In less than a decade, yoga has gone from being a relatively obscure discipline practised mostly by hippies and dharma bums to a full-blown fitness phenomenon.
But the sudden explosion of this form of Eastern mind-body communion has had its downside. We North Americans are creatures of our hyper culture and seem to have a lot of trouble cluing in to yoga's restrained pace. This has resulted in a mounting number of injuries - to necks, backs, knees, and other joints, muscles and ligaments.
Many students have trouble grasping the fact that the physical practice of yoga, called asanas, is only one aspect of what is really a spiritual tradition. The discipline also includes pranayama (breathing) savasana (relaxation), dhyana (meditation), vedanta (proper thinking) and following a vegetarian diet (one of the main aspects of ahimsa or non-violence).
But we are a nation of dabblers, and the notion that we could raise self-awareness while lowering body fat and the accompanying conception that one might be intrinsically linked to the other are just too alluring. Yoga is not just a workout. It is not a competition. You can't win at it. And as one of our experts says, "no pain, no gain" went out with the 80s - though some teachers believe injury can be a good thing because it forces you to reassess your practice, and maybe your ego.
Our societal addiction to mania, however, isn't the only injury risk factor. Although the city has many wonderful instructors, there's no way of knowing if yours is one of them, since no governing body monitors teaching qualifications. As an instructor myself, I was struck by how unprepared many members of my teacher training course seemed when graduation time rolled around.
Then there's the greed factor which can lead to overcrowded classrooms. You deserve to have a teacher who has the time to curb your over-zealous efforts and correct bad positioning.
To minimize injury, always declare your ailments so the instructor can guide you accordingly. For example, those with high blood pressure, glaucoma, a detached retina, a severely blocked nose or a recent neck injury should avoid the headstand.
Those with bad backs should go easy on back bends, and, yes, you can actually hurt your knees by overdoing the lotus position. Knees also get injured from falling out of the headstand. Hamstrings get pulled from overstretching and there's a potential for wrist injuries from overextending during downward dog and from arm balancing postures like the crow.
Many people expect yoga practice to be easy because it's "just stretching." But make no mistake, getting your feet behind your head is hard. Listen to your teacher. There are few things more annoying to instructors than students who refuse to take instructions and put themselves in danger.
what the experts say
"The main reasons for injury are inattention and excessive ego attachment. The ego gets in the way and says, 'I'm going to get my nose to my knee no matter what.' When we give ourselves these messages, we are not honouring our present condition. It's important to practise with energy and effort , and essential to practise with patience . We encourage students to start their practice with an elevated intention , for example, to make others happy.Thus the small self is put aside to make space for mindfulness and compassion."
JEANNINE WOODALL , co-founder, Jivamukti Yoga, Toronto
"Some yoga focuses a lot on flexibility and not enough on the specific strengths and balance of some of the core muscles. What ends up happening is that you gain quite a bit of flexibility, but there is such a thing as too much. If you have too much mobility in the joints and not enough strength to protect them, you can wind up with wear and tear that leads to degeneration down the road. You have to make sure you do specific strengthening exercises . Balancing yoga with Pilates doesn't cover all the bases either."
MICHELLE DeMARCHI , osteopath and physiotherapist
"Go slowly. Don't try to do too much too soon. Listen to your body. Consult a health professional before starting, and a yoga professional when you start. Treatment consists of reduction of inflammation and pain, increase in flexibility and strength, and supervised return to normal activity. (Healing could involve) physio , massage , chiropractic , acupuncture , shockwave treatment , orthopedic surgery , nutrition , psychology and kinesiology ."
GRANT LUM , MD, Athlete's Care Sports Medicine, Toronto
"In any situation, if you apply ego too much, you will sustain injury. Simply put, you get hurt if things don't turn out the way you want. In Buddhism, we use the words 'wholesome or unwholesome' and 'skilful or unskilful.' Sometimes you have to figure out how much is wholesome and when it becomes unwholesome. You can use ego skilfully or unskilfully, negatively or positively."
SAMU SUNIM , Zen priest and teacher at the Toronto Zen Buddhist Temple
"You need a teacher who recognizes that we can't all do the poses the same way , who doesn't force you to do a pose but supports you in your efforts. You need to feel safe, as yoga will affect you emotionally and spiritually as well as physically."
BETH BEECH , president, Federation of Ontario Yoga Teachers