Don’t Drink and Asana: 7 Ways to Practice Safe Yoga

Outdoor yoga class

Author: Jami Crook

Published Date: September 28, 2020

“Yoga is the journey of the self, through the self, to the self.”  – The Bhagavad Gita

Yoga is an eastern holistic approach to well-being that originated thousands of years ago. While the yoga that most of us are familiar with today bears little resemblance to the yoga that began 3500 years ago in the Himalayas, one of the fundamental properties of the tradition is its adaptability to meet the needs of contemporary cultures.  The term yoga means “to unite”, and the practice of yoga combines asana (poses), pranayama (breathing techniques), and Dhyana (meditation) to promote a balanced and healthy lifestyle.  

Unfortunately, the westernization of yoga has distorted this time-honoured practice to the point where, in many cases, it is just another form of exercise, with studios popping up on every corner and gyms everywhere lumping yoga in with spinning, Pilates, and other fitness classes. 

Don’t get me wrong: yoga can provide a fabulous workout – but this is only one aspect of a practice originally meant to keep the body, mind, and spirit healthy.  It is a lifestyle, not just a sport, and as a yoga practitioner and instructor, as well as a physiotherapist, the representation of yoga in the western hemisphere causes me great concern.

The most frightening issue is that literally anyone can call themselves a yoga teacher.  It is not a regulated profession, and there is disturbingly little standardization of training.  In fact, this is the very reason yoga is not currently covered by personal health insurance in Canada and the US.  

Once, when I was working in a hospital, we had a few students on placement with us.  I can’t quite recall which department they were from, but I do know they were not physiotherapy students, because we could only take one of those at a time.  What I do clearly remember was my colleague telling one of them to connect with me because we were both yoga teachers.  I was immediately intrigued and asked her where she had done her training.  Her response: “I took an 8-hour course online.”

Woman, you are definitely NOT a yoga teacher.

While there is little disagreement about both the physical and mental health benefits of the practice, unfortunately absolutely anyone can upload a video to the internet showcasing themselves doing an advanced pose or running through a sequence they created.  But ironically, if you actually are a certified yoga instructor, most professional liability insurance policies prohibit doing exactly that, the rationale being that you cannot monitor your students to ensure their safety.

As a healthcare professional this is terrifying because, despite the immense benefits of yoga, the potential for injury is equally great.  I underwent my yoga teacher training specifically so I could use it as a therapeutic modality in my clinical practice.  In fact, I told each and every other yogi in my program that I had zero intention of ever teaching a class in my life.

Fast forward 7 years later, and not only have I taught over 450 classes, I am now working on creating my own brand of therapeutic yoga training aimed at healthcare practitioners and yoga instructors with a minimum of 200 HR certification because I recognize the immense healing potential of this incredible practice.  I recognize a need to educate yogis, teachers, and clinicians on safety, because nothing breaks my heart more than having to treat someone who has injured themselves doing yoga, or meeting someone who has sworn off the practice due to a negative experience in a class.

In physiotherapy school, we were taught that our job was 50% rehabilitation and 50% prevention.  Having now been working as a clinician for a decade, that unfortunately just isn’t the reality of the situation.  Yes, we attempt to incorporate prevention of re-injury in all of our treatments, but this is not what I understood as our professional mission when I was a student.

I have worked in traditional physiotherapy settings all over this country for 10 years now.  Phase 2 of my career is to focus on the prevention side of personal injury, even if I have to create my own therapeutic hybrid.

And here’s the bonus: I also have a background in psychology, which means I get to work with people using an actual holistic approach.  As physiotherapists, we do our best to treat the person, not the disease, but our professional education is limited in that respect.  I am fortunate in that my education is an amalgam of the physical and mental health sciences, so I consider myself well-positioned to promote health and wellness in general.  The goal is to eventually alleviate some of the stress on our overtaxed healthcare system by focusing more on prevention in order to reduce the need for rehabilitation.

If it were up to me, absolutely everyone would practice yoga to take a more active approach to their own health and wellness.  The benefits for mind, body, and spirit are innumerable.  My philosophy as a yoga teacher has always been to provide my students with an education, not just a series of classes.  This way they can be empowered to safely attend other classes or watch online videos of their choosing, or develop a home practice safely and effectively.  I invite them to explore all aspects of the practice, not just the physical.  It is important to me that my students have all the information they need to feel secure and supported on their yoga journey.

I understand that facing personal limitations and having the courage to try something new can be incredibly intimidating.  The following are my personal recommendations for developing a safe and enjoyable yoga practice.

Safeguarding Your Personal Yoga Journey

1. Not all teachers are created equal

Yoga instructors come from wildly different backgrounds.  I am not in any way suggesting for a second that the only good teachers out there have formal healthcare training.  In fact, I have never met a yoga teacher who has not taught me something incredibly valuable.  I do, however, agree with the growing philosophy that even a 200-HR in-person training is insufficient to be responsible for the well-being of the students in your classes.  In fact, that is exactly why I am pursuing my 1000-HR training before I even consider actually teaching other healthcare practitioners and yoga instructors.  In order to be able to provide the type of education that I want to be my life’s work, I know I need additional tools in my kit. 

All of this is to say: do your research.  Find out what kind of training your yoga teachers have before joining their class or following them online so you can make an informed decision concerning their qualifications.

