On January 5, 2012, the well-respected New York Times came out in an article titled “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body.” As you can imagine, this 5-page article was more widely read than Iyengar’s 544-page Light on Yoga or Broad’s 285-page The Science of Yoga. Many Westerners who once loved their gym yoga classes were left wondering, “Is what I’m doing actually good for me? Or does the healing art of yoga just not transfer into a sweaty, exercised-based class?” Well, there is no simple answer. Sadly, there are many injuries in yoga, and this is especially true of the popular Power Yoga classes at gyms. Here are 5 basic tips to choose a safe class and honor your health – not just fitness – while you’re there.
- Be picky about your teacher. Confession: I am a yoga snob, and I trust very few teachers to guide me through class. You don’t have to be as picky as I am, but here are some very basic suggestions for picking a teacher.*
- S/he starts the class with grounding, meditation and/or breath work. Even a few minutes of this is fine. This time is essential to allow you to slowly wake up into your body and gain a sense of awareness essential to staying safe through class. In yoga, we don’t just “do” poses. We really try to feel our bodies, align them properly, and be present in class. If you’re running in to yoga with 2 minutes to spare then heading back to work, it is especially important to take a moment and breathe.
- S/he faces you and does not “do the class” with you. If a teacher isn’t looking at you, he or she cannot keep you safe, and this is especially true if the teacher’s back is to you (even if there is a mirror). A teacher should look at you and, when demonstrating, ideally mirror your body. If a teacher is “doing” the whole class, it is not possible to observe each student and make sure the pose is being done safely.
- S/he offers modifications and walks around the room giving individual advice and adjustments. No two bodies are created equal. An effective teacher will know this and help you find the expression of a pose that is right for you.
- Invest in a yoga mat. Soft exercise mats are great for doing sit ups on a gym floor, but they are not safe for yoga. If your mat is too soft, your wrists will sink in, leading to one of the main complaints and injuries in yoga: wrist pain. Invest in a mat that is thick enough to cushion your knees but firm enough that you don’t sink in. Ideally, your mat will also have anti-slip properties to keep you grounded in a sweaty, flow class. Personally, I love lululemon’s The Mat. I’ve never found a better surface to practice on. However, if you’re not ready for that investment, simply go to REI, Target, Whole Foods or any other retailer and get a yoga mat. I also recommend bringing your own props – at least a strap and a block – if your gym does not have props. These can be incredibly useful in feeling comfortable in a pose.
- Don’t “double up.” Yoga is often touted as a great option to stretch out after another exercise class. Be mindful: if the yoga class you plan on taking is a Power Class, you may be burning 500-700 calories. If your body is already weak or fatigued from another class, you will be more susceptible to injury. Try to reserve yourself just for yoga, or at least space your classes out throughout the day. Gentle, stretch based classes may be paired with other workouts. Even here, though, don’t push yourself to stretch too much on a day when you, say, just ran 5 miles. Your body will be exceedingly tight from other forms of exercise, and you are taking it from one extreme to another. Approach each pose slowly and focus on how you feel.
- If it feels wrong, don’t do it. I teach yoga at a gym. In these classes, people of all levels of experience walk into class each time. I have some students who practice with me four times a week, some who are there once a month, and some who have never tried downward facing dog before. I will offer options for all levels, but I need to trust students not to push it too far. For example, poses like handstand or forearm stand can be unsafe if a student is not ready. While it is my job to instruct students to know when they are ready, it is their job to listen to my advice. For example, I may say, “Only if you feel you can easily, without struggle, touch your toe to your forehead, then try to reach the leg behind your head. If not, stay here.” If a teacher offers an option that does not feel appropriate for your level of experience, don’t do it. There is always next class
- Ask questions. “OM BOLO SAT GURU MAHARAJA KI, JAI!” Meaning, “You are your own true teacher!” As a teacher, I can offer a safe place to practice, a process for improvement, and a promise of non-judgement. As a student, you are in charge of the rest! Feel empowered to ask questions when you want to understand something deeper, learn more, or take on a pose your teacher has not yet offered. Teachers love questions, requests and engaged, interested students.
*Many yoga teachers at gyms are personal trainers certified in yoga through a weekend seminar. The Yoga Alliance – the governing board for yoga teachers – requires at least 200 hours of education before a teacher is officially certified. While Yoga Alliance credentials are far from the end-all-be-all when indicating a good teacher, it is my personal belief that at least 200-hours of training is a good general rule.