How to Practice Safe Yoga
Think back to your sex education class in elementary school and the push for “safe sex.” Well, that’s exactly what I’m advocating here, except we’re talking about yoga. I am adamant about not forcing a yoga pose in my classes. If you’re going to practice yoga, do it mindfully. Think of your breath as your Trojan in this case.
I had a conversation with another yoga teacher recently about how he got injured in yoga years ago. At the time, he was really into an intense yoga practice and pushing beyond his limits. He was reaching his arm around his back, his teacher made a slight adjustment with her leg, and then pop. He knew his shoulder was broken.
I had my own experience with injury in a yoga class after attending an advanced master class with a prominent yoga teacher in New York City. I tried to keep up with the pace of the class, but I was still recovering from breast cancer and the class was more advanced than I expected. The yoga teacher remarked on my extended side angle pose, saying I was “wasting time.” He twisted me a little further and I heard my back pop and felt a sharp pinch.
I walked away from this painful and humiliating experience learning a few hard lessons. Forcing yourself into a yoga pose is never a good thing. Yoga is not meant to be practiced that way. It’s about focusing on the breath and being in acceptance. I try to instill this in my yoga students more than obtaining a pose. Challenging yourself is great, but forcing is an entirely different mentality. This is a tangible concept you can incorporate into your everyday life, not just in yoga.
Being in acceptance about your body and limitations can be challenging. I have personal experience with not being able to move the way my mind wants to. I underwent a bilateral mastectomy, chemotherapy, reconstruction, and a host of other medical treatments. I battled this illness for the better part of a year and felt frustrated by my inability to move. I attended yoga classes for cancer survivors and I was the youngest person in the room. I could barely lift my arms up over my head without feeling pain.
I can count on one hand how many times I’ve been injured and the majority was not in yoga classes. In fact, I dislocated my elbow playing on the playground in elementary school. That doesn’t mean I stop going to the playground because something happened. I go to the playground still, but I may be a little more mindful about how I’m playing.
Here are a few tips I’ve come up with for safely practicing yoga:
Find a yoga teacher who uplifts, encourages, and safely guides you into furthering your yoga practice. If your teacher spends more time showing off her yoga skills rather than helping, you may want to look around. Notice your yoga teacher’s own limitations and how he or she handles them. We all have limitations, but it’s just a matter of how to work through them. Work with a teacher who helps you grow, not go. Fewer egos are more in yoga.
Focus on the breath. I can’t say it enough in my yoga class. If you’re not breathing, then you’re forcing it. Breathe! What’s funny is that at my last job when my boss let me go, my response was “It’s okay. Just breathe.” I noticed he was all flushed and not breathing. It’s our job as yoga teachers to help you breathe. Learning how to breathe in life is going to be a much bigger asset than learning how to stand on your head. Breath is more in yoga.
Be in acceptance and honor your body. Work with the limitations you are given and take baby steps towards your goals. We may have injuries, weaknesses, and issues that we have to contend with in our yoga practice. Yoga is being in a place of acceptance exactly where we are at right now. It helps to stay positive and envision yourself where you want to be. Remind yourself that you’re exactly where you need to be at this moment. Acceptance is more in yoga.
Yoga is not a competition. When you see your yoga neighbor contorting and you feel that tinge of jealousy, hold back. Notice and appreciate how beautiful the pose is and set the intention that you would like to be there someday. Go within and try to live in the space of loving yourself and those around you. You will get there when it is time. You are exactly who you need to be in this moment. You don’t earn medals in yoga.
Respect your level. I have been practicing yoga for the better part of my life and I don’t just pop into scorpion pose. I mindfully work on dolphin pose and kick my feet up over my head against the wall and practice working towards scorpion. That doesn’t mean I don’t challenge myself, but I respect where I’m at. There is no finish line in yoga.
Be patient with yourself and your yoga practice. You’ll be surprised at how quickly you progress in your practice. Surprisingly, I find that I progress even quicker when I focus on my breath and allow things to happen rather than force. That’s just a life principle that works with the flow of life. Enjoy the journey in yoga.
Yes, injury can happen in yoga just like in anything else. Incorporating a few of these suggestions into your daily life may help you avoid this from happening to you. Things happen, life happens, but yoga continues. Don’t blame the practice; blame the ego. Yoga won’t injure you, but you practicing yoga the way it wasn’t intended just might.
Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.