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Mind-Body Classes:

Safety Suggestions and Guidelines

Editor’s note: This article is the fourth of a five-part series on guidelines and safety suggestions for various group fitness modalities. The genesis for these articles is you, the IDEA member. In our most recent readership survey, 100 percent of respondents said they wanted to see more space in IDEA publications devoted to injury prevention. In
addition to the five injury prevention articles slated to appear in
IDEA Fitness Edge this year, the entire June 2000 issue of IDEA Health & Fitness Source is devoted to this topic.

The odds are high that some type of mind-body fitness class is currently being offered in the facility where you teach. Recent surveys conducted by IDEA attest to the fact that the number of yoga, Nia, Pilates-based, t’ai chi and other mind-body workouts continues to rise. The increase is due in part to media interest and an aging public’s demand for activities that are less physically demanding and more spiritual in nature. Although some of these mind-body disciplines have been practiced for thousands of years, the fitness versions of most of them are still evolving.

Given the popularity of mind-body fitness classes, research is active and growing in this area. More than 45 studies are listed in 1999 Western literature alone, according to Ralph La Forge, MS, research editor for IDEA Health & Fitness Source and managing director of the Duke Lipid Clinic and Disease Management Preceptorship Program at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina. “These studies are helping develop criteria to plan and measure the effectiveness and safety of mind-body approaches,” says La Forge. While the body of scientific literature will keep on growing, today’s mind-body fitness instructors must anticipate areas of concern and avoid them through education and training. In mind-body classes, as in any other group fitness sessions, instructors need to ensure the safety and effectiveness of their participants’ experience. Safety standards are integral to mind-body classes, particularly as many of these focus on healing and rehabilitation.

Defining Mind-Body Fitness

Mind-body fitness is a generic term used to describe “movement executed in a mindful and conscious way,” according to Debbie Rosas, cofounder with Carlos Rosas of the Nia Technique (www.nia-nia.com), an international dance and martial arts derived program. Interaction among the mind, body, emotions and spirit leads to awareness of our multidimensional make-up.

Molly Fox, owner of Yoga People Yoga Center Affiliated and an Anusara yoga teacher in Brooklyn, New York, says, “Mind-body classes allow us to be in the moment, experiencing a transformed or whole picture of who we are.” When integrated with the other aspects of our being, the body helps us achieve greater states of relaxation, peace and wholeness.

Determining Teacher Qualifications

Perhaps the biggest controversy surrounding mind-body fitness today revolves around what qualifications instructors should have. Experienced mind-body teachers generally agree that minimum training requirements include life experience, communication skills and a knowledge of how the body and mind interact via neurotransmitters, the breath, muscle tension and muscle relaxation. Most mind-body instructors start out by training with masters of a particular discipline from whom they learn the specifics of that technique. For example, Pilates-based classes work from the inside out, building on a knowledge of core abdominal and back musculature and movement patterns designed to develop optimal strength, flexibility, coordination and postural awareness without building bulk or stressing the joints. After much practice and continuing study, novice instructors hone their skills and can then begin teaching their own classes.

Beth Shaw, founder of Yogafit Training Systems Worldwide Inc. (www.yogafit.com) based in Hermosa Beach, California, adds to the list of skills a mind-body teacher needs in a fitness setting. She recommends knowledge of anatomy, kinesiology, biomechanics, cuing and exercise modifications, plus group exercise leadership experience—the same skills a traditional group exercise instructor needs. According to Shaw, yoga instructors wishing to carry their practice into the fitness environment should have a primary general fitness certification so they can effectively adapt yoga to the fitness industry.

What about certifications specific to the particular mind-body discipline? Jennifer Fox and Paul Gould of Santa Cruz, California, co-owners of Yoga-Nia Adventures (www.yogania.com) and teachers of yoga, Nia and meditation, feel that certification is of less interest than training. “Superior teachers are able to follow their own voice; they are completely passionate and involved in what they do; and they spend years, not months, honing their craft. Certainly you cannot learn the full depth of yoga, Pilates or Nia in a weekend,” says Jennifer Fox.

Moira Stott, program director and cofounder of Stott Education & Stott Equipment Sales Inc. and creator of the Stott Pilates/Conditioning training and certification program (www.stottpilates.com), based in Toronto, agrees: “The pressure to be certified has people wanting to become teachers overnight, not realizing how much there is to learn.”

The Rosas believe that a mind-body instructor’s development involves three phases: Phase 1 is training—acquiring new information, concepts and tools. Training may come as a formal initiation into the practice or may follow a period as a participant. Most mind-body certification programs provide this level of
education in an intensive format that also addresses kinesiology, anatomy, leadership skills and personal growth. Phase 2 is practice—experiencing the discipline over time, a process that leads to increased awareness and clarity. Practice requires maintaining a constant “student state” or attitude, supported by knowledgeable teachers and continuing education. Phase 3 is teaching—guiding others through at least the first two phases of this potentially life-changing process. The Rosas believe that the ability to share the
effects of a mind-body practice comes when the teacher “walks the talk,” not only in class but also in life.