2. There are literally hundreds of types of yoga – experiment before passing final judgment.

I will be the first to admit it: I am a hot yoga girl at heart.  It was the first type of yoga class I ever attended, and I was smitten.  I still am.  I love a good workout, which is why I chose to get certified in Vinyasa Flow.  But the more continuing education I acquire in both yoga and physiotherapy, the more I have fallen equally in love with the more chill practices of Yin, Hatha, and Restorative yoga.  And I know I haven’t even scratched the surface.  There is a type of yoga out there for absolutely everyone.  You just have to keep the faith long enough to suss out which ones are right – and wrong – for you. 

I have met so many people who tell me they know they should do yoga, but they took a class and hated it.  A class.  That’s like saying “I ate a bad peach once, so now I don’t like food.”

I cannot scream this loudly enough: yoga is NOT a sport.  It is a wellness lifestyle.  There are thousands of options to choose from.  Pick one and start there.

3. You don’t need to let anyone in your bubble.

This one is going to create waves among teachers and students alike.  I do not practice hands-on assists, and I do not believe any teacher should – at least on a student not known to them personally. 

There is a lot of talk about trauma in yoga these days, and chips have even been created to put on your mat (one side says “hands off”, the other “assist please”, or some version of that).  However, there are a lot of students who don’t feel comfortable placing the chip on the “hands-off” side because it lets others know they don’t want to be touched.  Lots of people dislike being touched, especially while in a yoga pose, as they often leave the individual in a position of heightened vulnerability.  Those same people are often hesitant to say anything to the teacher because that involves divulging sensitive personal information. And there should be no need for anyone to be put in that situation in the first place.

Finally, regardless of the amount of knowledge and experience possessed by any one teacher, no one knows what is going on in the body of anyone else on any given day.  Not every injury is immediately apparent, and the risks far outweigh the benefits of hands-on assists.  This is the same standard I use to evaluate the appropriateness of any therapeutic modality I use in my physiotherapy practice.  The difference is that I get to communicate extensively with my patient in real-time in order to properly evaluate whether what I am about to do to them is safe and necessary.

I admit I enjoy a good hands-on assist, despite being someone who does NOT like to be touched.  Hands-on assists can feel amazing.  But I know how to listen to my body and adjust in response to someone else’s hands, and that is not the case for a lot of students.  If one of my students really wants a physical assist, I ask them to see me after class so I can speak with them appropriately. If I cannot demonstrate the modification myself, I will ask them an extensive series of questions before I even consider placing my hands on them.

4. Commit to some degree of regularity

Research shows it takes an average of 6 months to learn and integrate a new habit.  The world of yoga is immense.  Pick one aspect or type and decide to give it the old college try for at least that long.  You might still decide it isn’t for you, but at least you’ll know for sure.  And, in a perfect world, you then try a different form of the practice and do the same with that.

5. Do your Homework (read up)

Get to know the practice.   Learn about its history and the different lineages.  The more you understand about yoga, the better informed your choices will be and the more personalized you can make your practice. The benefits you reap will blow your mind.

6. Listen to your body – and your heart (if it doesn’t feel right, it isn’t)

Yoga is not about making your body fit into a predetermined shape.  It’s about finding what works for you and how to make the practice your own.  There is no such thing as competition in yoga – with others or yourself.  We each have 2 stories: our life story (how old we are, what we do for a living, any conditions we have, etc.), and our daily story (how well we slept last night, what we’ve eaten, any conflict involving us, etc.), and your practice will be influenced equally by both.  Just because a pose or meditation sitting went well yesterday, doesn’t mean it will today.  The inverse is also true.

One of my most used lines in yoga is “just because you can do a pose, doesn’t necessarily mean you should.”  There are many advanced poses whose benefits can be achieved with much simpler ones.  That doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with wanting to learn more advanced poses.  I enjoy playing with them as well.  But I am good at listening to my body, and don’t push it any further than it wants to go.  Yoga poses are not like other sports.  You have to question your reason for wanting to attempt an advanced pose and ask yourself if it is really worth trying to wrestle your body into a shape that doesn’t yield much more than bragging rights.

The same is also true for your spirit.  There are several poses in yoga that can leave a student feeling exposed and vulnerable.  There will be days when these sensations are perfectly manageable, but on others they can elicit some pretty distressing emotions. 

You never have to stay in a pose that does not feel comfortable – physically or otherwise.  As I tell my students: the poses I offer are just suggestions and Child’s Pose is always available at any point in the practice, because it tends to be both physically and emotionally supportive.

7. Understand the practice.  Investigate all 8 limbs of yoga – at least to some extent

In case you didn’t hear me scream it earlier: YOGA IS NOT A SPORT! There are 8 distinct limbs to this time-honoured tradition and the poses with which we are most familiar make up only one of those limbs.  In fact, the poses yogis practice are designed to keep the body healthy enough to support practices to heal the mind and spirit in order to reach our full potential. 

The 8 limbs are:

1. Yamas (abstinences) – practices to avoid in order to make us better humans.

2. Niyamas (observances) – practices which are encouraged to make us better humans.

3. Asana (poses) – practices to keep the physical body healthy

4. Pranayama (breathwork) – practices to keep the mental and emotional body healthy

5. Pratyahara (Sensory withdrawal) – turning inward to temporarily shut down external stressors

6. Dharana (One-pointed concentration) – practice that improves focus

7. Dhyana (meditation) – practice of stilling the mind to foster the development of self-awareness

8. Samadhi (self-actualization) – the realization that all we ever need is already within us.

I truly long for the governing bodies of westernized yoga to get their $#%t together and make the regulation of teacher training mandatory so that yoga can eventually be covered by healthcare insurance and therefore be more accessible to the general population.  In the meantime, I hope as many of you as possible will try the practice on for size.  It really can help you build a stronger, happier, healthier version of the person you already are.

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