How to Avoid Yoga Injuries

How do you know when you should push your students to work harder and when to back off?
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How do you know when you should push your students to work harder and when to back off?
Pushing the limits

Although yoga is intended to heal, many students and teachers find out the hard way that it can also potentially harm. Common yoga injuries include repetitive strain to, and overstretching of, the neck, shoulders, spine, legs, and knees, according to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS). But isn't yoga supposed to be a gentle exercise that offers refuge from activities that can damage bones, tendons, ligaments, and muscles?

An international survey of 33,000 yoga teachers, therapists, and other clinicians from 35 countries (published in the January 2009 issue of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy) found that respondents typically blamed five things for yoga injuries: excessive student effort (81 percent), inadequate teacher training (68 percent), more people doing yoga overall (65 percent), unknown pre-existing conditions (60 percent), and larger classes (47 percent).

The Ego Factor

If blame can be placed anywhere, it would fall on a single attitude: overzealousness. Unbridled ambition is a dangerous thing, both for teachers who guide students and for students who push themselves beyond their limits. "Most yoga injuries are overuse injuries or over-ego injuries," says Kelly McGonigal, editor in chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy and the author of the book, Yoga for Pain Relief (New Harbinger, 2009). She suggests that novices don't get hurt as often as impassioned, experienced yogis who want to take their practice to the next level physically. In fact, in her experience, teachers in training have the highest rates of yoga injuries.

"Suddenly you go from feeling lost in yoga class to realizing that it's really possible to touch your toes, or stand on your head, or balance on your arms. You want to get better, to realize your potential," observes McGonigal. "You want to please your teacher, who inspires you and has helped you so much. You put faith in the system and lose touch with the body's inner guidance. That's when the goals kick in, the ego takes over, and the problems start."

The Teacher-Student Connection

Asanas are never to blame for injuries, insists McGonigal. "It's the combination of individual student, asana, and the student's or the teacher's beliefs about the asana that leads to trouble," she says. By "beliefs," she means too much certainty about how long you should hold a pose, what a pose should look like, or how to do a specific pose in a specific way.

Besides common physical injuries, there are "psychic wounds inflicted by an overzealous and overly critical teacher," says Molly Lannon Kenny, a yoga therapist and the owner and executive director of the Samarya Center in Seattle. Unfortunately, students often want to please their teacher, so they may overextend themselves to emulate what the teacher says or does. Kenny says that, as a teacher, you have to dissolve the student-guru relationship entrenched in yoga culture.

"Both teachers and students need to practice svadhyaya (self-study) in order to see where their desires are stemming from," says Kennyy. "There shouldn't be an ego investment of whether you can get a student to get a leg behind their head but an investment in exploring their self-concept [and] going beyond where they think they can."

The Right Tone

One way to help students get in the groove is to paint yoga as something to experience, not something to work at. Often, the challenge for yoga instructors is to balance the idea of the noncompetitive spirit of yoga and the aim to work toward perfecting asanas. An asana is, by definition, a steady, comfortable seat, so there is no "perfect" asana, says Kenny. An asana should be perfect for the person in the moment. The skilled teacher recognizes the student where she is and encourages her to work at a level that's right for her. The pressing to go further comes with a rapport between teacher and student, where advancement refers to the student looking at her fears and self-concept, then moving beyond those in the spirit of yoga.

McGonigal, who teaches a workshop called "Already Perfect," has students practice with their eyes closed. She says that it has taken her years—and her share of "perfection-seeking injuries"—to learn that asanas aren't something to perfect but something to experience. "Always pushing to get better, improve, do more in the rest of our lives is what makes yoga practice necessary in our culture. We shouldn't need yoga to recover from our yoga practice," she says. But this attitude is challenging for teachers to adopt when they've been trained to fix postures, adjust students, and improve their own practices.

