By now you’ve probably read or heard about the New York Times article on the dangers of yoga (January 2012). It triggered a firestorm in the yoga community. Yoga teachers and dedicated practitioners found themselves in the awkward position of having to explain why they place so much value on doing something that might “wreck your body,” as the article so provocatively asserted.
Despite my feelings about the article’s editorial stance, over time it has had a positive impact on my yoga practice.
Learn to be more mindful
It caused me to reassess what classes to take, what teachers to follow, and what practices or styles of yoga to avoid.
I’m now more clear about what’s right for me (and why). This helps me be more authentic — especially when I choose not to do a pose or to perform the easier variation instead.
Sadly I now take fewer classes as a consequence of being more selective. The good news: the teachers are better, and I’m learning more — lessons that I can apply both in class and at home.
How to Avoid Injury in Yoga
Here’s what I’ve concluded from this reassessment process:
- Avoid over-crowded classes where it’s impossible for the teacher to pay enough attention to each student
- Avoid teachers who lack hundreds of hours of teacher training
- Avoid yoga class environments that promote yoga as exercise (the latest faddish workout)
- Be aware of your body’s vulnerabilities and where to pay extra attention during practice
- Take responsibility for communicating with the teacher before class, to ensure she understands what you’re dealing with today
Those are basic requirements to avoid risky conditions. But the choice of teacher is even more important.
Choose Your Teacher(s) Carefully
It’s taken awhile for me to recognize this, but it’s incredibly important to choose yoga teachers based on their instructional techniques — how well the teacher:
- delivers instruction about the yoga asanas
- demonstrates what she’s asking students to do
- interacts with students who don’t know how to apply those instructions to their own bodies
- recognizes and clarifies confusion
- corrects or guides someone into proper alignment
Having had the benefit of several exceptionally skillful teachers in small class settings, I’m now very aware of the difference between really good instruction and run-of-the-mill classes.
Teaching Methods Need to Improve
Steeped in the ancient spiritual and cultural traditions of India, yoga has been slow to adopt more effective teaching and communication styles. The teaching tradition has tended to be one of disciples emulating their gurus.
Immersed in these traditions, the typical yoga teacher errs by using terminology or phrasing that is poorly understood by students. The language is lyrical, evocative, full of beautiful imagery — but sadly, too ambiguous and easy to misinterpret.
Beauty and grace, not enough clarity
This beautiful stone tracery, seen during a recent visit to La Alhambra, reminded me of my experience of a typical yoga class: poetry and grace in motion, strength, balance — but with language that means little to the uninitiated.
Here the calligraphy is integral to the design but conveys nothing to an English speaker. Let’s be honest: the same is true of Sanskrit pose names when used with beginning students.
Even when teachers stick to English, problems emerge when the language is ambiguous, as with these instructions:
- “Open your heart”
- “Set your foundation”
- “Snug your shoulder blades against your back”
I’ve been practicing yoga for 3 years, but it has taken me that long to recognize the risks of not understanding the optimal bio-mechanics of key poses. It took a few thankfully minor injuries to reveal how much I still need to learn.
Back to basics
So I’ve returned to classes for beginners, those led by exceptionally clear teachers with superior communication skills. I want to master yoga’s foundational asana principles before resuming classes with teachers whose guidance is better at conveying the spiritual aspects of yoga rather than the physical asanas.
Where Are the Best Teachers?
Today the teachers I find most helpful have hundreds of hours of teacher training, and at least as many hours of actual instructional experience. They are highly attuned to how well their students are actually learning and putting their lessons into practice.
Some earn their living via “bodywork,” so they have a deep hands-on understanding of anatomy and the principles of body mechanics.
Some are exceptionally gifted at knowing how to demonstrate a pose or key aspects of a concept. They link their poetic instructional language to unambiguous demonstrations, slowing down the motion or pose dynamics to make it crystal clear what they mean. They keep the class focused on practicing this approach until we have a taste of what it feels like to do it properly.
The teachers I seek out today know how to help students move toward the optimal muscular-skeletal alignment, combined with the breath. They see when I’m out of alignment, or failing to balance “effort with ease”; they know how to help me understand what I need to adjust.
Combined with my own improving mindfulness, it’s teachers like these who will help me minimize my risk of injury — and ensure the blessings of a lifelong practice.