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Is Your Yoga Safe? Ruminations on Adaptations

in YD News, YogOpinions

by J. Brown

Infrequent visitors to the yoga blogosphere may not be aware of the recent kerfuffle surrounding a NY Times article about how yoga will hurt you, but there also has been some mainstream media coverage on the safety of yoga.

While the article seems to have broken a few glass jaws in the broader yoga community, practitioners with a therapeutic orientation have been sounding alarms about questionable practice for years and getting nothing but flak in return. Those with the courage to take a stand and level public criticism of overly aggressive and guitar-hero-like approaches are usually written off as haters who are just jealous of the cool kids with their feet on their heads.

I’m not going to address the article directly. This has been done well enough already by voices more qualified than mine (I recommend watching Leslie Kaminoff’s three-part video response.) But I am interested in people questioning what they are doing and whether or not it is safe, even if it is a byproduct of a sensationalistic and irresponsible ploy to sell books.

Unfortunately, the subsequent conversation has largely been dominated by a reach for easy answers that avoid deeper issues. More often than not, injuries in yoga are being attributed to a lack of proper alignment or understanding of anatomy. It is said either that practitioners are not doing the poses in a technically correct way or that their teachers are not educated enough about anatomy to instruct students how to do the poses in a technically correct way.

When it comes to alignment, I find it curious to notice teachers who are are usually quite rigid in their instruction are now bending over backwards to explain how they respond to the needs of students. Specifically, I was reading an excerpt from a new book, written by a senior teacher in a classical tradition, who was considering the instruction to “straighten your leg.”

Without referring to any particular poses, the author asserts that the instruction is a “very coarse truth [that] new students need to hear” and that the way to accommodate different capabilities is to offer different “levels of truth” in the form of more detailed directives (i.e. lift the quadriceps, resist with the calf muscle, root the three corners of the feet, etc.) The suggestion is that different students need different details as they develop the fully realized truth behind “straighten your leg.”

The problem is that finding different ways of articulating the same arbitrary configuration is not an example of how to adapt to the needs of students and certainly will not make the practice any safer for the large majority of people who benefit from bending their knees. The concept of “technically correct” is open to interpretation and much of what is considered proper alignment in the classical forms is contraindicated for huge portions of the population. Thus, it is possible to have perfect alignment and still hurt yourself.

For those who are inclined to rely on science, I have written a full length article for Yoga Therapy Today magazine entitled: ‘Does Studying Anatomy Make Yoga Safer?‘ In the piece, I ask several prominent anatomy for yoga teachers to weigh in on the role of studying anatomy and science in making yoga safe. What I think most people might find surprising is that even the experts in the field do not agree that anatomy is the key to ensuring safety in yoga.

As Neil Pearson, clinical assistant professor at the University of British Columbia and the chair of the Pain Science Division of the Canadian Physiotherapy Association, put it: “In the end, it is not Western scientific knowledge of the human body that will make Yoga safer. Changing the students approach to the discipline of yoga and the practice of asana will create the greatest shift.”

Instead of looking to alignment and anatomy as a panacea for what ails the yoga profession, perhaps we would do better to foster a different mentality around the physical work of yoga practice that minimizes any potential risks and encourages smarter choices.

Most of the professionals I have spoken to agree that the key to safe yoga boils down to the sensitivity and adaptability of the instructor, his or her capacity for dialogue with and responsiveness to a student, and the humble confidence of knowing what you know and what you don’t know.


J. Brown is a yoga teacher, writer and founder of Abhyasa Yoga Center in Brooklyn, NY.  His writing has been featured in Yoga Therapy in Practice, Yoga Therapy Today and the International Journal of Yoga Therapy.  Visit his website at yogijbrown.com.


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7 comments… add one
  • This is such a great article!

    It is very true. Anatomy is helpful, but even still only general. What is going on or what might be causing this or that pain in a student is specific to the student.

    I think it’s important to teach the student about what the active aspects of postures are, why they are important, and what we are doing (an intellectual side of things) plus then how to know the difference between that active aspect — which may have mild discomfort or effort involved — extreme discomfort, and pain which can lead to injury.