Teach Experience, Not Mastery

Though it's less common in our goal-oriented culture, there are occasions when you'll see that it could be to your student's advantage to deepen his or her practice. But you can encourage your students to go deeper without physically pushing them deeper, says Maty Ezraty, a teacher in Honokaa, Hawaii. "The kind of adjustment teachers should make is more in awareness," she says—such as making students recognize where their breath is or become aware of their hand/foot placement or the curve of their spine. A physical, hands-on adjustment is more risky, she adds, emphasizing that you really need to know students first before presuming their bodies can move a certain way.

Teachers, Ezraty says, need to resist that urge to "fix" students, which suggests that they are doing something wrong and/or that there's something wrong with them. "What you can do is tell students what steps they can go through to experience a pose, i.e., how you press your feet, avoid tucking or arching your back, or achieve balance." She says that instructors should focus on a two-part education process: Show students what they need to do, and teach them what they shouldn't be feeling when doing it. "I might say to a student, 'Can you press the ball of your foot more?' or I may suggest using a blanket or other prop. It's more important for teachers to let students access what they feel themselves when entering or holding a pose."

The Lowest Common Denominator

How can you tell if students are pushing themselves too far? "As a teacher, work on idea of being, not doing," says Molly Lannon Kenny. Spend time observing, watching students' bodies and seeing how they approach their practice. That also means assessing students right at the get-go, before they ever stoop into Downward Dog. Instructors need to size up their students' needs and challenges, find out about any health concerns, and determine their yoga goals—why are they in your class anyway?

Then aim to teach all levels of students or the lowest common denominator, not just the most advanced ones, says McGonigal. "Most all-levels classes presume no injuries, and this is just not the case. Think about your class plan from the experience of a student with a limitation: If someone in class can't bear weight on her arms, what is she going to do during the Sun Salutation sequence?"

McGonigal suggests making sure that your sequence is varied enough that no single concern would lead to a student feeling left out or like a failure for 15 minutes while everyone else is practicing intense forward bends. "Teachers need to build a pose or sequence from the basics up, layering levels in," she says.

For example, if you're teaching an advanced pose such as Natarajasana (Dancer's Pose), it's a good idea to teach elements of the pose earlier on in class that are more accessible to beginner and intermediate students, in this case simpler backbends and balancing poses. When advanced students tackle the full pose, students that aren't ready for it yet know what they can work on as an alternative to get the same benefits.

Defining "Just Right"

Students often ask, "Am I doing it right?" But how they feel while getting into and holding a pose is more important than "getting it right." McGonigal and Kenny both agree that in yoga, the experience is different for everyone, and what feels right is something the individual must determine. A teacher can't tell exactly how a student is feeling in a pose. She can only guide him—and that requires finding a window into that student's experience.

Looking and listening can clue you in about what students are feeling—are they holding their breath, grunting, sweating, teetering, clenching their teeth? McGonigal also likes to ask questions, such as, "Are you hoping this pose is going to be over soon?"

"That's never a good sign," she acknowledges. "I also ask them, 'What could you change in this pose so that you could happily stay here another 2 breaths, 20 breaths, 200 breaths if you needed to?'"

What's vital, adds Kenny, is giving students the vocabulary to express what they're feeling. "If a student describes a sensation such as warmth or tingling, that's okay. But if words like shooting, sharp, throbbing, and burning describe the sensation, there's a problem," she says.

"I develop lead-ins that give students a movement vocabulary, and I explicitly tell students they can rewind as well as fast-forward. If something doesn't feel right, go back to the last thing that felt good," advises McGonigal. "They aren't modifications so much as options."

It's yoga that needs to be flexible, not students. "I don't ever presume a student should go farther or deeper into an asana physically," says McGonigal. "I want students to have a deep experience of the pose. I want to invite their full attention into a pose. I want to lure them back into that experience of 'nothing wrong' that can be experienced in a pose. You can't measure that with inches gained in a forward bend or seconds added to a free-standing inversion."

Angela Pirisi is a freelance health writer who has covered holistic health, fitness, nutrition, and herbal remedies. Her work has appeared in Yoga Journal as well as in Natural Health, Fitness, Cooking Light, Let's Live, and Better Nutrition.