practices and take a careful look at the safety based on pure anatomy.
A vigorous vinyasa practice has many benefits. It can take a person with a lot of “noise” in their mind and fully distract them by pulling them fully into their physical body. However, a lot of the fast-paced movements in this class can be cheated by momentum and a person can be doing the movement long before their strength is truly competent enough to keep them safe in the movements. To test this, hold plank in good form with the stomach tightly engaged for 2 minutes and watch your breath, if you cannot hold this pose for this long and remain capable of having an easy conversation why assume your shoulders are strong enough could do 5+ plank to chaturanga to updogs safely? Often in class, we forget to stay on our own mats instead looking around the room at what other people are doing, when we see everyone else doing these things, we comply without asking our own body if it is ready. Do this sequence often enough by just flowing through with momentum instead of strength and painful shoulder injuries can occur. An interesting note about Vinyasa, somewhere along the way it became popular to call “churanga to updog to downdog” Vinyasa. Vinyasa began as the careful sequencing of poses so that one could mindfully follow the breath. Making the transitions between poses an important part of the practice. This means raising arms up over your head as you inhale and down as you exhale is Vinyasa. You can do an entire Vinyasa class without a single chaturanga, this sequence does not make it a Vinyasa class. The fact that so many of the class are not mindfully following their breath through this sequence makes less like the original purpose of Vinyasa.
Spinal safety let’s think a little about the spine so we can assess whether some of the yoga community claims make sense. Our spine is perhaps our most important and at the same time most delicate structure. The slightest misalignment of a vertebrae can affect nerve supply, this includes our nerve supply to our organs. Our spine has 3 natural curves, lower lumbar, thoracic and cervical. There are many poses in yoga that encourage the straightening of these curves. There is no science to prove any claims that straightening these curves is beneficial and many to prove that this can be very dangerous and over time will cause much damage.
The spine consists of vertebra which have small bone structures on the back, spinous process, transverse process and delicate facet joints. The boney structures are delicate and in the cervical spine quite small. Examine shoulder stand/plow poses, not only are you flattening the curve in your cervical spine you are pushing weight on these delicate structures. Shoulder stand claims to be beneficial for the thyroid – well, if this were true wouldn’t simply tucking your chin to your chest achieve the same affect without the possible danger? Also, simply look at how one uses their cell phone, if this position truly prevented thyroid dysfunction then would we not see a dramatic decrease in thyroid issues since the invention of the cell phone?
Let’s also consider headstand, “the king of all poses”, our spine, has a large heavy pelvis at it’s base, the lower vertebra are bigger gradually decreasing in size (and the size of the disc protecting each vertebra in between) until we reach our cervical spine where our vertebra are smallest. In headstand we balance on the top of our scull with the force of gravity and the weight of our entire body pressing down into the cervical spine. Here are the top 10 reasons to do headstand from https://www.doyouyoga.com/10-awesome-health-benefits-of-headstand/:
- Relieves Stress
- Increases Focus
- Improves Blood Flow To The Eyes
- Increases Blood Flow To The Head And Scalp
- Strengthens Shoulders And Arms
- Improves Digestion
- Helps To Flush Out The Adrenal Glands
- Decreases Fluid Build-Up In The Legs, Ankles, And Feet
- Develops Strength In The Core Muscles
- Stimulates The Lymphatic System
There is not one reason here that would not also be likely in handstand or even down dog. I question why bother adding this risky pose to your routine when there are safer options? You can even stimulate the top of your head with Rabbit pose without the stress on the cervical spine.
Osteoporosis is a silent destroyer of the spine. Often people are unaware of potential damage until it is too late. Vertebral fractures occur on the front of the vertebrae and are what causes the hunched posture we often see as we age.
“According to recent statistics from the International Osteoporosis Foundation, worldwide, 1 in 3 women over the age of 50 years and 1 in 5 men will experience osteoporotic fractures in their lifetime.”
Vertebral fractures due to osteoporosis are common – with one occurring every 22 seconds worldwide in men and women over age 50.
This means that if you have anyone in a yoga class over the age of 50 spinal flexion (forward bending) is a very dangerous activity. Some poses even have flexion and a twist! I recently saw an Instagram picture of a class of about 30 people in chair yoga, the youngest in the class looked to be about 70 and many of the class had obvious signs of vertebral fractures and degeneration of the spine. The picture was of all of them doing “twisted chair” with their elbow hooked on their knees. Forward flexion and a deep PASSIVE twist being forced by their arm not their abdominal strength. This is not safe! I question the benefit of such a pose for anyone but for a high-risk population it blows my mind. One of the 8 limbs of yoga is “do no harm”! Yoga should not be about making every human body do some version of the most popular poses. Stop and ask “what benefit am I looking to get from yoga and what is the safest way to get there?” For this class example was the teacher hoping to get mobility in the spine? Then keep the spine upright and move and breath through NATURAL range of motion in the spine gently and slowly. If the teacher was going for strength of the muscles supporting the spine, I challenge that there are many far safer practices that will generate strength.
Read more about osteoporosis and vertebral fractures here: https://www.spine-health.com/conditions/osteoporosis/osteoporosis-primary-cause-collapsed-vertebrae
Why do I write all this? It is my hope to encourage people to listen more deeply to their own bodies BEFORE injury. If a teacher (and this includes me) is doing something in class that does not feel good in your body question it. It doesn’t even have to hurt, if it doesn’t feel good ask yourself why? Explore your body and the messages it sends you! Ask yourself:
- Is this because these muscles are weak, and I need to strengthen them?
- Is this a nerve pinch?
- Can I not bend that way due to the shape of my bones? (Helpful hint, it is not worth reshaping your bones to get into a “perfect” yoga pose)
- Am I pushing myself to or beyond my “end zone” if I back off a little will I receive more benefit?
- Am I listening to my own body or am I trying to copy my neighbor or the teacher?
- Am I too tired today? Would I be better off spending some time in childs pose? Or savasana? Or even fetal position on the ground?
- Where’s my breath at? Our breath tells us a lot about where our body is honestly at. If your breath is struggling to stay even, try backing off a little and finding a steady breath. (You gain more in the “middle zone” longer than struggling at the “end zone”)
Most importantly you ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS have the power to say no. If you do not feel right doing something you can say no. If you do not want the teacher to touch you, you can say no. If you do not want to buy the latest vitamin supplement or protein shake the studio is pushing, you can say no. No is a complete sentence. You do not have to defend or explain yourself.
Practice deep listening to your own body. Be your bodies best friend and advocate. Treat it kindly and tune into the messages it sends while they are a whisper, don’t wait until your body is screaming! “Do no harm” includes your own self! Practice with self-love, self-respect and patience!
PS teachers are people too, we try really hard to be perfect for every person, but it is an impossible task. Please forgive us our mistakes and remind us kindly when we get it wrong. We love you and do wish to disappoint and most teachers do not wake up and think “right I am off to hurt some yogis today”.
The light in me sees and honors the light in you!
-shellyQ an imperfect yogi with a bunch of qualifications and still making mistakes!