    This is what seems to develop awareness as to what they are looking to experience/feel in the body in a posture, and mindfulness about “how far” to take the posture.

    It really is in the mind-space.

  • JeffreyD

    Yes and no. In reality, there are thousands or tens of thousands of yoga instructors, 99.9% of whom have limited knowledge of their students, and the students have almost no way of vetting their teachers. These teachers qualified to teach yoga by doing yoga for a few years and then taking a workshop, not by years of intense medical study or perhaps the divine inspiration of the Lord Krishna.

    It’s easy to blame teachers with circular logic “students get hurt because of a bad teacher. They are a bad teacher because they let students get hurt.” However the methodology of yoga teaching isn’t going to change, so just saying “yoga has no problems except bad teachers” is pointless. Unless there develops some way to disqualify bad teachers, or to re-arrange yoga so that while it’s still useful, it’s taught in a way that having a bad teacher doesn’t mean the student is at risk.

    The key to safe yoga is (for starters), don’t bend yourself into a fucking pretzel or regularly balance on your head or flex your back. They’re basic parts of yoga, but inherently bad ideas. And for all but the weak and infirm, yoga is not a method for developing strength – weights are. And 60-90 minute classes are often overkill.

    • I’m not seeing how moving an object against gravity would be more safe or effective than moving your body against gravity for a person who is infirm.

      Perhaps, that too, is about how yoga is taught — the idea that it’s about flexibility, without teaching it from a point of strength.

  • Elizabeth

    One of the things that has basically been ignored in this firestorm: the article was a brilliant way for Mr. Broad to get 100% free publicity for his book, AND get it on the radar of non-yoga practitioners (and yoga doubters) who would otherwise not hear of it and never seek it out. This is capitalistic journa-publicity at its finest.

    Speaking of capitalism, and just wondering out loud without having any specific solution to these problems, I think that cost plays a huge role here. (1) One way in which cost plays a role is that yoga studios (and non-studio organizations) make a ton of money on yoga teacher training programs. For a studio, this might be the difference between going under and being able to offer classes at reasonable rates (such as the pay-what-you-can and $10 “community” classes popular at many studios) while still paying their teachers a decent per-class fee. (2) Another way that cost plays a role is for students who cannot afford to pay $15+ for each class, but can afford $12 for a reusable DVD; I personally learned some potentially harmful habits by practicing with a DVD without a teacher’s eyes to help me. (3) Cost also plays a role in how it is decided that a person can declare themselves a yoga teacher. There is no government regulation (for good or for bad) because that costs money, and lobbying to make it happen (or continue to not happen) costs money. The operation of Yoga Alliance (which many feel is failing to provide any enforcement of even its own standards) costs money. These two things aside, basically anyone can declare they are a yoga teacher. (4) Cost plays a role in the type of yoga teacher education people choose to get. There are a host of inexpensive programs that do not require any prior experience with yoga–not even taking a single class–to get started. I’d guess most people are paying $2,000-3,0o0 or more for an initial 200-hour training, which tends to cover only what YA requires for registration. That means the program is very light on anatomy, and probably doesn’t cover anything about kinesiology or other sciences.

    Another problem to which I do not have hte solution: students do not have easy access to information on how to choose a yoga style or yoga class or yoga teacher.

    \Life is complicated 🙂

  • abbylou

    Once again, a great piece by J. Brown! I’m not a teacher, so I have only armchair wisdom… I am overly flexible in my spine. I tend to injure myself when my spine and pelvis are not properly aligned. Good, knowledgeable teachers stress the importance of spinal/pelvic alignment in preventing injury. Bending knees instead of straight legs or standing with feet hip distance apart instead of together may not be proper classical “alignment,” but both help with proper spinal/pelvic alignment. I wish more teachers would emphasize that lengthening the spine is key and that compressing the spine to contort into the proper classical form of an asana really defeats the whole purpose of an asana practice. It takes time, dedication, and patience to become aware of the central axis and the flow of energy.

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