“Three Safe Steps to Starting on your Yoga Journey.” 

As newcomers to Portland, but not to yoga, we’ve been introducing ourselves to many new neighbors and potential students. We’ve been surprised by the number of people who’ve questioned yoga’s safety. Collectively, we have been teaching yoga for more than 40 years. We are expert in safely guiding newcomers and established practitioners alike.

Yet it seems important to address this concern as we begin the life of our new studio in Portland. In fact one of the very first principles of yoga, like medicine, is to do no harm. As such, the subject of how to practice yoga safely is an appropriate one for our first blog post.

A recent article by William Broad on the science of yoga has been stirring debate about this topic. “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” The New York Times, January 5, 2012) In the article, several well-known yoga teachers talk about both the dangers of yoga as well as the benefits. Yet despite the controversy, nobody seems to actually keep careful track of the numbers of people injured practicing yoga.

The most recent estimate comes from the U. S. Consumer Products Safety Commission. They listed 4,450 reported yoga injuries in 2006 up from 3,760 in 2004. Clearly it is possible to hurt yourself doing yoga as you can in any other form of physical activity. Statistically, however, yoga is relatively safe when compared to 47,360 exercise related emergency room visits attributed to golf or the close to 500,000 attributed to basketball or, bicycling.

How can one get injured practicing yoga? There can be a no-pain, no-gain attitude that yoga students can bring from competitive sports. This attitude can lead to injury if a student pushes too hard or attempts to progress too fast. “The most common form of injury is the overzealous student,” says Dr. Loren Fishman, a spine specialist and yoga teacher in New York City.

In a recent article in The New York Times, Dr. Fishman went on to say that the second most common reason for injury is “poor alignment, and that is usually a result of crummy teaching.”

Then there is the age factor. Many people are coming to yoga after 40. We know from direct experience that the body and nervous system can be temperamental as we age. Yet, yoga can be especially beneficial to this group as they work to build strength and flexibility and improve balance.

Yoga and injury are not meant to be associated with each other. Repeated injury is inconsistent with one of the central principles of yoga -Ahimsa -the practice of non-violence. As you start out on what can be a wonderful lifetime yoga journey please consider following these three safe steps:

Take it slow—The best way to avoid injury, particularly if you have been injured in the past or if your body is stiff or creaky is to take it slow and make sure to nail down the fundamentals. Find instruction that moves at a slower pace and focuses meticulously on proper alignment.

Take care in choosing a teacher—Be discriminating about the teaching and classes you attend. Training for yoga teachers can vary and class sizes in some studios can get so large that it is very difficult for teachers to give personal attention to everybody. Find experienced instruction and hold your instructor to high standards—do some research about your teacher. Has he or she undergone rigorous training? Are they experienced? It can take many years of experience to begin to understand how to teach yoga safely. Do they give clear, precise instructions and monitor you for specific needs due to age or injury? Are the class sizes small enough for the teacher to give you personal adjustment and corrections?

Take personal responsibility for your health—Responsibility for your safety and wellbeing rests not only with your yoga teacher, but also with you. One of our favorite yoga instructors, John Schumacher, distinguishes yoga from exercise by emphasizing the importance of attention and presence of mind in doing yoga. Be attentive and be careful when practicing styles of yoga that have fast repetitive yoga movements. Sometimes moving quickly through your yoga poses does not provide time for dialogue between what you are doing and what you are feeling.

If you have been injured practicing yoga, don’t give up. Injury can happen and injury can be a valuable teacher. Consider trying a style of yoga that more closely matches the requirements of your body in the phase of life you are in…. one that places emphasis on alignment, attention, and presence of mind.