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advising yoga students on practicing with an injury

advising yoga students on practicing with an injury

Rarely a day goes by in the studio without at least one person asking my advice about practicing with an injury. Sometimes it seems half of my class on any given day has one injury or another. Some are superficial, some are serious. This is a lengthy topic that could fill a book but I’ll try to condense it into a few simple guidelines you can follow as a responsible teacher. For this article, let’s confine “injury” to musculoskeletal.

First of all it isn’t about how or where they were injured, although that information sometimes can shed light of the type or severity of the injury. I try to gently steer the story away from the long dissertation about how they got hurt to the injury itself. I’m interested and concerned about you rupturing your Achilles tendon playing basketball, but let’s pass on the story about uncle Ted making you play because he was mad at Auntie Doris the UConn fan and Cousin Andy was hung over because the Gators lost. People do go on. Sometimes we only have a few minutes to discuss the issue before class starts!

ask if they been diagnosed by a professional

I ask right out whether the injury has been diagnosed by a health professional, be it a doctor, orthopedic surgeon, or perhaps a chiropractor. This is very important. If the answer is yes I then ask for the specific diagnosis and most importantly what advice the doctor gave in regards to them practicing yoga. I strongly consider that advice and many times just suggest that they follow their doctor’s orders with some few general yogic advice of my own, i.e. take it easy, breathe, be aware of any sharp pain, etc. It’s difficult to argue with or take a stand against the advice of a health professional even if you don’t totally agree with it. In fact, even though they ask, students are not always open to your advice. In my experience, most are but some aren’t.
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We are not doctors, you’ve heard that before. I’ve been known to remind the injured party of that fact. There is however, common sense. There is also your personal experience. Back in the 1990’s I was told by an orthopedic surgeon that I would always walk with a limp. I’m sure he would be thrilled to hear I have no limp. I may be skating on thin ice here, but doctors are not always right about everything and many times injuries go undiagnosed or are even diagnosed incorrectly. I always invite the student to do their own research and if they already have we can talk about what they found out. There’s a lot of info out there, and many of these issues you will see again and again.

I ask them “what do you think?” If they are open to discussion maybe we hash it out a bit. We talk about the nature of their injury, some poses that may help, any physical therapy they’d had, what maybe they should, or shouldn’t do in class, about proper alignment, about practicing extra focused when injured, about relaxing and breathing during asana, perhaps backing way off on the physical aspect of the practice and concentrating more on the mental focus for awhile. I remind them to focus on the things they can do and don’t give the injury too much power. If they were told to “never” do something we talk about that too and discuss the possibility of doing it 1% or a little bit more as opposed to never. We talk about fear and how it affects the practice.

If the injury hasn’t been diagnosed I try to ascertain if it’s just soreness. I tell them It is normal to feel sore after class. It is a good workout and you are using muscles you probably haven’t used in a while. Muscle soreness is a buildup of lactic acid. It may seem impossible to imagine that coming back for more will help, but stretching is one of the best ways to relieve the soreness. If you wait too long to come back, then you will be starting all over again. I tell them go ahead do you practice, maybe take it easy today. Injuries can be great teachers if you listen to them. I also remind them to stay well hydrated.

it is always the student’s choice

Remember in the end it’s always their choice. In the final analysis, they need to weigh their doctors’ advice along with all the advice they have been given, including yours ,and then make their own decision if and how to practice. I never try to persuade them one way or another. It’s always up to them. It’s totally their responsibility. The worst thing we can do is give the wrong advice or incorrect information. If you don’t know and especially if you think you know but are not sure, don’t give any specific advice at all. Again, just give “general” advice. See above. Saying “I don’t know” is fine. You don’t always know! You can always add “I’ll find out for you”. Students are generally pleased that you are going the extra mile for them, and you will increase your own knowledge. Everyone wins. Don’t forget to use your own common sense. If people limp in and are in serious pain, and/or if you are uncomfortable having them in class, send them home. Sometimes rest is the best medicine.

Gary Davis

I started my yoga practice in the year 2000 after sustaining a serious injury. I was 48 years old at the time, and, after a lifetime of abusing my body through team sports, lifting weights and running, I decided it was time to pursue a more realistic exercise program. For the first year and a half, I cultivated a home practice, faithfully doing a hot yoga series in various heated bathrooms, garages and attics. Once I found a studio, I jumped into a regular practice, which I continue to this day. I became a Bikram certified teacher in 2009, and have taught yoga in Sarasota, the Northeast, and the Evolation studio in Tampa Bay. Teaching yoga is my full time occupation. I am also on the Evolation teacher training faculty and I feel really fortunate to be involved in the process of training new teachers. I'm just about to turn 62, and I'm in the best shape of my life — physically,mentally, and spiritually. One of my goals is to get more people my age practicing yoga.