You know that warning you get before some yoga videos? The one that says something like: “Consult your physician or other health care professional before starting a fitness program.”
Yeah, that one—the one that most of us ignore.
Well, according Dr. Kevin Khalili, DC, we should be following that advice. In his new e-book, Preserve Your Curves: Spinal Freedom with Yoga and Pilates, the Santa Barbara chiropractor argues that it’s important to know your unique body structure so that you can make wise decisions about how to bend, twist, and stretch safely.
Yoga isn’t harmless
While Khalili doesn’t refute yoga’s benefits—he says he practices six days per week—he says that asana practice can cause injury or worsen pain.
“Most of us take a faith-based approach to exercise practice,” he writes. We’ve heard that exercise is good for us, so we take that as gospel. This may be especially true for yoga, which has a reputation of being gentle and adaptable. In fact, many people come to yoga to help heal from injuries sustained during other forms of exercise.
But depending on your physical structure—particularly your spinal alignment—you may be setting yourself up for pain or injury by following standard yoga cues, Khalili says. If you have poor posture, an old injury, or one that’s developing, yoga could help. Or it could make things worse. What works well for one yogi may be a bad idea for another. Without specialized training, few yoga practitioners would know the difference. Even yoga teachers don’t have enough anatomy training to be able to spot a point of concern in a student.
Consult a professional
This is why Khalili advocates for having a spinal X-ray and a professional “postural evaluation” to help you understand your particular curves. A doctor or chiropractor can “read” your X-ray, check for developing spinal problems, and help determine which poses you should or shouldn’t do to practice yoga in a way that’s healthiest for your body.
A professional can help you understand whether a pose is causing “bad pain,” which means you’re doing a pose you should avoid, or “good” pain, which means you need to do more of the movement to strengthen the body.
An X-ray can also reveal structural problems such as scoliosis, or curvature of the spine. Once you know how your spine looks, you can adjust your practice to help create better balance, modifying your poses as you go. You can share your “diagnosis” with your yoga instructor to design sequences that are tailored to your needs.
“In my experience, most yoga teachers are open to having the practitioners in their classes adapt the exercises they present; in fact, many explicitly say to do so as needed,” Khalili says. The book suggests modifications for many common yoga postures.
Khalili takes this issue seriously—and personally. “I never again wanted to see yogi or Pilates practitioners break down and cry in my office because they had spent years unnecessarily and unknowingly hurting their bodies,” he says. “I only wanted to see them in class, doing what they love with confidence.”