Yoga Injury Prevention: How World-Class Yoga Teachers Get World-Class Yoga Injuries
Part 1 (of 4 Parts)
An Introduction to Some Basic Realities of
Yoga Injuries and Yoga Injury Prevention
Not many yoga teachers wanted to admit to this …
But a few years ago word was slowly getting out, and various controversies emerged, about increasing reports of yoga and stretching related injuries. This was as early as the 1980s. Then William Broad published his book on such injuries — The Science of Yoga (2012, Simon & Schuster) — and was featured in a New York Times article under the controversial title, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body”
Michaelle Edwards also came out with a website on yoga injuries, revealing names of some very prominent teachers — and “victims* ” of injury — in the greater yoga community. And, based on her work as a bodywork therapist, proposed some solutions for Yoga Injury Prevention.
* It is interesting that one definition of “victim” is “a living creature killed as a religious sacrifice.” That begs the question, do some yoga teachers suffer because of a “religious fervor” with which they pursue their yoga practice?
The eclectic Elephant Journal also had some stories on such problems.
GOOGLE: elephant journal yoga injuries
Then we have Matthew Remski who created quite a stir with his work on “What Are We Doing In Asana?”
TRULY A WORLD-WIDE PHENOMENON
Now, it’s no longer much of a secret that some of THE most highly trained yoga teachers in the world developed severe yoga & stretching related injuries over the last several years. Some of these world-class teachers had injuries so bad they submitted to various surgeries, including hip & knee replacements and spinal disc surgeries. Other joints were affected, too, such as the shoulder joints or wrists.
I was even contacted by a former president of the Australian Yoga Association about such issues. He also reported that along with his own injuries leading to giving up yoga, he knew several other prominent and widely known yoga teachers in Australia who’ve had surgeries or were enduring a lot of pain and dysfunction, some to the point they could no longer even demonstrate certain yoga postures.
Others reported on observing or being a recipient of a fairly brutal level of treatment by some of the best known and respected yoga teachers in the world, including in ashrams in India. And these were relatively common complaints, not rare, isolated incidents.
Maybe the fact that when 99 percent of yoga postures were introduced into yoga from Europe about a hundred years ago, the military are among the first to adapt such “yoga” exercises. Indian wrestling was a main force in developing “modern” yoga as well. So if you were to get the idea that yoga from India was to a great degree militaristic and forceful, you would be correct.
[Please See my Article, Yoga Is Not From India https://www.letgoyoga.com/yoga-not-from-india/ ]
So this truly is a world-wide phenomena. It is NOT just hyper-aggressive, “Westernized” yoga classes in America that are more like fitness workouts. They did not “lose the essence” of what “traditional yoga” was all about, IF you are referring mostly to the commonly recognized yoga postures.
The high-intensity, very psychologically and physically aggressive approach to yoga was founded in India as much as anywhere. And many of the teachers of the Indian system were equally aggressive in their approach to teaching, and were themselves responsible for many of the injury prone approaches to yoga.
So it becomes clear that Yoga Injury Prevention will not necessarily emerge just by doing yoga the way it’s done in India. And just maybe, that’s part of the problem? Maybe the originating in European Gymnastics and initial adaptation of these exercises as a physical fitness routine used in the military and wrestling produced an attitude in the posture that made injury more likely, not less?
Yet for years, many practitioners were hesitant to say anything “negative” about their revered gurus or teachers, and often turned the blame toward themselves, or “American culture,” rationalizing and even justifying the authoritarian and borderline violent* behaviors and attitudes of their teachers. Or that they had just not been able to get into that “perfect alignment” they were told was The Key to safety in postures.
* Violent defined: Involving physical conflict. [OR] Intensely vivid.
While formerly only a trickle of reports came through, today, more people have come forth, telling their stories of yoga-related injury and abuse, often risking being ostracized by their peers. And of course, William Broad’s book kind of blew the doors off the issue.
THE “USUAL SOLUTIONS” ARE NOT SO RELIABLE
This unfortunate result includes teachers of the most, supposedly, “proper alignment” and “awareness,” sometimes even ”spiritual,” oriented yoga systems out there. Yet we are so often told that “proper alignment” and “listening to your body” are among the best ways to prevent injury. …
Of course, for some not so “tuned in,” or the many NOT so internally sensitive people (through no fault of their own), it’s like, “Listen to What?” … Some beginners have NO idea what “listening to my body” really means.
