Should I Be Worried About Yoga Injuries?

For the past few years there are have been some important conversations happening both in the yoga-teacher community, and in the wider yoga community about yoga injuries.  Whether they be related to alignment, adjustments, impatience, repetition, individual differences, or acute injuries like falls, yoga injuries do appear to be on the rise. It’s not a big increase, and of course all movement activities carry a risk, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do all we can to reduce the risk of all types of injuries in yoga.

Why are yoga injuries on the rise?

Good question! This is a subject of much scrutiny (and debate), and I certainly don’t have any clear answers for you.  Yoga is difficult to study, particularly given the many forms and styles of yoga, the differences from teacher to teacher, and variables like temperature of the room, the time of day, etc., and well as individual variables such as age, experience, fitness level, past history, and the unique design of each body.

The one thing we do know for certain is that this increase is at least partly due to the fact that more people are doing yoga, so that means there are more yoga participants to get injured.

Based on my experience, I suspect another reason why we have seen an increase in the discussions around yoga injuries is that people are being more open about their yoga injuries now than they were in years past. Back in my days as a more physically advanced practitioner, in my circle of advanced and ambitious yogis, people would often suppress, conceal, or create false narratives around their injuries. Why?  Because for many years injuries were perceived as the fault of the injured. There was a narrative around injuries being due to a lack of mindfulness, lack of experience, or even lack of spiritual development. There was a stigma around injuries, as though they only happened to novices or ‘mindless movers’, you only got injured because you were ‘in your ego’, weren’t doing it right, or your chakras weren’t aligned etc., and therefore, not wanting to be perceived that way, many people (myself included) kept the reality of yoga injuries under wraps.

This is one of the reasons I’m glad that there are much more open conversations around yoga injuries, and people like Diane Bruni, Jill Miller, David Kiel, Matthew Remski, and Alexandria Crow are talking about not only injuries, but the yoga culture that might play a role in causing, supressing, re-framing, or sometimes even venerating yoga injuries.

Woah, this piece has taken a turn I wasn’t expecting.  I definitely want to talk about that yoga culture stuff, but let’s do that another time.

What I wanted to say here is, no, I don’t think you should be ‘worried’ about a yoga injury any more than you worry about an injury from any other movement practice you engage in.  That is, unless of course you are experiencing pain, strain, or discomfort in your practice.  In which case, pause, get some guidance, and check in with your physical health practitioner (doctor, physio, osteopath etc).

Otherwise, keep moving, keep practicing, but also keep observing, listening, and talking, too.  Keep in mind that not moving isn’t the answer, there are as many risks to not moving as there are in moving – and current pain science suggests that movement is actually key to overcoming many injuries (low back pain in particular).

While you are moving, though, I think there are a few simple things we can do to reduce the risk of injuries, and still enjoy a dynamic and powerful yoga practice.

Learn The Risks

If I were an athletics coach, martial arts instructor, or a dance teacher, I would be educated in the common injuries of the activity I was coaching – both acute injuries (like falling over or running into someone) and chronic or repetitive strain injuries (like the strain of a foot hitting pavement or an arm throwing a ball over and over again), and it would be part of my role to educate my athletes/students around those risks, and employ risk management practices and training routines around reducing those risks. This would include adding movements into their practice that would aim to strengthen weak areas, stretch tight areas, balance unbalanced areas, and prepare areas of the body for movement.

This is what is so strange about how we have been teaching yoga.

Like it or not, most people in the West are doing yoga as a physical activity, but we haven’t treated it like we would running, or dance, or martial arts, or any other movement form.  Perhaps because it has such a rich spiritual/philosophical history, we’ve treated yoga as something different from any other activity, and I think that in itself has been a mistake.  Because, just like any other movement form, sport, martial art etc., there are risks, particularly repetitive strain risks, and if we can educate our students around those risks, they will be less likely to be injured.

Below I have a few ideas about where, in my experience, injury risk seems to be higher.  As well, I share some ideas about how you might reduce the risk of injuries (and enhance your practice!) both as a practitioner and as a teacher.

Keep in mind this is just one teacher’s observations and experience. I would love to continue this conversation together, to continue to listen, observe, collaborate, and make yoga and yoga spaces safer for all.

What may increase risk of injury:

  • Repetition: when people are doing too much yoga, or too much of one type of movement, and not balancing it with other movement forms (ie: too much stretching, not enough strengthening, or too much hip flexion, not enough hip extension, or too much pushing, not enough pulling)
  • Do What I Say: when students who are taught to (or come to class thinking they should) over-ride their own body’s messages of risk or pain in favour of the teacher’s instructions or the teacher’s idea of alignment.
  • Instagram injuries: acute injuries from trying something fancy (often for a photo), or ‘look what I can do’ injuries (Heather’s Yoga Tip: wine and yoga don’t mix)
  • Outside Forces: applying force to someone else’s body, when partner yoga, acro yoga, or hands on adjustments go wrong, are too strong, or don’t engage consent and conversation

Practitioner Tips

As a student or yoga practitioner, you certainly can enjoy a dynamic and progressive practice, while minimizing risk.  Here are a few ideas:

Listen to your body.  No, your teacher doesn’t know your body better than you. If something hurts, or feels like it’s risky for your body, stop doing it.  Add a prop, modify, or choose another pose.  You can still move towards enlightenment without tucking your legs behind your head.

