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7 Ways Yoga Students Hurt Themselves

By Arielle Nash-Degagne


Injury in yoga seems to be a hot topic these days. The fire started with William Broad’s article in the New York Times, which presented limited information that may have led you to believe that “yoga wrecks your body.” Note, the actual title of the article by Broad was “How Yoga CAN wreck your body.” The article left the yoga community in flames and was critically dissected all over the Internet.  One of the most eloquent responses came from Eddie Stern (read Eddie here), whose sentiments I share.

I chose not to respond to Broad’s article at the time as I had just injured my hamstring in practice and wanted to dig a little deeper into the topic myself. I dug a lot and didn’t come up with much, so I launched the “Ashtanga Yoga Research Project” to find out what was really happening.  The results of that research will be released shortly, however, what I have discovered over 10 years of teaching Ashtanga are some common themes among practitioners who suffer from injury.

Here is what I have found:

  1. Drive for more.  Perhaps Eddie Stern put it best as, “overzealousness”.  Most students come to practice and want to be good. No one wants to go to a yoga class and fail, even though somewhere along the line in Ashtanga asana failing is inevitable.  How a student chooses to respond in the face of the obstacles could prove a detriment to the very “progress” they are chasing.  As a teacher, this is something to look out for in students; is the continuous need to push, do more and go further really serving them?
  2. Incorrect information.  It is possible that at some point the student is given a piece of information, for example, “tuck your tailbone”, which they cling onto.  It may not be wrong, however it’s easily misinterpreted and is unclear.  As a result, the student develops an incorrect movement pattern that eventually leads to chronic pain, or sets the stage for acute injury.
  3. Faulty biomechanics.  Each student comes to the mat with different things, different life experience and physical tendencies.  The body remembers movement patterns whether they are right or wrong. Although we can get through many daily activities moving poorly without pain, once you get moving into deeper things, or repeating movements, pain will inevitably arise.  It is our job as teachers to recognize improper biomechanics and help the student correct them.
  4. Being Mindless. This is how I tore my hamstring. One second I was paying attention, the next in la-la land. I completely let go of any muscle activity,which in asana is an injury just waiting to happen. Without the pelvic floor and core properly engaged, the muscles that require length need to contract to hold the body in position. And if we force, and the protective mechanisms in the nervous system that prevent us from placing too much tension on our tissue don’t activate. The result is a torn muscle or tendon.
  5. Not taking rest.  Even Superman needs Clark Kent.  Six days per week of practice is plenty.  As teachers we need to encourage our students to take rest a minimum of one day per week.  Our bodies need time to rest.  Even six days per week of vigorous practice is a good platform for injuries due to fatigue.  I recommend taking a lighter day mid-week and women should take complete rest on the heaviest days of menstruation.  Research has shown women’s risk for injury is higher during menstruation as low hormone levels contribute to decreased proprioceptive sense.  Also, when we get into a situation of overtraining or fatigue, the body has a hard time recovering from one day to the next. The nervous system gets overloaded, which means muscle recruitment is going to be less efficient. Continuous disregard for “too much” will negate the benefits we are receiving from practice as adrenals get overloaded dealing with the physical stress.
  6. Too much too fast.  When we consider physical activity, any exercise physiologist knows that increasing the demand on our system too fast will have detrimental effects.  A traditional Mysore, self-practice approach to learning Ashtanga under the guidance of a teacher saves students from this pitfall.  An all-levels led class isn’t usually the right choice for beginners.  A beginner’s class or privates are a good place to start.  Foundations need to be set, especially for students who come in highly deconditioned. Overdoing it is a recipe for an overuse injury like tendonitis or a muscle strain.
  7. Pushing Through Pain.  Pain is a signal that something is wrong.  Of course, I’m not talking about general aches that are associated with DOMS, but nagging “not quite right” sorts of pain.  You know, that little twinge in the lower back when you drop back, or the slight discomfort in your shoulder during caturanga.  Not listening to the body’s pain signals is a bad idea.  It doesn’t mean we have to stop doing the things we love, however, it means that we need to assess what’s happening and get it fixed.  Otherwise, it will get worse.  It will not just go away.  The practice has the ability to be used as therapy in such cases, so we can find pain-free movement that will set us up for long-term practice rather than short-term gain.

Re-read the title of this post.  Go ahead, read it.  Closely.  Yes, that’s right, “7 Ways Yoga students hurt THEMSELVES”. Unfortunately, in the face of physical injury, we often look for something or someone to blame and too often those taking the hit are the teacher or the practice method itself.  Instead, we must take responsibility for ourselves within the practice and pass that attitude onto our students. Personally, I see a great opportunity for learning in the face of injury.  Instead of blame, we need inquiry and openness to the education that the injury can provide.

If you’re interested in learning about the common injuries in yoga practice, how to work with them and also how to prevent them, check out my next Advanced Teacher Training at Samahita Retreat: Practical Anatomy – The Next Step in Teaching and Adjusting with Integrity June 18-July 2, 2016.

Article Name
7 Ways Yoga Students Hurt Themselves
Injury in yoga seems to be a hot topic these days. The fire started with William Broad’s article in the New York Times, which presented limited information that may have led you to believe that “yoga wrecks your body.”Note, the actual title of the article by Broad was “How Yoga CAN wreck your body.”

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