Some highly advanced yoga teachers don’t really know, either. For some of them, “playing the edge” means “pushing the limits as far as I can tolerate.” And maybe even a little more, and then, just “breath through it.” Very often, the pain or discomfit or resistance backs off. … But at what cost?
Then there’s the issue of so many people having hidden neuromuscular tensions that directly resist moving into such “perfect alignment.” So they are pitting one muscle group against another — using willpower, and overriding the subtle sensations of resistance warning them of danger — to push or pull their body into the desired “perfect alignment.”
It is VERY easy to confuse “willpower” (focusing on changing what is toward something else, the opposite of mediative mind) for “focused attention” (being with what is in this moment, or meditative mind). … Yet they are in reality like night and day.
The trick is to become more clear on the deep nature of willpower, mediation and intention, three stages along the spectrum of awareness.
Getting ahead of myself for a moment, in the approach to “playing the edge” I utilize, if you are “tolerating” any sensation AT ALL, you are already, by definition, over your edge. … And my system, Let-Go Yoga, is far more focused on meditative relaxation and intention, and very little on willpower driven perfection of postures, if at all.
WARMING UP: NOT SUCH A HOT IDEA
And let’s not forget “warming up.” Surely that will solve a lot of problems, right? … RIGHT?
Yet one of the most revered of all “warm ups” is Sun Salutations, which are quite an active series of movements. Yet too many beginners or already injured people (sometimes without even knowing it) cannot do Sun Salutations without causing some significant problems. Wrist and shoulder, even elbow injuries, are common. In reality, such people have to get “warmed up” to do their warm up! …
That’s IF they should be doing Sun Salutations at all. Sun Salutations are FAR more advanced than most teachers are willing to acknowledge.
HERESY ALERT: I might get myself into trouble here, but, that’s nothing new. … Many years ago, mid-1970s, when Swami Rama had his Himalayan Institute in Glenview, Illinois, he held a yoga conference at the institute. There was a yoga professor from India speaking at the event. At lunch break, I was walking with him down the path to the food service, and I asked him what he thought about Sun Salutations? He looked around, then quietly said, “Sun Salutations very good for people who not want to do serious yoga practice.” … Yet there are many books written revering Sun Salutations as approaching spiritually enlightening practices. … So much for unanimity among the Yoga Elite about what’s good or not. … I personally think they CAN be VERY good exercises when a person is correctly “warmed up,” and shows no sign of prior problems that might cause trouble later. But they are NOT beginner level, if you ask me.
The problem is too many “warm ups” focus on the tissues “out there” in the periphery, and to not address the deeper source of tension in the central nervous system and brain. That needs to be addressed as much as the “heat” in the soft tissues to be a truly effective warm up.
In fact, in one of my e-books, I describe how warming the tissues without also addressing the deeper, internal sources of tension in the central nerve system and brain actually deprives you of many of the deeper, system-wide benefits of yoga. This, along with understanding the drawbacks to Perfect Alignment and how to work with it, go a long way in discovering how to maximize results while minimizing injury in yoga.
STENGTH, WEAKNESS & PROPER POSTURE(S)
Or how about “strength”? Surely you need to build a lot of strength to successfully do such poses? … That sounds logical. How can you hold yourself up in Downward Dog if your arms are too weak?
But if that’s the problem, why can very little children do most of these poses, including Downward Dog, quite energetically, with little or no effort or trouble? … What fitness, yoga or Pilates classes did THEY go to at such a young age?
ANSWER: proper posture, flexibility and fluid movement are seldom about “strengthening” allegedly “weak” muscles. It’s about maintaining muscles in the Relaxed, Lengthened & Balanced state we were born with. Yes, an increase in strength and coordination is a good thing, up to a point. Yet these are not THE determining factors in the fundamentals of flexibility, posture and movement.
It’s not mostly about strengthening an allegedly “weak” body, but UN-learning accumulated tension & stress patterns interfering with our structure, posture & movement. Many feelings of being “weak” are actually because over-contracted and shortened muscles on one side of a joint are fighting the over-lengthened yet still over-contracted muscle(s) on the other side of the joint, which are in a pseudo-weakened state. It’s an internal tug-of-war, quickly becoming exhausting. Or worse.
Even worse than that, too many people are forcibly pushing against their own opposing muscles, and such tugs-of-war can easily lead to joint compression, one of THE biggest causes of dysfunction and pain, or worse.
View Detailed Version of Bent Neck Graphic
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So, why does “strengthening” seem to work so often?
