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A student asks: Do you have a response to the New York Times article article called “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body?” As a yoga teacher, how can I be safe in my own teaching and practice? A link to the article is below.
Thanks for the question. I’ve been forwarded this article several times in the past 24 hours. Let me start with a qualification to my response: I teach in a lineage, viniyoga, that is known for its conservative approach, and even within that lineage, I am known as a conservative teacher. I have long been concerned about the injury rate and what I consider negligent practices in many public yoga classes. So I can’t really disagree with much of the article.
However, the article also makes me sad, because it lumps all asana practices together into one bucket. Although I do believe most lineages have similar philosophical teachings, our physical practices differ considerably. So to say the injury rate is the same among all is a gross oversimplification—and just plain incorrect. When I read the specific practices the article cited as being unsafe, I kept saying to myself “But I would never teach that.”
Many public yoga classes do, however. For example, the head of my lineage has specifically asked that we never teach headstand in group asana classes, due to the unacceptable level of risk. Therefore I do not, nor do I allow headstand to be taught at my studio, unless it is part of my yoga teacher training program. However, I’ve had many students tell me they were taught headstand in beginner classes at other venues.
I believe this is a mistake. Many, most even, of the benefits of yoga can be achieved in simpler, safer poses than the ones seen on the cover of Yoga Journal.
All that said, I find it interesting that the teacher in the article claiming to be a proponent of safer yoga said to his class, “I make it as hard as possible. It’s up to you to make it easy on yourself.” This is, in a word, wrong.
I firmly believe it is up to us as teachers to teach a class that isn’t as hard as possible. But to teach our students how to be mindful and aware of how their body is served when it’s not working “as hard as possible.” Our work is to teach our classes in a way that is accessible and safe.
Now no physical practice, including yoga, will ever be 100% risk free. Neither is walking down the street. We can never guarantee a student won’t suffer an injury in a yoga class. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do everything in our power to keep our classes safe.
Which comes back to your question. What can we do as teachers?
First, get training. Then get more training. Study a lineage, like viniyoga, that focuses on understanding the physical issues of a student and adapts the practice of yoga to that student. This involves not only teaching mindfulness in practice, but also using physical adaptation of postures and specific sequencing principles that maximize the benefits of yoga while minimizing its risks. Shy away from teachers and yoga styles that believe “one form fits all” regardless of the physical structure of the student.
Second, understand the level of your students and teach to that level. Not your own level. Not what your students wish was their level. Not even what your students think is their level. You will lose some students this way. But you will gain others.
Just yesterday I had two new students in my class. They didn’t know each other, and they had different yoga experiences in the past. Both of them came up to me after class and thanked me for making my “all levels” class accessible to them. They told me they had been frightened to take a yoga class again, after having been asked to do things beyond their level in other “all levels” yoga classes in other venues.
“All levels” classes should be accessible to all levels. Not taught to experienced students with the assumption that beginners and students with injuries will know when something is unsafe for them and choose not to do it. And beginner’s classes should be beginner’s level. Period.
Finally, if you don’t know how to keep a student safe in your class, don’t teach to that student. There are cases in which a given class is not appropriate for a student. We can’t be shy about letting him or her know that. The more training and experience you have, the more you will be able to accommodate a wide variety of students. But even with the highest level of training, group yoga classes aren’t appropriate for everyone. Know when to say “no.”
I hope that helps!