The Gentle Warrior: Safety in Yoga Practice
Aug 30, 2013 11:02AM
● By Amber Burke
With his 2012 book, The Science of Yoga, William Broad shined the spotlight on yoga injuries. He writes that yoga, with its emphasis on contortions, matched with imprecise science and a lack of oversight, is “a dangerous infant with a thing for handguns.” Broad calls for yoga to become a more disciplined discipline; he advocates the creation of a governing body of yoga that unites itself closely with science and establishes rigorous standards of certification, so that all teachers know how to keep their students safe.
At the same time, Broad extolls the many benefits of yoga practice, including the creation of both an outer and inner flexibility. In addition to stretching the body, yoga’s breathing practices and focus on conscious relaxation also make it, according to Broad, “a discipline that succeeds brilliantly at smoothing the ups and downs of emotional life.”
Rather than avoid a valuable practice until Broad’s vision of a centralized yoga practicum is realized, we students of yoga can take responsibility for our own safety. Here are eight potential danger zones in yoga practice. Fortunately, in each case, we can assist ourselves with techniques of mindfulness and self-care that are as vital to yoga as the poses.
Preexisting injuries: Many of us have experienced injuring ourselves in the same place repeatedly, as if we’re walking around with a target on one particular area of our bodies. We know this is an area that could easily be strained during yoga class, or any exercise, and so we might be inclined to resent this place of vulnerability, or to try to ignore it. In The Yoga Sutras, Patanjali says, “Vitarkabadhane pratipaksha bhavanam,” meaning “contemplate another view,” or “think the opposite.” Instead of viewing our injury as a hindrance or ignoring it, we might look at it as instructive and embrace it. After all, practicing with an injury can become a meditation in and of itself. We can turn our vulnerable area into a kind of candle flame; a focus for our awareness. We can practice yoga while continuously staying mindful of this area, ever attentive to how it is responding, exploring the poses that are new or challenging to that area only gradually.
Competition: The thought, “I should be able to do this pose because everyone else is doing it,” is not only untrue, but is also a mode of thinking that can result in injury, because it incites us to ignore the body’s clear messages. Just because a pose is right for someone else, doesn’t mean it’s right for us. One way to direct our attention away from competitive tendencies is, rather than looking at the others in the room, to find an unmoving drishti, or focal point, on the wall or out the window front of us. This steady focus will enable us to keep our attention on how we feel, instead of on what everybody else is doing.
Ambition: The destination of yoga’s long journey is not any particular pose, but rather a certain state of mind. We don’t win anything when we can get our head to the floor in a seated wide-legged forward fold. We will not be happier. We will not be enlightened. If anything, we might end up with torn hamstrings if we force ourselves forward prematurely. Besides, once we’ve got the head touching the floor, we’ll probably start thinking about how nice it would be to get the chest down. There is always a next step, so we might as well enjoy the step we’re on, and go to the next one only when we’re sure our bodies are ready. If we find our minds obsessing over getting somewhere, we might give ourselves a mantra; a word or short statement that we repeat to foster a meditative state of mind. Mantras that help cultivate contentment include Ong sohung, which can be variously translated as, “I am thou,” “I am peace,” or even, “All I am to be I already am.” Gertrude Stein’s aphorism, “There’s no there there,” also makes a good mantra to ward off ambition in class.
Transitions: Injuries can occur not only when we are in a pose, but also when we are moving into or out of a pose. It is important that we bring our attention to transitions and make them as much a part of our practice as the poses themselves. While transitioning, we can stabilize ourselves by firmly rooting into the foundations of the pose—the parts of our bodies that are on the floor. It is also important to come out of each pose before we’re exhausted; that way, we maintain the energy we need to come out of it with control.
Uneven breathing: Ujjayi breathing is the preferred style of breathing throughout many yoga practices; it is smooth and steady, in and out through the nose, with a soft rushing sound at the back of the throat. Because it is audible, it can serve as a cue for us; if we hear our breathing becoming ragged, we know we are working too hard and need to back off.
Pain, fatigue or illness: Yoga does not follow the “no-pain-no-gain” principle. Instead of grinning and bearing discomfort, we should be mindful of the first hint of pain and get out of the pose. We can talk to the teacher during or after class about modifications or alternatives. If we’re exhausted, lightheaded from hunger, or getting sick, we should leave. In such vulnerable states, we’re more likely to get hurt. If we’re used to pushing ourselves past the point of comfort, getting a massage or taking a restorative yoga class can remind us of what it feels like to be gentle with ourselves.
Over-politeness: Over-politeness can be injurious because it may prevent us from telling the teachers about our limitations and from leaving a class, even if we feel unsafe in it. Worse still, over-politeness can also stop us from revealing to teachers that we were hurt during class. Telling our teachers what happened is important because it will allow them to form an accurate picture of the effects of their teaching, and perhaps inspire them to make changes that will help others. Going to a class that includes chanting, or even chanting or simply singing at home, can help those of us that have trouble speaking up for ourselves to become comfortable with our voices.
Anger: While we are scanning our bodies and emotions in savasana, the relaxation pose at the end of class, if we find that we are feeling jittery, utterly depleted or angry with the instructor, our approach to the class may have been too aggressive. To counteract agitation, we might try a loving-kindness meditation, sending out ever-widening circles of compassion, or we might remind ourselves of what we have to be thankful for. It is hard for stress to coexist with gratitude.
If a yoga class didn’t feel right, even after approaching it cautiously, don’t give up. There are manifold styles of yoga from which to choose. The decentralization of yoga bemoaned by Broad has had the benefit of fostering variety; even within a given style, there may be as many approaches as there are teachers, all with different areas of specialization. With almost a dozen studios in the Lancaster area, there’s bound to be a teacher whose approach appeals to us. But the truth may be that the only perfect teacher for us is the teacher in us. Look around, and then look inside.
New to Lancaster, Amber Burke is a graduate of Yale, the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars MFA program, and two Yogaworks teacher trainings. She is registered with Yoga Alliance at the 500-hour level and teaches at Bridge Yoga and the Lancaster City YMCA. Look for her classes and workshops at West End Yoga, coming soon to West Walnut Street, in Lancaster. Connect at Facebook.com/AmberBurkeYoga.