Did you click on this blog as an avid yoga practitioner or a passionate yoga teacher to defend the practice of yoga? Did you see this title and get defensive about the power of yoga for all bodies? Or have you had an experience in which yoga was wrongly or inappropriately recommended to you and led to further injury?
Let me start by saying, I am a yoga instructor and I have been teaching for 4 years. I teach to people with all different abilities, body shapes, of different ages etc. I love the history of yoga, the mindful practice, the movement, and the calming time associated with it. I love yoga as a tool in my mental health toolbox to get my body moving and my mind to slow down. I know that there is a “traditional” way to teach it, and how it’s changed when it moved into Western culture. Some western studios focus more on the physical movement while others also focus on the spiritual aspect – whatever your practice is, the common misconception is that because yoga is supposed to be relaxing, many people believe that anyone can do it. But often, yoga is very challenging for most bodies and can be a poor recommendation for some people.
The twitter thread posted above is a long one – diving into the different injuries and issues that can and have been caused by attending a yoga class that doesn’t take into consideration people’s different bodies. There is also discussion about how yoga is generalized when being recommended because it is typically a gentle stretch, but many bodies that are being recommended yoga can actually be further hurt by stretching because they have a condition that can be worsened by this exercise, need to be strengthened in specific ways, or are already hypermobile. Feel free to scroll through the thread if interested, I will touch on some quotes and specific tweets throughout the rest of this post.
When I’m teaching a yoga class, especially when I’m teaching virtually and can’t be there in person to help someone, I try to remind students that THEY are the expert of their body and need to be aware of the potential of injury during yoga. I can offer as many modifications and options to poses as I personally know at the time, but as someone who does not have the lived experience of EVERY SINGLE INJURY OR CONDITION that someone might be living with, I cannot claim to be an expert in teaching all bodies. I personally believe that no one is an expert in teaching, however, this might be the occupational therapy side of me. As an occupational therapist, I approach all of my clients and their families with the belief that they are the experts of their situations, and that without their knowledge, our sessions will not be as great as they could be. I believe that yoga should be approached with this same humility.
“The problem is literally all of them (yoga instructors) think they have this knowledge”
In interacting through this twitter thread, people’s experience spoke loudly to the fact that many teachers DON’T recognize they aren’t all knowing. The speaker of this quote above spoke about how most yoga instructors don’t learn injury or condition specific stretches and strengthening poses in teacher training, yet don’t realize they are missing this information when they teach. While I was in my teacher training, I had just finished my Bachelors of Science specializing in kinesiology – in simple terms, I took a LOT of anatomy courses. This meant that when we were learning the anatomy of the poses, I understood easily what each pose was stretching, which poses were strengthening, and what you needed to be concerned about for injury. This meant that for me, coming up with alternatives or modifications to poses when someone has an injury is a little bit more natural. However, some of the teachers in my training were brand new to anatomy, which required them to work a lot harder, and to have a bit more trouble coming up with modifications on the spot. This isn’t the end of the world as a yoga instructor because if you are preparing poses, you can always prepare alternatives in advance with the help of the internet. However, you have to be able to be humble and recognize that in trying to create a safe space for students, we might end up in conversation with someone about an injury they have, and then it is important to be confident in your knowledge that you either know a safe modification or don’t.
As a teacher, be humble, recognize if you don’t know something and be transparent with your students. It will be safer for their bodies, and reflect in a better light on you.
As a student, it is important to learn about your own body and what it can and cannot (or rather, should and shouldn’t) do. I am all for believing that everyone can do whatever they desire, regardless of their abilities, education, background etc – but it’s important to know if you are able to do this safely or not. Some doctors know that yoga is good for people and so they recommend it to many, but some don’t realize that yoga is more than just a gentle stretch and may cause injuries. Yoga instructors and life coaches often recommend yoga to help relax the mind, connect with the body etc… but it is always important to do research into physical activity recommendations specific to your own body and any injuries or conditions you might have. Every body is different.
