Lowering the risk of injury when performing yoga postures requires that practitioners have an open mind and some common sense. I must admit when I was beginning my practice years ago I had very little common sense or an open mind. The deep seeded need to achieve the next posture led to many injuries and left me thinking, ‘I wish I hadn’t done that,’ and ‘I just wanted to try.’
That curiosity tempting us to test out a yoga posture that is far too advanced is one of those traps that yogis too often fall into. Practicing simple yoga poses and performing them well will serve to build a proper foundation for more advanced posture practice. Skipping steps in a learning progression is bound to lead to injuries.
In the book, ‘The Heart of Yoga,’ the late T.K.V. Desikachar speaks of his father, the great yogi Tirumalai Krishnamacharya and expounds on his father’s teachings. “As my father said, if you go step-by-step, there will be no problems. Enjoy each step. Trying to leap many steps at once can be a problem.”
This pearl of distilled wisdom is not unique to performing yoga postures. Think of ballet dancers or martial artists. You don’t start with black-belt techniques in martial arts. Ballet dancers practice the basics over and over again before performing a choreographed piece. Why do we think that trying yoga contortions will be without risking serious injury?
Part of the answer to this question lies in the false belief that yoga can magically heal the body. Practitioners are sometimes misled to believe that the more difficult the yoga posture… the more benefits for health. Many times the exact opposite is true. Practicing yoga contortions that look more like moves in a Cirque du Soleil performance have been the cause of many injuries including extremely serious injuries such as strokes and paralysis as noted in William Broad’s book, ‘The Science of Yoga.’
If we change the paradigm for yoga practice to be an exercise prescription for health instead of a circus show, it is possible to avoid the mistake of trying postures that require more flexibility or strength than we currently possess. Certainly underestimating the flexibility required for the performance of challenging yoga postures has been well documented by medical professionals. Lesser known are the incidents of yoga students underestimating the amount of strength necessary to perform particular yoga postures, and finding out the hard way that yoga can be challenging in both the flexibility and strength involved in the practice.
We do not have a crystal ball that can predict the future and so it is difficult to anticipate when a yoga pose may cause injury. It is for this reason I do not teach drop-in classes, but instead I have structured the classes in chronological order within levels of ability. Students are taught postures with a relatively low risk in the early stages of their learning here at BIM. I am often reminding students to not ‘over-try’ since even basic yoga poses can be practiced aggressively causing harm. I feel it is my job as the instructor to ‘navigate safe waters’ for my students.
I hear a lot of yoga instructors telling their students to take responsibility for themselves and essentially blame the student for what harm may come to them. I feel quite differently about this and assume the students are susceptible to the idea of, ‘I just wanted to try,’ so to me my job description includes managing this all too common instinct, and teaching lessons that involve the anatomy and biomechanics of postures in order to inform students in how to avoid becoming injured.