Keeping Yoga Safe

by Shirley Archer, JD, MA on Aug 23, 2012

A purported rise in yoga-related injuries in the United States has stimulated a firestorm of discussion in the yoga community, as well as a national media blitz. Over the past 20 years, yoga has expanded in popularity in the U.S. and throughout the world, bridging the gap from young to old, novice to athlete, healthy to disease-ridden and wealthy to underprivileged. While this growth is generally considered positive, the same is not true of an increase in yoga-related injuries. Here are some expert tips to make sure you are cultivating a safer teaching and practice environment.

How to Teach Yoga Safely

Experts offer many suggestions for improving asana teaching and practice safety.

Personal Measures

  • Obtain a medical release before participating in yoga if a medical issue is present.
  • Use props as needed to support modifications.
  • Wear comfortable, breathable clothing and use sticky mats or sticky socks to avoid slips.
  • Avoid overeating before class and stay hydrated by drinking water as needed.

Environmental Modifications

  • Limit external distractions like loud noises or visual stimuli that can disrupt concentration.
  • Ensure good visibility and acoustics so teaching instructions are seen and heard clearly.
  • Provide safe room temperatures suitable for participants.
  • Provide water.
  • Limit class size to permit enough space for postures that require more movement or that may result in someone taking a tumble (e.g., headstand, shoulder stand or other arm-balancing positions). Make sure all floor and wall surfaces are safe.

Individual Limits and Behaviors

  • Encourage students to develop a sense of embodied movement and to take responsibility for what they are experiencing in their own bodies.
  • Know (students and teachers alike) who should not do inversions; for example, people with glaucoma, a detached retina or high blood pressure. Also know who should not do backward bends or put pressure on the cervical spine; pregnant women as well as individuals with osteoporosis, high or low blood pressure, inner-ear problems or known degenerative problems are at greater risk for injury.
  • Promote mindfulness or present-state awareness. Accept that there is a learning curve and that a progression is required to all stages and expressions of a pose.
  • Discourage use of force or extreme effort to achieve a body position; instead, encourage attunement to inner body signals and the breath to find alignment that is in harmony with the body’s true capacities at that moment and that provides a feeling of comfortable effort.

Instructor Reminders

  • Undertake special training before teaching children, prenatal or postpartum women or anyone with a medical or chronic condition.
  • Explain to participants that for some body types and genetic predispositions, the full expression of certain postures may never be possible, but that does not mean that modified versions do not offer multiple benefits.
  • Foster a safe, noncompetitive environment in which each participant is encouraged to work at his or her own pace and is provided with personalized options.
  • Provide a thorough warm-up with attention to active range of motion for all joints.
  • If a class is too large to provide individual attention during all postures, avoid more risky and/or complex postures in which someone could strain a back, neck, hip or knee.
  • Avoid sustained forward bends or pushing to the extreme end range of motion in any position.
  • Exercise caution with any flow-style programs, as rapid changes from one posture to another may not allow people time to achieve proper alignment.
  • Vary the order of asanas, offer options and teach progressively.
  • Stay up-to-date on research in yoga and in biomechanics.

Yoga’s Yamas and Niyamas

Experts suggest that both teachers and students alike can look for guidance on how to practice yoga safely in the traditional yamas (“restraints or don’ts”) and niyamas (“observances or dos”).

For more on the yamas and niyamas, plus an extensive discussion on yoga safety issues, please see “Is Yoga Safe?” in the online IDEA Library or in the July‚ÄďAugust 2012 issue of IDEA Fitness Journal.

IDEA Fit Tips , Volume 10, Issue 9

© 2012 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

About the Author

Shirley Archer, JD, MA

Shirley Archer, JD, MA IDEA Author/Presenter

Shirley Archer, JD, MA, was the 2008 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year and is IDEA’s mind-body-spirit spokesperson. She is a certified yoga and Pilates teacher and an award-winning author base...

3 Comments

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  • User

    Great article Shirley, thank you! Two other points that you might want to include are: 1) Make sure new students talk to instructor, explaining their issues/limitations. Instructors should always ask if there are new students and speak to them individually to see if any issues, but this doesn't always happen, so new students should arrive early, be proactive and approach instructor before class. 2) Instructors need to exercise care whenever correcting alignment or applying pressure to further a student's stretch. This is where MANY injuries occur according to a popular NY Times article last Spring. I ask permission before correcting or adding tension my students' asanas. I don't take it for granted that I can just walk up and twist a person's body the way I want to. Adjustments can be marvelous and great learning tools for students, but they can also cause many injuries. 3) Listen to YOUR body!! Instructors should never require students to conform to their particular yoga style, but rather they should encourage students to modify that particular style of yoga to their own body, mood, ability and medical history. I once took a Bikram Yoga class in Hermosa and the instructor, who was one of the owners, badgered me ridiculously. It was my first Bikram class, although I'd been teaching yoga for several years. She barked at me incessantly. "Don't drink water!" (Mind you it was 110 degrees in there) "Don't move your arms!" "Push higher, push higher, push higher!" When I modified a pose, she yelled at me and threatened that I needed to stop doing that in her class and follow the poses everyone was doing. She not only embarrassed me, but also barked right in my ear. I told her I was simply following my Dr's orders to protect my knees and to please move on. After class, I asked her why she was relentlessly badgering me. She shrugged her shoulders and said that I looked 'fit and flexible" and that she 'knew' I could do all that she asked. I then told her about my injuries and said i certainly didn't appreciate being 'yelled at' in class for listening to my own body and that there would be many who'd be intimidated by her style and further injuries would ensue. She said that I shouldn't listen to my Dr. and that I needed to do more Bikram and my injury would go away. :) I kept doing Bikram and my injuries got WORSE. I did, eventually recover doing my own style of yoga in a normally-temperature room and lots of flexibility balance and strength work. Know one's own body well and never letting anyone intimidate you into doing something you're not comfortable doing, is very important in yoga.
    Commented Sep 08, 2012
  • User

    God, do we ever know how to complicate things. Bottom line, the tighter and stiffer you are, the less force you should apply into your stretch. The tighter you are, the more dynamic your stretch should be (by that I simply mean movement). The tighter you are the more gentle a static stretch should be, the more varied, playful, and nonlinear your movements should be. Also the more you'll need to refine your internal felt sense, and the less forceful, goal oriented your approach should be
    Commented Sep 07, 2012
  • User

    Thank you for sharing this information. This is a great reminder for all yoga instructors to be mindful of safety. You covered all of the important points.
    Commented Sep 05, 2012