I am a teacher of yoga and have actively been teaching for 18+ years now and I have personally experienced hip injury that was related to my teaching career. In light of the recent article published by BBC News, "Yoga teachers 'risking serious hip problems', I thought I would share some of my own thoughts on this issue along with some, hopefully helpful, suggestions for areas where I see room for us to improve how we practice and teach yoga as teachers.
First off, I don't think that it is enough for us to say that students and practitioners should just do what feels right for their bodies. Part of what occurs through practicing yoga, should be a fine tuning of my own proprioceptive awareness and a greater ability to listen and respond to the communications that my body sends to me. But this requires that the way that we present yoga and the language that we use be structured to create an environment where this is possible. I feel like we can be guilty of giving a quick nod to this at the beginning of class and then continuing on with the rest of the class in a less empowering manner. Specifically, the way that we present a yoga posture, needs to be from the ground up, with an invitation to experience more sensation, if that is what the student feels would be helpful. Often we present the advanced pose and then offer options for our students that foster feelings of competition with oneself and others along with feelings of inadequacy. This creates a breeding ground for injury within any pose. When we say things like, "if you are more advanced", "if you are flexible enough", it communicates to the students that this is what they should be experiencing and creates a disconnect from their being able to hear the needs and limitations of their own bodies.
Part of this problem, I feel also relates to the culture that has become a reality for teachers. There is a pressure that to be a teacher of yoga, that you should look a certain way or have a certain degree of flexibility in your practice or that you should be competent in advanced poses. This can be a temptation to feel pressured to prove your worth within a yoga class so that students know that you have a right to be there. We need to address this on so many levels. For starters, when we teach a class, we are there to support our students, to lift them up, to help them find ease in their bodies and minds, to help them become more self-aware. When we shift the attention to where students 'should be' instead of drawing awareness to where they actually are at, it creates a risk for injury for not just the students, but for ourselves. Your value as a teacher is in how you help your students, not in how you impress them.
The other issue is in the way that we teach asana themselves. I believe that as yoga teachers, it is how we teach students to come in and out of poses that makes us quality instructors. When we have an image in our mind for our an asana 'should' look, it can be a detriment to finding the sensation that comes with experiencing the posture properly. In my own experience, there are very specific postures that I found damaging to my SI joint, such as Trikonasana and Anjaneyasana. What is the primary intention of the pose and how do you experience it properly in a safe way? For Trikonasana, the goal is not to touch the floor or your foot with your forward hand. The goal is to experience lengthening through the side body along with oblique engagement. And, we need to do this with mindfulness about the functional anatomy of the pelvis. Trikonasana invites the forward leg into lateral rotation, which closes the SI joint. By then focusing on placing our hand on the floor, there is a great deal of potential for an SI injury. To prevent this, I now teach my students to step back into ALL standing postures in a high lunge orientation first, as though there two legs are in cross country ski tracks. We then pivot on the toes of the back foot and bring the heel toward the centre line of the mat. I instruct them to place their hand on the sacrum and to feel the joint as they move into triangle pose. I let them know that they should feel a sense of spaciousness in the joint and to back off if they feel any jamming or burning sensations. I then invite them to use their obliques and to turn their torso toward the ceiling as they feel for the sensation of lengthening through their side body. Once they find that place of sensation, they can place their forward arm, wherever it will find support, without changing the orientation of their upper body. This allows them to find their expression of the pose, without my giving them an idea of what their asana should like. It strengthens their ability to listen to their bodies. And it protects me as a teacher as I am no longer throwing myself into the 'full' expressions of asana while I teach any more.
One of my teachers shared with me that yoga is a double edged sword. The same poses that harm us, when done properly can be the very poses that heal us. I very much believe this to be true and I would love to hear your thoughts. Have you been injured through yoga? If so, what have you done, what have you changed? If you teach, how has this impacted your teaching?
Stefani Wilton and Contributors
Finding beauty in the midst of joyous imperfection