Dust mites. Parasites. Viruses. And virulent bacteria. Practice or teach yoga in a group, and these bugs will be beside you as you move from Surya Namaskar to Sarvangasana. It's enough to make a yogini sick—unless you take careful steps to guard against germs.
In Patanjali's Yoga Sutra, saucha or cleanliness is considered an essential niyama or self-discipline. And across the United States, yoga teachers and studios are honoring this precept as they scrub mats, mop floors, and work to combat the growing number of illnesses and infections that are related to group fitness.
"Eighty percent of disease is caught by direct or indirect contact—either interacting with a person who carries germs or touching a surface where those organisms live," says Philip M. Tierno, Ph.D., author of The Secret Life of Germs and director of clinical microbiology at New York University Medical Center. "Both types of contact are common in yoga centers."
How could contact with germs affect your students? It could turn them off to yoga—for good. "I developed raised, itchy bumps wherever my body touched a yoga mat provided by my gym," says Robin Parkinson, a public relations executive in Los Angeles. "The rash was so bad that it lasted for four months, required prescription medication—and prompted me to quit yoga a month after I'd started."
How does contamination happen? Bacteria can survive for several hours to several days on inanimate surfaces, while viruses can actually linger for weeks. Warm, humid conditions such as those found in hot yoga, vinyasa, or ashtanga—or a restorative class on a summer day—are the perfect breeding ground for these bugs. America's 15.8 million yoga practitioners also play a part. The average person touches his or her face 18 times per hour, passing germs from the nose and mouth to the skin and back again, reports Charles P. Gerba, Ph.D., a professor of microbiology at the University of Arizona.
How many types of germs lurk in a group yoga setting? Literally thousands. Just walking across an unsanitary studio floor is enough for a yogini to catch athlete's foot (a rash that leaves blisters between the toes), plantar warts (thick, raised patches of discolored skin on the bottom of the foot), or ringworm (round, red rings on the skin).
Even worse? Staphylococcus. More than 30 percent of people are silent carriers of this bacteria, which can be especially virulent in one form: methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Named for the way it shrugs off antibiotics, MRSA was once the scourge of hospitals but has, since the 1990s, spread to fitness and yoga centers.
An estimated 2 million Americans carry MRSA, which can penetrate the skin through a small cut and become a large pus-filled abscess within an hour. In six percent of cases, community-associated MRSA (CA-MRSA) poisons the blood and leads to full-blown sepsis.
Unlike restaurants (overseen by health departments) and gyms (following guidelines set by the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association), yoga studios aren't subject to strict sanitary standards. That's why they've suffered bedbug and water contamination—and why instructors and studio administrators need to clean up their acts, working together to take joint responsibility for maintaining studio cleanliness.
To protect the health of your yoga community, follow these seven simple steps:
Set Sanitation Standards
Ask about your studio's cleaning routine, and improve it if it's insufficient. Bikram Yoga centers, where students sweat through 105-degree heat in 40 percent humidity, require heavy-duty cleaning of carpets (twice a week) and mats (three times a day). "We use high-tech antibacterial carpets as well as state-of-the-art disinfection techniques," says Gregg Williams, Bikram's Los Angeles-based director of operations. Smaller or less-frequented studios may need to clean mats anywhere from daily to weekly. Regardless of the setting, ask the same questions: Are towels laundered after each use? Are bathrooms cleaned, floors mopped, and surfaces scrubbed on a regular basis? Are bolsters and other props cleaned when necessary? "Our traffic is such that we have to clean yoga blocks with antiseptic wipes at least once a week," says Carlos Menjivar, managing director of New York City's Jivamukti Yoga Schools. "The minute blankets or straps get wet or look dirty, we make sure we launder these too."
Slip off Shoes
Most yoga studios require students to leave shoes at the front entrance—an ancient Hindu tradition that modern science supports. Gerba's studies show 13 percent of shoes carry E. coli bacteria after three months of wear, while 90 percent carry feces.
Immediately before and after class, wash your hands with antibacterial soap for 20 to 30 seconds, enough time to chant the Tryambakam mantra—and also kill contaminants. Dry with a disposable paper towel instead of a cloth one. Hang a sign in the bathroom that encourages students to scrub up, too. A Harris Interactive poll found 12 percent of women and 34 percent of men don't wash their hands after using a public restroom.
Keep It Covered
If the temperature allows it, wear long pants and sleeves and urge your students to do the same. "This reduces the likelihood you'll spread germs through personal contact," says Tierno. Your students may want to wear socks or special yoga shoes or gloves. You may want to touch students' clothing instead of their skin when making physical corrections. Spot an abrasion, rash, or open wound? Make sure it's washed with soap or hydrogen peroxide, disinfected with iodine or Bactine, then covered with a bandage.
Ask students to bring their own mats and clean them after each class. Encourage private mat use (and cover your cleaning costs) by charging a mat rental fee (typically $1 to $5). If students use studio mats, ask them to clean them after every session. There are nearly a dozen yoga-equipment cleansers on the market, and the ayurveda">Ayurvedic herbs and tea tree oils they contain may have antimicrobial properties. Some yoginis swear by soap and water, while others use a mat cleaning solution that's one part vinegar and three parts warm water. "Many studios use wipes that contain quaternary ammonium compounds (quats) and take 10 to 15 minutes to kill germs," says Tierno. "But for the fastest, best results, try Lysol or another disinfectant spray that has quats and 70 percent alcohol. This kills germs if the surface is left wet for 30 seconds, then wiped."
Take Sick Leave
If you catch a cold, flu, or stomach bug, have a sub fill in for you. If a student is sniffling, sneezing, or feverish, gently ask him or her to leave and return when fully recovered. Offer a refund or free class pass to encourage this considerate behavior.
Spread the Word, Not the Germs
You've likely told your students that yoga can boost immune function. But have you given them sanitation tips to further this cause? Offer tips in a website, email, flier—or in your spoken instruction. Given the virulence of some germs, you'll be helping your students not only maintain saucha but practice ahimsa (nonharming) as well.
Molly M. Ginty is a freelance writer and yoga instructor in New York, where she teaches at the Integral Yoga Institute and at Bayview Correctional Facility.