A staggering 37 million Americans now practice yoga, and the number just keeps climbing. That’s not surprising, since scientific studies show that yoga not only improves flexibility, balance, strength and coordination but also boosts mood, improves breathing, reduces joint pain, eases headache and promotes cardio and circulatory health.
With so much going for it, could yoga possibly have a downside? New research has raised some questions. Here are the facts…
A TROUBLING FINDING?
In a study published in June 2017 in Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, Australian researchers found that more than 10% of the yoga participants studied reported musculoskeletal pain each year from yoga.
That may sound like bad news for yoga devotees, but there’s more to the research. Among those studied, 74% reported that existing pain was improved with yoga.
THE BIG 4 YOGA INJURIES
Yoga is safe for most people—especially when the individual practicing it respects any physical limitations that he/she might have. To reduce the odds of injury, people with certain medical conditions, such as herniated disk, osteoporosis, spinal stenosis, arthritis, a meniscus tear of the knee or glaucoma, should get their doctors’ OK before trying yoga. For each of these conditions, there are suitable, safe modifications to the classic poses.
When a person does get hurt while doing yoga, it’s likely to involve one of the so-called “Big 4”—the neck…shoulder…lower-back region…or knees, according to a survey of 33,000 yoga practitioners.
Neck injuries often stem from such poses as the shoulder stand or plow—both of which can involve excessive pressure on the cervical spine.
Shoulder woes can result from doing a pose such as the side plank.
Low-back pain can be triggered by forward-bends, back-bends and extreme twists.
A knee injury can result from the Lotus pose, in which the shins are brought dramatically inward.
TO STAY SAFE
When practicing yoga, you should always be cautious performing poses that involve any areas of your body where you’ve suffered a previous injury or experienced pain in the past. In addition, these under-recognized factors increase one’s risk for yoga injuries…
Risk factor #1: Your ego. We all want to do our yoga poses as instructed, but sometimes people come to yoga class to show off physically. This form of egotism, perfectionism or competition was shown in the research mentioned above to be one of the leading reasons that people hurt themselves while doing yoga.
My advice: Don’t compete with your classmates. Slow down…breathe deeply…and pay close attention to your body’s cues. When you feel you’re reaching your limit, don’t try to exceed it. Just come comfortably close to it, and after a few weeks, your limit will recede.
Risk factor #2: Choosing the wrong yoga teacher or studio. Even though they should know better, many yoga teachers aren’t immune to these same competitive forces.
My advice: Be thoughtful when choosing a yoga instructor. Look for a teacher who has…
• Iyengar, Anusara or International Association of Yoga Therapists training or certification—this will also help ensure that the instructor has a sound understanding of anatomy, which reduces the odds that you’ll be given poses or verbal cues that could cause injury.
• At least five years of experience—a reasonable period for an instructor to see the common conditions that can lead to an injury.
• An openness to learn about your health issues or preexisting pain (such as a bad back or bum knee) and a willingness to help you modify poses to make them safer. This may include, for example, positioning a folded blanket under your shoulders during a shoulder stand or the plow to take pressure off the neck.
Helpful: Watch a class before taking it to see if the teacher follows the points mentioned above. Also, take a few minutes to speak to a new teacher before the start of any class to let him/her know your vulnerabilities and/or consider taking a private lesson to learn accommodations for your limitations.