Lately there's been a lot in the news about yoga and safety. I've sat with this topic for a while, wondering if I should leap into the discussion and how to stay politically correct if I did.
What I've decided is that I have enough to say to bring this issue to the blog. In fact, you may want to go and get yourself a chai latte ...
First, I think that when yoga is offered at gyms, or when it's taught as a postural flow to students who want the physicality of a stretch coupled with a tinge of spirituality, the word safety should enter the conversation. Just as it would for any sport.
Reducing yoga, which began as one of the six Hindu philosophical schools, to just a physical discipline, almost makes it into a sport.
The idea of doing yoga rather than being yoga reduces a lifestyle into an activity that has to be scheduled, 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 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 an "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 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 a small fraction of the equation. Sometimes, I've noticed, people just want to put themselves in jeopardy, get an adrenaline rush, and that's that. Students forget what it's all about, and jump in.
That's not 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.
Challenge is great because it stretches us, we should not underestimate comfort and safety.
Comfort and safety are the part of your practice on the mat that help you make transformations, nourishing choices and heal off the mat in your daily life.
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 phenomenon, so you may want to ensure that you are learning to cope and relax more than you're learning to touch your toes.
I've been teaching about 20 years, and studying for longer. If I ever go to someone's class, because their style may be unknown to me, I may tell the teacher that I prefer verbal to physical adjustments.
Or, if I want to try something new, I may ask for supervision.
On the other hand, 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.
Safety is definitely something yoga teachers should put as a priority, but so should you.
I will leave you with a few tips and questions to ponder.
1. Embrace your experiences.
2. You are unique. Three people in the same class have different needs. Inform your teacher of any health concerns and/or seek qualified private instruction.
3. If you have any health concerns, are new to yoga or unsure about something, have questions, anything, take a private class.
4. Are you going into a yoga class with an old injury or weakness?
5. Are you easily distracted and miss directions?
6. Are you looking (secretly) to push yourself to the point of pain?
7. If you practice on your own, are you organic in your flow, or do you do go on autopilot?
8. 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
9. Go mindfully always.
10. Do your 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 be appropriate in class, and consider whether the one "everyone" is doing is right for you. If you do Group classes, find one that feels right and stay present on your own mat.
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.