The positive effects of yoga are widely accepted. Modern science can, in fact, quantify these benefits, such as increased flexibility, improved strength, better posture, positive mood, reduced stress levels, and –the widely desired – weight loss.
Recently, however, there has been an increase in the dialogue about the other side of the coin: injuries that may be incurred while practicing yoga. But before you allow yourself to be scared away and miss out on all the benefits, here are some ways to determine your personal level of risk before stepping onto the mat.
Practicing the asana (posture) aspect of yoga is a physical activity that requires the same level of awareness regarding the body’s capability as when engaging in any other type of athletic endeavor, such as running or soccer. Just as you should not attempt a marathon when first starting to run, pushing the body into the full, or advanced stages of a pose can be detrimental. To be safe, adhere to your body’s natural limits and avoid overstretching, which means moving past the point of first resistance when performing a pose. If you heed your body’s signals, your risk factor for injury is far less than many regular daily activities such as driving a car!
Be evaluated by a professional body worker
The increasingly stationary lifestyle brought on by desk jobs, long commuting hours and pastime channel/internet surfing has significantly decreased the flexibility of our hips, hamstrings, knees and spine. Therefore, just as it is common to do an evaluation session with a trainer at the gym before building a workout routine, if you’re intent on developing or enhancing your yoga practice get a body worker evaluate your body’s capabilities.
Shmuel Tatz, a New York City physical therapist who specializes in treating yoga practitioners, says “In yoga practice we are trying to go to the maximum of our personal mobility. To help evaluate and increase a person’s ability to do so, I first check for limitation in the passive movement of the joints (the joint’s natural stopping point), then in the accessory movement (bending the joint slightly past it’s natural stopping point, to its maximum potential), and lastly the in-joint movement (moving the joint side to side to assess lateral range). Afterwards, I help restore proper range, as well as correct any misalignment in the body, by manually manipulating the ligaments, tendons, and muscles.
“If a patient is experiencing pain or discomfort when doing a particular pose, I need to go in and assess what is happening on a deeper level in the body to properly address the issue. For example, a common yoga-related injury is pain in the psoas muscle that attaches to the hamstring. This stems from the tendon of the hamstring being overworked from postures like seated forward fold, or intense side stretch pose, that cause inflammation. To treat this, I need to work manually by stabilizing the sacroiliac joint that connects the sacrum and ilium in the lower back, while rotating the hip gently through a full 360° rotation. After this, I supplement with modalities such as laser, ultrasound, magnetic or vibrational therapy, to cure the inflammation.
“It is important to recognize the strains yoga can put on our bodies – even if we are reaping a lot of benefit in other areas – and address issues that come up before they escalate into chronic, more severe problems.”
Know your health history
Everyone who attempts yoga brings to the mat with them their specific genetic inheritance and health history. Therefore, Dr. Tatz recommends that if you suffer from any conditions such as glaucoma, osteoporosis, or herniated disks in the spine, avoid postures that put great strain on the muscular and vascular structure, particularly headstand, shoulder stand, and plow. It is a good idea to, again, consult a professional health provider if you suffer from, or are predisposed to, health conditions.
A smile can help clarify your boundaries
Practicing honest yoga means being fully attuned to and respectful of your body and its natural limits. As the definition of Asana states: “sthira-sukham-asanam” – steady and comfortable – meaning, you should be able to hold the final pose with a genuine smile. If you have developed an injury, or exacerbated a pre-existing condition, and have received proper treatment, yoga can teach you the patience and understanding that will allow you to “hear” your boundaries clearly and avoid further damage.
By Shelley Stendig