Adapting and Modifying Moves

Like other fitness sessions, mind-body classes should include modifications for participants with injuries, postural issues and varying goals and abilities. Both fit and less fit individuals need time to adapt if they are unfamiliar with the modality being taught. A mind-set of “more is better” is misplaced in a yoga or Nia class, where challenging movements require postural, spacial and sensory awareness, as well as strength, agility and flexibility. Participants and teachers who cross over from traditional fitness to mind-body classes often have to “unlearn” training habits established through traditional group exercise. For example, in a traditional high/low-impact class, the cue “high kicks” emphasizes the goal of leg height; in a mind-body class, an instructor cuing the same move would focus on execution and alignment.

Another area that may warrant modifications even among seasoned exercisers is footwork. For instance, working barefoot in a Nia class requires a different style of movement from that designed to be executed in hypersupported athletic shoes. Molly Fox observes that “many fitness enthusiasts and teachers are initially unable to sense their feet. They also have difficulty standing with straight legs, usually due to overdeveloped hip flexors and shortened psoas muscles.”

Modifications may also be needed for less fit exercisers as they build strength and flexibility in a mind-body modality. Teachers should demonstrate modifications at all times, inviting students to choose the appropriate level for themselves, based on sensations of comfort or discomfort. The opportunity to personalize a movement or posture keeps participants aware of their individual needs. In the Stott approach to Joseph Pilates’ work, for example, the instructor helps participants who have difficulty performing the “roll up” determine whether the cause is lack of abdominal strength or tightness in the lower back. The teacher then recommends appropriate adjustments to the pose.

Avoiding Common Injuries

Interestingly, a recent literature search revealed no scientific documentation of injuries caused by mind-body activities. One reason for this might be that the potential for injury is low in such classes. Many studies, however, describe the benefits of mind-body approaches in improving conditions such as osteoarthritis (Garfinkel et al. 1994), back pain (Hudson 1998; Weller 1977), pain (Nespor 1991), carpal tunnel syndrome (Garfinkel et al. 1998), headache (Benson, Malvea
& Graham 1973), the side effects of chemotherapy (Schwidurski-Maib & Jochheim 1987) and overall anxiety (Kern & Baker 1997).

Nevertheless, injuries can and do occur when participants perform mind-body techniques incorrectly or when teachers do not modify moves for individual needs. As Molly Fox sees it, “All movements are safe when they are entered into in a progressive manner. It is not the movement itself that causes the injuries; it is the way the movement is performed.” La Forge agrees: “An instructor’s lack of appropriate screening, preprogram assessment and incorporation of appropriate pose modifications may lead to injury, not the pose itself.”

Common causes of injuries sustained in mind-body classes include overuse of one muscle group; lack of energy or focus; inadequate body awareness; poor alignment; and improper breathing. Hamstring pulls can result from not warming up adequately or from being pushed into a pose. (Mind-body teachers in general advise against pushing a participant verbally or physically.) Molly Fox says the risk of rotator cuff injuries is high, especially in women, if participants use improper technique when performing Ashtanga yoga push-ups. She also advises eliminating headstands and shoulder stands for participants who attend sporadically; without regular practice, it is difficult to hone the technique or build the strength required for these poses.

A word of caution: Group fitness instructors often use the cue “Listen to your body” to help participants safely perform traditional exercises. However, this cue may not be effective in mind-body classes, since many participants are there to learn how to listen and will not possess enough kinesthetic awareness to provide the intended safety net. Until participants gain this awareness, use the words “sense,” “feel” and “notice” to foster familiarity with sensation and help exercisers recognize pain or instability long before it leads to or aggravates an injury.

Adrienne Jamiel, MA, with Anatomy for Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy in New York City, says that having students pay attention to their breath and move slowly during the learning process helps create anatomical safety. “Our commitment is to create no physical pain anywhere in the body and no heightened sensation within or across any joint. The goal is to feel steady and comfortable,” she says. Teachers learn this approach by listening to and respecting their own injuries and limitations. Once again, being the student ultimately empowers the novice instructor to be an effective teacher.

Strengthening the body can involve some degree of risk, particularly if teachers challenge themselves and their participants. If you are a new mind-body teacher, err on the side of caution, for both yourself and your participants. Teach only what you know and have spent time practicing on your own. Build in time for peace and quiet so participants can turn their attention inward, on themselves. Slow things down, for yourself and for your class.

