Taking Yoga (Injuries) Seriously

I usually don't weigh in on the heavy yoga debates, and I'm not about to start now. I have the curse of always being able to see both sides of an issue. But this article about how a woman quit yoga after an injury has been making the rounds and caught my attention.

A few bloggers have criticised the author of the article for quitting, but personally, I don't see that as an issue. Yoga is a personal practice, not a panacea. It's not right for everyone and not everyone will like it. Some people will quit.  So what? The author of the article made her choice, learned something about herself in the process, and found a physical practice that she thought suited her better. It sounds like a happy ending to me.

The issue that I have is that this woman was medically diagnosed with high blood pressure and was not aware, or made aware, of the potential impacts, or told that she shouldn't be doing inversions, especially not intense inversions like headstand and handstand.  The resulting injury she suffered led her to quit yoga, rather than to quit inversions - which is her personal choice and it's really not my place to judge, opine, or argue with that. It's a free world, as they say.

From my perspective, reacting to tales of yoga injuries by denying them, defending yoga, or attacking the injured person or their teacher is not a constructive response. Yoga-asana is a physical discipline and the possibility of injury is always there. Find me one yoga practitioner who has never felt the twinge of over-stretching a muscle, fallen over while attempting a balancing pose, received a bad adjustment, or simply wound up feeling dizzy or nauseous while practicing. I think it's our responsibility to acknowledge that the risks are there and to do our best to become safe and knowledgeable practitioners and teachers. We need to remember that the principles of Ahimsa (non-harming), Aparigraha (non-grasping), and Satya (being truthful), among others, are more important to a yoga practice, or teaching yoga, than the asanas.

Being a pragmatist, I have tried to draw out some lessons from this story, and here are a few that I can think of.

1. If you have a medical condition, discuss it with your doctor and your yoga teacher, and do your own research, so that you can make safe choices - and then make them! (Ahimsa!) Don't make the mistake that this woman made, of keeping silent about her new medical condition and finding out the hard way what the consequences were. If neither of them know what to tell you, find a new doctor or a new teacher! And of course, do the research yourself - including drawing on your personal practice - so that you can make safe choices. Everyone is different - it's ok to explore and test your boundaries and find out where your personal limits are - but don't ignore them (Aparigraha - let go!).

2. If you are a teacher, know your contra-indications and always state them. (Satya!) In the reality of teaching large-group classes, we can't always know the medical histories of each and every one of our students. But we can take 10 seconds to make sure we talk about the contra-indications of the classes we are teaching and the poses we are instructing.  Especially with "higher-risk" poses like inversions. [I say higher risk because in a person with untreated high blood pressure, holding a long inversion could potentially lead to serious medical complications, possibly even a stroke. And that deserves to be taken seriously.]
  • Because students often come in late, what I have found best is to make a short announcement after the opening meditation or when I bring the class to standing for the first time. I talk about the level of the class, and if it's a physically demanding class (as I usually teach), I warn people that it might not be appropriate if they are pregnant, or have medical conditions or injuries. 
  • When I talk about contra-indications, I often say "please". As in, "were going to do shoulderstand now, but if you have high blood pressure, please don't go into this pose straight away - just relax until I can come around to you".
This also means learning about conditions that might affect your students as they age - more and more people are practicing or even starting yoga in their golden years, and it's worth the extra study to find out about osteopenia/osteoporosis, high blood pressure or Type II diabetes, for example.

3. If you are a teacher, create a safe space, and actively encourage people to acknowledge their bodies' limitations and explore alternatives.  This doesn't mean you can, or should, force people to stay within artificially drawn boundaries. But you should be able to set the foundation for your students to make informed choices, and create an atmosphere where nobody feels pressured to go too far. (Ahimsa again!)

I'd love your comments and thoughts... Readers, from your experience, what would you add to these suggestions?