Keep Talking.  With your teacher, teaching assistant, pose partner – if anyone is going to have impact on your body through cues, adjustments, props, touch, or partner work, keep up a conversation and be clear if something doesn’t feel right.

Keep your eyes on your own mat…mostly.  We actually can learn a lot from seeing more advanced practitioners or teachers practice, and it’s actually a great way to begin to train your body/mind towards new poses.  However, if your focus is entirely on someone else, you might miss hints from your body that you are going too far.

Consider the spectrum of safer yoga poses vs riskier yoga poses.  All things considered, doing some dynamic warm ups, standing poses, a few balances, some seated stretches, and a relaxation are pretty safe.  Headstand, shoulder stand, lotus or anything lotus-like, anything tucking your legs behind your head, these are all on the riskier side of the spectrum and take years to develop (if ever).

Consider the difference between tension and compression.  We tend to think in yoga that the reason we can’t do a pose is that we have a tight muscle that just needs to be stretched.  We forget that bodies are all designed differently, and for many, it’s actually the shape of your bones preventing you from squatting, folding your legs in a lotus, or taking your arms beside your ears.  Know that not all bodies will make super fancy yoga shapes, and that’s okay.  It’s yoga, not a Cirque du Soleil audition.  Life goes on even when you can’t do a Lotus Pose.

Remember there are no gold medals for a fancy pose.  Unless you are in a yoga competition that is, but a yoga class is not a yoga competition, it’s a chance to be in your body, with friendliness, with awareness, with comfort amidst the challenges.  Don’t injure your body for a goal.  Taking a few more weeks to develop the ability to do a pose is far preferably to the 6 months or so it would take to rehab an injured joint.

Keep your goals in mind.  If you came to yoga for more mental clarity, relaxation, and a big of unwinding from a busy life, why do you care about putting your legs into pretzelly shapes?  Don’t let your yoga teacher, class, yoga media, or Instagram adjust your goals for you. Strong poses can be exciting and empowering, but if that’s not why you come to yoga, don’t risk an injury for them.

Yoga Teacher Tips:

Most People Won’t Hurt Themselves:  It’s a primitive instinct to avoid pain.  Most people won’t hurt themselves in yoga, unless they think that the pain is just an obstacle to the goal.  If we don’t make a certain pose or alignment a goal, and instead focus on the journey and the mindfulness, this may reduce the risk of injury.

Some People Are Just Risky: You can’t control people’s paradigms like ‘all or nothing’, or ‘no pain no gain’, and some people will strive too hard to get to their toes, or over-work at being ‘good’ at yoga etc.   But you can address these paradigms and explore alternatives (a particularly good way of introducing yoga philosophy).  If a student is putting themselves at risk in a way that you feel is dangerous, you can have a private discussion and outline the risks, and your class guidelines.  If a student is putting others at risk, you have a right to ask them to stop, and potentially, to leave your class.  You have the final say in your class about people’s risky behaviour.

Do as I Say Not as I Do:  This doesn’t work with kids, and it doesn’t work with your yoga students.  You are modelling self-care and sustainable movement practice to your students – keep that in mind in your demonstrations and how you use your body in class.  If you want to encourage students to use props, variations, modifications and regressions, demonstrate them regularly.

Consent to Touch: Use consent cards or some other system to ensure consent before you touch your students and keep up a conversation throughout any adjusting.  Don’t have students touch each other unless everyone has agreed to this practice prior to class.  For instance, if you are going to add partner yoga to a class, advertise this in advance so people can opt out of that class if they aren’t comfortable with that kind of touch.

Be Encouraging but Be Judicious.  Add new or advanced poses slowly.  If your students are keen to develop their practice in the direction of advanced poses, break complex poses down and start with skills and drills and add in new poses slowly.  If you are teaching all-levels, drop-in classes, acknowledge that you might never teach fancy advanced poses.  Teach to your students, not to your goals or your practice.

Listen Up: Observe, listen, and believe someone if they say they can’t do it, aren’t comfortable, or aren’t ready.  It’s not a measure of your teaching that someone gets or doesn’t get a new pose.

Not All Yoga Is Therapeutic – many students come to yoga thinking that all yoga is therapeutic. They might not realize that a strong inversion or cool pick up is not as therapeutic as they might imagine.  Many people who are injured in yoga talk about being surprised that they could get injured doing yoga, ‘but I thought it was supposed to be good for you?’

A Sustainable Teaching Practice

Be aware that as a teacher, you do more yoga than most people, therefore you are at the highest risk of repetitive strain injuries.  Add to that the terrible breathing techniques we use when we are teaching, the fact that we often demonstrate cold, or with our heads turned to the side, or we demonstrate what not to do (to show them why it’s risky!), and it’s easy to see why teachers are at the top of the injury scale, and why for many, teaching yoga as a career is just unsustainable.

We need to do better as teachers in developing habits for sustainable yoga teaching.  A few ways you can do that include: practice teaching without demoing, do a good warm up before you demo, and make sure your own practice is balanced out with whatever your body needs (different loads, pace, planes, etc) and of course good rest and nutrition.

Alright that’s enough for now.  Those are just a few ideas that have been roaming around in my brain and I wanted to get them out on paper (screen?).  Maybe you’ve got some ideas roaming around your brain you’d like to share, or some experience as a student or a teacher that can add to this conversation – please do share.

The more we talk and share and collaborate, the more we will be able to reduce the risk of injuries and enhance the practice of yoga for everyone!

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