Friday Q&a: Maintaining Yoga Scholars Protected

05 Jan 2018, 2:37pm -

Health Advice

- About Safety
The Path Around the Crater by Melina Meza
Q: One topic that would be helpful to me is what to tell students taking their very first yoga class to keep them safe. I’ve taught an all levels class for 5 years and twice during that time a student told me later “I really liked your class but the day after the class my shoulder hurt so badly that I had bad pain for about 6 months. I don’t know what it was” (both men…) So I’d say obviously they had some undiagnosed condition that the yoga brought to light. And my question for them was … wondering why during that 6 months you didn’t see a doctor to see what was wrong???!!!

And I have to confess it happened to me during my own yoga training. The instructor was teaching revolved pyramid pose and demonstrated the full expression of the pose with her hand flat on the floor. (Not suggesting that if you are over 60 and haven’t been doing yoga daily for many years, please use a block…) So it looked easy to me and I did it just fine but woke up next day with severe pain in my SI joint on one side and had it for about 6 months.

I do have all new students fill out a medical questionnaire so I know if they have high blood pressure, osteoporosis, pregnancy and 10 other conditions so I know how to modify for them. But what about people who don’t know they have something wrong?

So other than “if it hurts don’t do it” and “if it makes you dizzy keep head above heart” which I always say to newbies, what would you say to keep new people from harming themselves?

A: Although we’ve written about this topic in the past, it is important enough to revisit regularly. So thanks for this opportunity!

I’ll start by saying in our postHow to Stay Safe While Practicing Yogawe wrote about how practitioners should keep themselves safe, and that those recommendations could be helpful for teachers looking for ways to keep their students safe as well. They include: 1) informing your teacher about injuries or health issues (this is still the first thing I ask when meeting a new student), 2) pay attention to pain, 3) listen to your breath, 4) rest if you need to, 5) stay balanced, 6) use props, 7) resist peer pressure; 8) only do inverted poses if they are OK for you, 9) talk to your doctor. (To unpack the details of these recommendations, see How to Stay Safe While Practicing Yoga). Nina also did a smash-up job in her post Our Advice for Staying Safe of bringing together all the various posts we have done over the years that relate to the topic of safety. So start by checking these two resources for both yoga students and teachers, if you have not already read them.

Next, it worth acknowledging again, as we have done in the past, that practicing yoga postures as we do in most modern yoga classes is a form of physical exercise and as such carries with it an inherent risk of injury, however small. In all likelihood, as our reader noted for herself (and I have had happen, also), at some point in the course of taking yoga classes over time, you will likely tweak, sprain or strain something, for a myriad of possible reasons (which are not the focus of this discussion). The good news is that in the vast majority of those cases, things well settle down and resolve within in a reasonable amount of time. But the important thing to acknowledge is that they can and may happen, despite our best efforts as teachers and students to practice safely.

Anyone who had been to a new studio recently knows that the first thing you do after signing in for class and handing over your credit card is fill out a liability release form. So studio owners are well aware of this reality! And for my trainees in yoga teacher training courses, I often suggest that at their very first introductory yoga class for new students that the teachers should set realistic expectations for the students from the start by mentioning the fact that—just as there is from any type of exercise—there is a possibility of injury from yoga and that this is why it is important to follow safety guidelines.

I appreciate that our reader has an intake form that she has her students fill out, and hope she has time to read it over before the student starts the first class. In addition, one might include in the intake form our list of nine things for students to do to stay safe in class and ask the students to read it through and sign off after doing so. As for those who have something wrong they don’t know about there is little you can do about that as a teacher, as we are not psychic. (And you, as a teacher, should never conclude someone has a pre-existing condition if you don’t know it for a fact). However, when students do come up and ask me about some ache or pain that they are having, it is a great opportunity to find out if they have had it evaluated by their health care provider, and, if not, encourage them to do so. Remember, you are yoga teachers, not diagnosticians! (Please see Drawing a Line in the Sand: Where Yoga Teachers Should Not Go.)

Finally, here are some additional things I often say to beginners to help keep them safe:
  • If you are brand new to yoga, start by being patient with yourself in your attempts to learn and master the pose; you have the rest of your life to work on these and no deadline!
  • If you are not used to doing much physical activity or feel disconnected from your body, it may take you a while to hear, sense, and understand the messages of your body as you practice. At first, you may overdo it and the next day your body will let you know that. You will get better at this with practice. So again, be patient with yourself.
  • Even if you have been engaged in and enjoyed competitive activities in the past yoga practice is not a competition. When you become competitive, you often don’t hear your body’s messages as well! And that’s when you compromise your safety.
  • —Baxter

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