One not so obvious thing about strengthening muscles through contraction-based exercise is doing so activates sensory-feedback nerve loops producing various short- to mid-term improvements including some relaxation of tension, stress or habit patterns. And very often, physical activity can “blow off” stress on a short-term, temporary basis.
This produces short-term reduction in tension patterns that otherwise cause trouble. Yet there is not necessarily a fundamental change deeper in the nervous system and brain, where it really counts. Without those deeper changes in nerve firing patterns of nerves, any change is only temporary, and not very deep.
Yet very often, along with strengthening, working in the background are longer-term negative factors. That’s because strengthening movements tend to contract and chronically over-shorten muscles, reducing their ability to generate force. And, they eventually get in the habit of staying contracted. Other muscles get over-lengthened, and they become equally dysfunctional, or worse.
The dysfunction of over-shortened and/or lengthened muscle fibers is called “Active Insufficiency” for over-shortened muscles, and “Passive Insufficiency” for over-lengthened muscles.
And if you are pushing or pulling yourself into so-called Perfect Alignment with ANY degree of force at all, then you are contracting muscles. Do that often enough, even with low levels of force, and a habitual contraction pattern forms in your musculo-fascial units.
In such states, no matter how much fundamental force your body can generate, it cannot be converted into actual movement and strength. And endurance is even more compromised. You end up with “pseudo-weakness,” and are easily misled to believe you need to “strengthen” those muscles with some kind of contraction-based exercise.
And so you try to “strengthen” even more, further compounding you problems.
Again, I am not saying exercise for strength and endurance is a bad thing. We need it. However, if that is not fully balanced with TRS (tension reduction strategies) and continual focus on Relaxing, Lengthening & Balancing your musculo-fascial system, problems are far more likely to develop.
RELAX & LENGTHEN INTO BALANCE
The REAL solution is to FIRST return the muscle cells back to proper relaxation and balance. THEN you can more accurately determine if and where truly fundamental weakness is. All that premature “strengthening” then, risks creating even MORE insufficiency. Focusing primarily on strength is the opposite of creating relaxed, fluid movement and a balanced structure and posture.
For example, strengthening the back muscles can superficially give us short-term “better posture” by pulling our spine more upright. Yet in reality, when standing upright and carrying no weight, your back muscles actually relax and lengthen when your body is operation correctly. You do NOT need “strong back muscles” just to stand upright.
But if the REAL problem is over-shortened abdominal and/or gluteal and hamstring muscles on the front of torso or backs of hips & legs (which it VERY often is) then strengthening the back muscles without sufficient relaxing & lengthening of the other, opposing muscles leads to long-term imbalance, exhaustion and eventual compression of the spinal vertebrae and disks, as well as even more stress on the involved muscles.
And because of significant misunderstandings about the functions of so-called “Core” muscles, most people think their abdominal muscles are “lax” or “weak” causing things like love hands & pot belly. Yet most people’s ideas of how “the Core” works leads them off in a wrong direction (issues of excess adipose tissue [fat] not withstanding).
This is one of my problems with so many teachings on yoga, including endless articles on the internet. There is an incessant focus on “strength,” and they have no idea how much they are compromising their readers, and probably their-selves, with too much focus on strength before discovering the path to first Relaxing, Lengthening & Balancing their muscles.
If you ever get up around the Gloucester, Massachusetts area on Cape Ann, one of my students and a long time bodywork and yoga therapist, Margi Green, has taken many of my concepts, combined with her own experience, and created a program called Relax & Lengthen. It’s really a low-intensity, high-health, more meditative yoga class, but the term “Relax & Lengthen” really says what it is. … Margi is also and excellent hands-on bodyworker and she is VERY well Loved and Trusted by all her Clients.
Her website is www.margigreen.com
Next installment of this series will get into even more of the misconceptions we run into in yoga that often make Yoga Injury Prevention difficult.
[CONTINUED IN THE NEXT POST IN THE NEXT FEW DAYS … PLEASE WATCH FOR IT!]
Are YOU At Risk for Yoga Injuries?
If You Are A Yoga Teacher,
Are YOUR Students At Risk For Yoga Injury?
Do You KNOW How To Prevent Most Injuries?
Discover How to MAXIMIZE RESULTS While MINIMIZING INJURY in the Practice and/or Teaching of Yoga. … How To GET CONTROL by LETTING GO of Tension, Stress & Habit Patterns with my e-Book, Simple Steps to Let-Go Yoga
David Scott Lynn (DSL*)
* DSL: Your Hi-Touch Up-Link to the Inner-Net
Inner-Net: Your Psycho-Neuro-Musculo-Fascial System