Saturday, January 28, 2012

How not to injure yourself practicing yoga

My family.  We've injured ourselves more times than we care to remember. This photo was taken after another of our little adventures.

I am really pleased some of my students thought to send me an article about yoga published in the New York Times recently (thanks Christina!).  I've copied the link here so you can read the article for yourself (always a good idea to go to the source).   If you can't find it then just google the title, "How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body".  The title gives you an idea of what the article is about!

The article uses an interview with an experienced yogi and some selective anecdotes about people who have been injured practicing yoga.  There are stories of strokes and arthritis and spinal stenosis and thoracic outlet syndrome and you could possibly walk away after reading this story feeling like a yoga classroom is some sort of casualty ward and wonder why I don't have a medical team on stand-by for you all! 

Of course you can injure yourself while practicing yoga, just like you can injure yourself doing a million other things in life.  I have injured myself doing yoga and am quite open about it in classes, hoping you might learn from my mistakes!  I think I have shared with many of you my famous story of me starting out doing yoga with an obsession to be able to do the splits (hanumanasana), which utltimately lead to a hamstring strain.  But have I told you about how I once fell off a rock climing wall and dissocsiated a bone in my wrist? What about how I fractured my hip running?  How I fell of a slippery dip when I was about ten years old when I tried to walk up it backwards and broke my arm.  What about when I walked into the dark garage bare-footed and stepped on a maddock (a very sharp garden implement if you've never seen one)?  When I was about three I once fell asleep on the toilet (my family has pictures to prove it).  I count myself lucky I did not fall in and drown.

I am not "proud" that I seem to have hurt myself so much, although it does seem to run in the family (my dad, for instance, has been pinned to a tree with a tractor, fell 3 metres out of a tree while trying to prune it, drilled a hole in his hand, broken his thumb when a weights machine he was using broke on him, tripped on a ladder while running at full speed trying to chase 'hoons' who were doing burnouts and generally terrorising his neighborhood.  Spiders have bitten him, snakes have attacked him, he's fought bush-fires, been in combat, and generally had a colourful life.  My sister has gotten away relatively unscathed, with just two broken arms--though she broke them at the same time when a very large 40 year old netballer pushed her out of the way to get to a ball when she was just 14.  She also almost drowned once trying to swim across a lake in a wetsuit that was too big and became water-logged and I would have to say the severity of these incidents outweighs the infrequency).  We like to think of ourselves as "active" and "involved".

Sometimes I have inflamed my old injuries practicing yoga.  But yoga didn't injure me.  I injured myself.  Usually because I was not being mindful.  Mindful to what was happening in my body from moment to moment.  Detecting the subtle changes and warning signs that could indicate I was about to do something wrong.  Either that or I was mindful and I let my ego take over.

Being alive is an inherently dangerous and, ultimately, deadly business indeed (we may not know the details all know how our life story ends).  We can hurt ourselves intentionally and unintentionally.  We can take all of the precautions we want and still end up getting hurt, both physically and emotionally.  Mindfulness is key to everything.

Having said that, here are a few things you should consider while you are practicing yoga to help prevent yourself from getting injured.  I think many of you have heard some of these things before.  I try to make a point of saying them whenever a new person joins the class and I don't think it can hurt to keep repeating them.  They don't just relate to yoga, but to trying not to injure yourself in life as well. 

Don't forget to breathe. 
This, to me, is probably the most important tool you can use to help mindfulness and, therefore, prevent injury (I associate these two things very closely).  Bringing awareness back to your breath helps to place you 'inside' your body and can help to attune you to the subtle (and not so subtle) changes that are going on. There is a dual awareness going on in yoga: the awareness of the breath that directs our attention inward, and the travelling awareness that moves throughout our bodies checking in to make sure everything is ok.

Focussing inward is important as we can often get distracted by what is going on 'out there'.  Sometimes we find ourselves checking out what other people are doing, checking out the hairs on our legs or looking at our fingers/toes wondering if we need a manicure/pedicure (yes, girls, I have seen it in class and I must confess I catch myself doing it too!).   Obviously you need some outward focus in class because you are trying to follow the teacher, but as we practice we are trying to direct most of our attention inward--noticing what the teacher is saying but always coming back to our own bodies and trying to figure out what that means for us.

If it doesn't feel good, it's not good (you don't have to do everything the teacher says)
This leads to another important point.  Sometimes what the teacher is saying or directing you to do is not going to feel good.  If it doesn't feel good, it's not good.  It is important to remember this.  You don't have to do what the teacher tells you to do (obviously, you need to take this statement with a measured intellect because your teacher will be giving you important safety information and tips and you need to listen to those).  You do not have to move into a pose that does not feel good.  Listen to your body.