“Some will never be able to do it (yoga) because of how we are built while others who can do yoga have conditions that would never be affected by any amount of yoga”
While it is true that some people may never be able to do yoga because of their bodies, even people who CAN do yoga and consider themselves a yogi or yoga practitioner, are not protected from injury. Regardless of your body type, experience with yoga and your self proclaimed skill, there is such a thing as TOO MUCH yoga. Yoga Journal influencer, Laura Burkhart, shares this article (see here) about her personal experience with yoga related injury and how to start being more aware of your body’s limitations. Just because you CAN do something well, doesn’t mean you SHOULD be doing it to the extreme – even good things require moderation. And just because you can do a certain pose one day in class, doesn’t mean you can’t take modifications another day. Our bodies change daily depending on what you’ve done that day, what your emotions are experiencing, how much sleep you’ve gotten, stress levels etc. I see this every week during COVID as I teach my Sunday evening classes; if it’s been a day where I’ve moved my body well and felt good I might feel super energetic for class, but if I have been sitting all day or feeling down or anxious, sometimes I can’t demonstrate even the most basic pose. Be humble – even if you’ve been practicing for years and can do the most complicated, instagram photo-esque pose, listen to your body and take the modified version to protect yourself.
This being said, yoga has so many different styles, options and modifications, but I think people don’t know how to think of the way bodies move besides themselves. Yoga teachers often practice in a studio with people who look the same as they do, or have been practicing just as long, and these are often the people they practice teaching on in their teacher training. Teaching someone who has been moving their body a certain way for years and knows exactly what a pose is supposed to feel like is very different than teaching someone who has never done yoga before. “I’m disabled and a chronically ill person that did yoga teacher training, I love yoga and there are so many styles, but most people don’t know how to make that assessment for safety” This is definitely a piece that is often missing from yoga teacher training; aside from warning that some poses are not good for pregnant mothers, and perhaps warning about knee injuries, I don’t recall learning too much about assessing for safety in different bodies. This includes not only beginners, or people with injuries, but also people who have an athletic background but aren’t very experienced with stretching or moving a certain way. And many people don’t realize the difference between finding a stretch, and LOOKING like you’re doing the pose. Watching a teacher demonstrate a pose, looking at a yoga model in a magazine, versus trying to find a proper stretch in your own body, all look VERY different, but may all achieve the same goal.
Long story short – if you are a teacher, start exposing yourself to bodies different than your own and the people who you surround yourself with. If it means volunteering to teach a free class to different groups outside of a studio, reading books about different injuries or conditions, watching videos … whatever gives you a better understanding, do it. Change your instruction from physical pushing to verbal instruction. If you feel that someone can push deeper into a stretch, try to cue them verbally. This way if they understand the cues and can connect that to the movement of their body, they will push a bit further if they can and WANT to – and you don’t run as much risk of injury compared to if you were to use your hands to push them into a stretch. Also start asking for permission to provide hands on adjustments…. adjustment cards that say yes on one side and no on the other, allow for students to change their mind throughout the class on whether they consent to hands on adjustments or not. This allows them to communicate with you if they are nervous about an injury or don’t feel comfortable with other people touching them.
If you’re a student, remember that you are in charge of your body, you know what hurts and what doesn’t, and you know your physical history. If someone is recommending you to try yoga, keep in mind that your yoga teacher probably knows quite a bit about yoga, but maybe not as much about your body, including any limitations, injuries or conditions you might have. Whether you’re an athlete who’s muscles are so tight that they prevent you from getting very deep into a stretch, or someone with hypermobility who should be doing more strengthening than stretching in order to protect their joints, or have any physical limitation that engaging in certain poses may cause harm… be confident in knowing yourself and allow yourself to back out of poses, take different modifications, or find rest instead. There is nothing wrong not doing a pose “fully” or taking the easier modification of a pose. Your body and your health is more important than looking perfect in a yoga pose, or impressing your yoga teacher.
If you have any specific questions about yoga or would like to share your personal experience, please feel free to comment on this post or connect with me personally at firstname.lastname@example.org or on my instagram .