Yoga students should ask themselves why they were drawn to yoga in the first place. Most practitioners would agree that it was not the desire to compete. And the ancient yogis most likely didn't intend for yoga to become an intramural sport. "When asana is taken out of its original context—part of an overall process of transformation at every level—and into a context of performance, where people measure their progress by how many asanas they can do, competitiveness and force arise, and so can injury," says Gary Kraftsow, author of Yoga for Wellness: Healing with the Timeless Teachings of Viniyoga and head of the American Viniyoga Institute on Maui, Hawaii.
A student of T.K.V. Desikachar, Kraftsow continues the teachings of Viniyoga, which stress adapting yoga to the individual. Some people have "the ability to do backbends to die for as a result of genes as opposed to their practice," says Kraftsow, while others have congenital limitations. Adapt the form of the posture to the person and anyone can receive the pose's functional benefits regardless of structural limitations, he adds. This is the guiding principle at the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram in Chennai, the clinic in southern India where Desikachar's staff treats hundreds of people individually each week.
However, it is often difficult for an American yoga teacher, faced with 50 students at the local YMCA, to give such personalized attention—which means that most students have to educate themselves and take responsibility for their own practices.
"You're the one experiencing what's going on and to that extent you're the best judge of where to go and when to stop," says David Life, cofounder, with Sharon Gannon, of New York's Jivamukti Yoga Center. On the other hand, "most people don't listen to the inner guru, they listen to the inner ego, which does not want them to change. I don't know how many times I've heard people say, 'I don't do that posture.' But who is this one who 'doesn't do this?' That's when the outer guru has to urge you on."
"Without effort there won't be change in a positive direction," allows Kraftsow, a most cautious yoga teacher. "But in asana practice, 'no pain no gain' may not be intelligent. If you push yourself beyond what you think you can do, it builds self-confidence. If the pain in the body is muscle soreness, developmental pain—sort of like it hurts but it hurts good—that's great. But 'uh-oh' pain...that's nerve pain, and it's potentially damaging to the system."
Sizing Up Your Teacher
Teachers and practitioners alike grapple with the borders of responsibility when it comes to injury. At its very roots, the study of yoga is based on a strong, long student-teacher relationship. But the current high demand for teachers has sometimes resulted in the "worst combination: beginning teacher, beginning student," says Judith Lasater, P.T., Ph.D., cofounder of the California Yoga Teachers Association in 1973 and author of Relax and Renew.
Lasater says that since she began teaching 28 years ago (she inherited the yoga curriculum at a YMCA in Austin, Texas, just 10 months into her own practice) "there are a lot more kinds of yoga than ever before, some of them quite vigorous. Some students are not ready for those vigorous styles, and some teachers are not as well trained as they could be."
What makes it hard for beginning students to scout out talented, safe teachers is the fact that there is no national, regulated certification program for American yoga instructors, unlike in the United Kingdom, where certification is awarded after a nationally decreed five-year course of study. While similar measures have long been considered in the United States, currently choosing a teacher can be haphazard at best.
"With yoga classes being so popular," surmises Aronson, "a lot of people are going through training classes and teaching really quickly."
With poor or misguided instruction, you can get injured. This is when it's important to listen to your body. "Occasionally what you're being told doesn't make sense and seems to contradict all your intuitions about how your body works," says Freeman. "That doesn't mean it's wrong; it means you should throw up a red flag and inquire as to what the teacher really means. Because often, the teacher is describing something with a new vocabulary for people, and people don't really understand what's being referred to—especially when you're talking about different anatomical parts."
At Jivamukti, teacher training is a rigorous one-year course of study that includes study of Sanskrit texts, anatomy, and asanas. Life is adamant about what he expects his trainees to deliver. "Whether they're teaching in an old folks home or a gym or a nursery school, it should be 'What do you need?' not 'What do I have to teach you?'" The approach that leads to injury, he says, is when teachers learn a certain thing and think they have "the beginning, middle, and end of knowledge. The teacher must be the perfect disciple to serving the student. When teachers come with preset ideas of what they're going to teach and there's no allowance for the needs of who is there to take the class, that's when injury occurs."
Because students are usually the most competitive with themselves, Lasater says the "best thing a teacher can do, besides being well trained, is to create an atmosphere where everybody pays attention to their own limits, where the teacher talks about her own difficulties, offers alternatives, and makes it all right to do them—not just in words but deeds, by honoring people for doing less sometimes."
One teacher who is able to talk about her own limits and offer alternatives is Carol Del Mul, who three months into her teacher training at Jivamukti discovered that she had osteoarthritis in her cervical spine. Surgery was recommended, Shoulderstands and Headstands were forbidden.
"I was so tied into my practice, in a way that was very prideful," she says. "We get attached to the things we can do really well. So it was 'Oh my god, I can't do this, I can't do that,' until I realized I wasn't doing yoga anymore; I was shrinking instead of expanding."
Noting how she involved her neck in asanas where there was no reason to, she rebuilt her approach to each one. "Plowing right through life and leading with my neck like a turtle is how I've gotten a lot of things done," says Del Mul, director of production at an advertising agency. "So I had to rethink everything: how I walk and sit and talk with you." The most important thing she has done is to modify her practice and her understanding of yoga.
"Coming to terms with these physical limitations has made me more inventive about how to circumvent them and still keep challenging myself—using judgment, using discrimination," Del Mul says. The prime directive in both her practice and her teaching now (she completed her training) is sthira sukham asanam—steady, comfortable seat—from chapter II, verse 46 of the Yoga Sutra. "I don't have to do something if it doesn't work for my body. And if there are alternative ways, I don't feel less-than or lazy for doing them."