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Natural Awakenings Westchester / Putnam / Dutchess New York

Keeping Yoga Safe and Effective

Jul 01, 2014 07:43PM

by Miriam Zernis

Yoga is one of the greatest ways to bring focus, clarity and peace into our lives. So why is it that so many yoga injuries abound these days?

A recent article in The New York Times entitled “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” churned up a great deal of controversy on this very topic. In the article, seasoned yoga master Glenn Black claims that “the vast majority of people should give up yoga altogether. It’s simply too likely to cause harm.” While Black’s statement is a gross overgeneralization, it does reflect some real concerns.

Preparation is key for students and teachers

The bottom line is that, while anyone can practice yoga, it won’t magically make all aches and pains go away and it could actually make things worse under improper instruction. Many yoga newbies are office workers who figure that yoga is easier than more vigorous forms of exercise. They sit all day long and then hit the mat once or twice a week with type-A effort, forcing themselves into all poses with very little moderation or modification. Sprains, dislocations, broken backbones, and even strokes are suffered by yoga participants who are not physically primed for the activity.

Need slower and more individualized yoga? Try Viniyoga, Kripalu or Anusara Yoga.

More importantly, some beginners wind up in classes with teachers who lack sufficient hours of training and experience with the gamut of physical body types, limiting their ability to address certain ailments and idiosyncrasies. Good yoga teachers need to know when a student should or should not do something in class, and this is a skill that comes from hundreds of hours of training and teaching. A basic 200-hour yoga certification course does not necessarily guarantee that graduates are qualified to teach all kinds of students.

From ancient science to big business

The same New York Times article reported that the number of Americans doing yoga has risen from about 4 million in 2001 to an estimated 20 million in 2012. Indeed, the fact that yoga has become such a big business may be adding to the number of injuries. The growing crop of new studios all over the country has forced owners to be more bottom line-oriented than ever. A regular student attending classes 1 to 3 times a week may pay anywhere from $10 to 20 per class, while a teacher trainee brings in between $2,000 to $5,000 per 3 to 6 month course. With at least ten students in the average yoga teacher training course, it adds up to better profits and gives studio owners their own built-in teaching staff, instructing in their preferred style.

This is how classical yoga—the kind that offers many physical, emotional and spiritual benefits, along with guidance in proper exercise, diet, breath work, meditation and relaxation—has become diluted. Yoga is, after all, a science and its beneficial effect on the body’s sympathetic nervous system is significant. The nine internationally recognized styles of yoga, from which all the others have emerged, are based on that knowledge. The goal has always been to balance the body and encourage ease in meditation, not to create a “yoga butt” or make practitioners compete with one another toward the goal of more and more advanced poses.

Finding the right yoga fit

While the nine fundamental styles of yoga share certain aims, elements and guiding principles, each one has something unique to offer. Those looking for a meditative practice that embraces a yogic lifestyle of proper nutrition, breathing, relaxation and positive thinking may want to explore Sivananda Yoga or Integral Yoga. Practitioners who are athletically fit and seeking a more strenuous style may wish to try Ashtanga, Vinyasa or Power Yoga. Need slower and more individualized yoga? Try Viniyoga, Kripalu or Anusara Yoga. Those who want to experience flowing poses against a background of spoken ancient yoga texts and uplifting, eclectic music with a touch of political activism may enjoy the Jivamukti style.

The ultimate advice when searching for a great yoga class? Check the teacher’s credentials. They do matter and always will as more and more practitioners step onto the mat.

Miriam Zernis is an internationally certified Sivananda Yoga Master in Westchester and Fairfield Counties with 19 years of experience in the teachings of yoga asana and philosophy. She is also a Certified Holistic Health Coach, Reiki Master and Kirtan artist. Visit to learn more.