Using Equipment

Most mind-body classes require minimal equipment. For example, you can offer a safe, effective yoga class using just sticky mats, blankets, blocks and straps. Sticky mats prevent participants’ feet and hands from slipping while holding postures. Blankets can provide support during poses and will also keep the body warm during the relaxation portion
of class. Blocks and straps allow participants to perform at their own level, thereby reducing the urge to overstretch or sacrifice form. For example, if a participant lacks the flexibility to reach the balancing hand to the floor when performing
the triangle pose, the instructor can place a block under that hand to modify the pose.

Most Pilates-based equipment is designed for individualized or small group training. However, according to Stott, there are safe equipment options for larger groups. Mats are the most effective and practical of these choices. When working with mats, it is best to keep the group to a maximum of 20 participants to ensure adequate supervision. During mat work, some Pilates-based instructors incorporate resistance bands, the Fitness Circle exerciser (a resistance device made of sprung steel for upper- and lower-extremity conditioning) or vinyl-covered foam barrels to offer additional support and variety.

Mind-body fitness instructors also need to consider the environment for their particular classes. Dimmed lighting and elevated room temperature help quiet the outer world and encourage internal awareness and relaxation. Participants can stretch and relax better in a warm room. If heaters are not available, use blankets to keep participants warm during deep relaxation. Clean floors are a must for comfortable barefoot movement, such as that done in Nia classes.

Redefining Fitness

Mind-body programming, while growing rapidly beyond specialized mind-body centers, is still new to many traditional fitness exercisers. Fitness participants soon learn that applying a mind-body approach to traditional activities can enhance, rather than diminish, their fitness level. As yoga, Nia, Pilates-type and other such programs continue to grow, participants and teachers alike are redefining what it means to be fit. Muscle tone and body composition are no longer the sole measures of “fitness success.” The new fitness paradigm includes comfort, ease and pleasure in movement, along with a redefined sense of self. While personal and spiritual growth may not be the primary goals when participants begin a mind-body program, these benefits may well be part of the outcome. In truly safe and effective mind-body classes, the body’s ability to move and the mind’s capacity to connect with that movement are relished and appreciated.
So take a deep breath, and sense the new movement!

Enhancing Awareness

Debbie and Carlos Rosas, creators of the Nia Technique, share the following suggestions to enhance participants’ sensory awareness in mind-body fitness classes:

1. Encourage participants to move as if they were ballroom dancing, gliding from one movement to the next.

2. Cue them to sense the weight of their head, chest and pelvis shifting or dropping.

3. Use circular, fluid motions during class, working toward achieving complete range of motion in each joint.

4. Have participants move with awareness, noticing the sensations in every joint, muscle and bone as they move.

5. Have the class “freeze” in various stances, to assess balance and placement.

6. To heighten sensation, change the dynamics of any given movement from slow to fast and then back again.

7. Use various styles of music to add to the emotional tone of the class.

8. Integrate breath and sound to connect to emotions and feelings. Encourage participants to be audible with their breath, exhaling and inhaling based on the flow of the movement.

9. Allow and invite self-directed as well as instructor-guided movement by providing time for participants to move freely with no instructions.

10. Remember to build silent times into class to allow participants to turn their attention inward and be still.

Kinesthetic Cues

To improve alignment in mind-body classes, try using the following cues:

1. Feel your feet spread on the floor to provide stability.

2. Imagine you have a tail and feel it brush the floor as you walk.

3. Sense your spine as a column of support, flexible and upright.

4. Lengthen your neck by imagining a tall feather up the back of your head, brushing the clouds.

5. Feel for balance and ease in your shoulders. Let your arms be relaxed and heavy.

6. Sense balance and ease in all your movements.


Benson, H., Malvea, B. P., & Graham,
J. R. 1973. Physiologic correlates of meditation and their clinical effects in headache: an ongoing investigation. Headache, 13 (1), 23-4.
Garfinkel, M. S., et al. 1994. Evaluation of
a yoga-based regimen for treatment
of osteoarthritis of the hands. Journal
of Rheumatology, 21
(12), 2341-3.
Garfinkel, M. S., et al. 1998. Yoga-based intervention for carpal tunnel syndrome: a randomized trial. JAMA, 280 (18), 1601-3.
Hudson, S. 1998. Yoga aids in back pain. Australian Nursing Journal, 5 (9), 27.
Kern, D., & Baker, J. 1997. A comparison of mind-body approach versus conventional approach to aerobic dance. Women’s Health Issues, 7 (1), 30-7.
Nespor, K. 1991. Pain management and yoga. International Journal of Psychosomatics, 38 (1-4), 76-81.
Schwidurski-Maib, G., & Jochheim, K. A. 1987. Current status of after-care cures in oncologic patients. Rehabilitation (Stuttg), 26 (2), 75-6.
Weller, S. 1977. Yoga for tired legs and aching back. Canadian Nurse, 73 (5), 20-3.

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