yoga and safety

“Yoga has its origins in the search for the spiritual and in primordial questions about the meaning of life.  The awareness that yoga is a spiritual practise whose roots are ancient gives our journey continuity, richness, and depth” -Esther Myers

“The problem with institutionalized yoga or textbook instruction is that the reality of a person’s life situation is not taken into account…The key to right teaching is in the adaptation of yoga to the individual, not the idividual to yoga” – T.K.V. Desikachar

“Yoga is not a standardised practise” T.K.V. Desikachar

Lately much is in the news about yoga and safety.  I have sat with this topic for awhile, wondering if I should leap into the discussion, pondering how to stay politically correct, and I have decided I have enough to say to bring this topic to the blog.  In fact, you may want to go and get yourself a chai latte for this one.  

Foremost, I think when you put Yoga into a buffet of activities offered at gyms, and/or by people who are teaching a postural flow to students who want the physicality of a stretch coupled with a tinge of mind/body/spirit, the word safety SHOULD enter the conversation.  Just as it would when you play any sport, lift any weight, run any trail, climb any mountain.  Reducing Yoga, which began as one of the six Hindu philosophical schools, to just a physical discipline, almost makes it into a sport.  Let’s “do Yoga” rather than Let’s “Be Yoga” reduces a lifestyle into an activity that you fit into a schedule rather than an ongoing meditation in motion.  

The word “yoga” has morphed over time, and especially in the West.  It comes from the Sanskrit root yuj, meaning to “bind, join, attach and yoke, to direct and concentrate one’s attention on, to use and apply”.  In this, its original sense, which you find in the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads, it means joining the individual soul with the higher Self, the Cosmos/God/Universe; it is a mystical union, rather than a “I have to twist myself into this crazy form and hurt my shoulder” kind of union..So if you follow this, and are getting injured in a yoga class, something isn’t right.  

I always tell students, whether in a private class or group, that they should listen to their bodies.  I give clear directions, like a GPS, but if these do not resonate with the student, they should follow their own path of comfort, and steady breathing.  Asana should make you feel better, open.  They massage the internal organs, detoxify our system, stretch out the tensions.  But they are only 1/8 th of the equation.  Sometimes I have noticed, people just want to put themselves in jeopardy, get an adrenalin rush, and that’s that.  I will never forget someone insisting I teach him/her the headstand.  I said, “you have neck issues, it isn’t for you.  I am showing you alternatives” but that was not the answer that this person wanted to hear.  Many times this happens.  Students forget what it is all about, and jump in.  That isn’t listening to your body, that is listening to your thinking “gotta do it” brain.  We are all on the path, but we may be different shoe sizes, take different strides,  alternative directions.  Honour yourself.

Challenge is great because it stretches us but comfort and safety should not be underestimated.  They are the part of  your practise on the mat that helps you make transformations, nourishing choices and heal off the mat in your daily life (which is really important!)  So ask yourself whether what you are doing is helping to foster growth and happiness, compassion, patience.  Are you less angry and anxious?  Can you relax better during stress? Stress is an overwhelming phenomena, so you may want to ensure that you are learning to cope and relax more than touch your toes.

I have been teaching over 16 years, and studying for longer.  If I ever go to someone’s class, I ALWAYS tell the teacher that I prefer verbal to physical adjustments.  Last year, at a workshop, the Teacher was showing everyone a pose and my body just said “I don’t think so!” and when she came over I said, “thank you but it isn’t going to happen for me like that”, we laughed.  Some years ago, I wanted to try a posture and I needed supervision so I grilled the teacher, “will you be there, do you promise?!” When I felt sure, I did it.  I also remember a teacher completely dissecting my posture in a workshop over ten years ago.  I came h-AUM to my mentor and just cried.  I always feel safe with my Teacher with a capital “T”.  You should too, but with open and mindful eyes, and a healthy respect for your own instincts. 

I will leave you with a few suggestions and questions to ponder.  Safety is definitely something Yoga Teachers should put as a priority (may open a new blog for this later), but so should you.   
-You are unique; three people in the same class have different needs. 
-If you do Group classes, find one that feels right and stay present on your own mat.
– If you have any health concerns, are new to Yoga
or unsure about something, have questions, anything, take a private class or study privately
or if you go to a group class tell your teacher
– Are you going into a Yoga class with an old injury or weakness?
– Are you easily distracted and miss directions?
– Are you looking (secretly) to push yourself to the point of pain?
– If you practise on your own, are you organic in your flow, or do you do autopilot?
– A Teacher is a guide but your own knowledge and instincts should override outside directions and you can and should be able to skip/omit/modify/rest
– Go MINDFULLY, when in doubt don’t, but go mindfully always
– Research…if your knees are stiff but you are dying to do the lotus pose, read and see if there are contra-indications (there are)
– Be prepared to take a more appropriate class, than the one ‘everyone’ is doing
– Embrace your experiences

Yoga is a system, not a sport; most people need enough physical challenge to heal a tense body and calm a busy mind…the path of moderation and meditation awaits you…

om shanty shanty shanty,

Rana Waxman Rana Waxman (819 Posts)

Rana Waxman is a registered yoga therapist ERYT-500, with 20 years of teaching experience. Rana is a freelance writer and social media expert in addition to leading yoga workshops internationally and teaching alignment focused private and group Yoga Lessons in Hoboken and Jersey City NJ.

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