Take the alternative poses--rest when you need to rest
Something important to remember is that when you come to a yoga class, there are always going to be many different people of different experience and abilitites in the class.  Your teacher will be trying to manage this and will always try to give different options--some easier than others.  You don't have to always take the hard option.  Why not take the easy option?  I like to point out in class that there is always the rest pose.  If you feel tired then take it. You do not have to keep up with everybody else (see point about ego below)!   

Back off the intensity (and find comfort in your pose)
If a pose does not feel good, then it's not good.  We've just established that.  So should you just come out of it completely?  Maybe, maybe not.  Sometimes you might need to come out of the pose completely.  But sometimes you can just reduce the intensity a little and you will find the pose feels much better.  I don't like to burden people with too many 'rules' about yoga.  But a good one to follow if you were into following such things would be to ask yourself  "do I feel comfortable and free?".  If the answer is no, then back off a little until you do.  Find a way to be so comfortable and free in your posture that you could stay there for a few minutes if I asked you to.  Just be careful not to back off so much that you fall asleep unless, of course, that is what you want to do (see my next point).

Learn the difference between a good stretch and a bad one
This is hard.  It is especially hard when you first come to yoga.  If you have not moved your body in a long time, everything can feel uncomfortable.  If you have not stretched your hamstrings before then they are certainly going to let you know when you come to class.  The rule about finding comfort in your pose is a good one.  But if you back off too much in some postures then you might end up being in relaxation the whole time!!  Of course, that is fine (sometimes I do nothing but relax in my own practice, listening to what my body feels it needs on a particular day), as long as that is what you are intending to do.  However, if you are hoping to develop more strength and flexibility this won't happen if you just relax all the time.  Your body  needs to be challenged.  It is about finding just the right amount of challenge.  You need to get intelligent about what your body needs and is feeling.  You need to feel some intensity, but intensity at a manageable level.  Be mindful that the intensity is in the muslces, however, and not the joints (see next point).

Avoid joint strain (free the joints and generate lift)
We are not trying to stretch our joints in class.  If anything is going to get stretched it is your muscles.  Be very clear on this.  You do not want to feel strain in your joints.  Particular areas you need to look out for are knees, wrists, shoulders, elbows, lower back, and neck.  Use your breath awareness to bring you back inside and continue to "check in" on your joints. If you feel any strain then back off (and find comfort in your pose).

I have observed (in myself and others) there is a tendency for people to either lock their joints (particularly knees or elbows) or otherwise to sink into them (particularly wrists, shoulders, lower back).  Your joints should be free to move as you practice (especially the elbows in cobra and upward/downward dog) and you should avoid sinking into them.  To avoid joint strain you need to free the joints and generate lift. 

Talk to me
If you are in a pose and you find you are in discomfort, tell me!  I like to know and I will try to find out why the pose does not feel good and help you to learn how to fix it!  Don't be shy.  It is your body.  You have to live in it and I'd like to help you do so.  

Another point, if you are finding some poses difficult or you don't understand them properly, feel free to ask questions.  Feel free to come up at the end of class.  Feel free to come a bit early to the next class and we can work on it for you.  If you can't do downward dog because it makes you feel sick or your shoulders are funny, talk to me, we'll figure something else out!  There is always another option.  I'd rather help you find that option so you can keep practicing yoga rather than stop altogether because you think there is no way around the issue.

Let go of your ego
Yoga mats are small and there is no room for your ego.  Yoga is not about being the best or beating other people.  It's not a competition (with yourself or anybody else).  Trying to do what other people are doing when you are not ready for it may lead to injury.  Remember you've come to yoga for yourself, not for anybody else and make sure you stay within your own limits.  It does not matter if you can do a particular pose or not.  If you never get to touch your feet on your head in a backbend or do the splits will your life really be the worse for it?

Don't forget to breathe (again)
I'll begin where I started, since it is so important.  Don't forget to breathe.  Focussing on your breath also has a calming effect on your mind, helping to abate anxiety and fear.  I constantly remind myself when I am coming into poses that invoke fear (for me this is pretty much all inversions) to come back to my breath. Fear can stop you reaching your full potential and make you avoid things that might be good for you.  If you practice with fear your body will usually stiffen and become rigid, often because you hold your breath.  Practicing yoga stiffly means you are more likely to injure yourself.  So, if fear arises, come back to the breath.  Make sure you are breathing and not holding your breath.  Also pay attention to whether your breath is becoming too rapid or shallow.  If your breath is getting out of control then you are probably too deep in a pose so back off a bit until your breath relaxes (note that some poses will cause your breath to become shallow and more rapid but you should still feel like you have control of it.  If you don't, back off). 

The end
Sometimes accidents do happen.  Sometimes we are in the wrong place at the wrong time.  It can get us hurt or even killed, no matter how mindful we are.  But injuring yourself, whether it be while you are practicing yoga or doing many of the other activities you might love, can be prevented.  Practice mindfulness, let go of your ego, find comfort in your pose, talk to me, and don't forget to breathe!

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