a. Always consult your doctor before beginning a physical practice, and ask if there are any motions/exercises you should avoid. Avoid these motions during yoga class, even if the teacher instructs you to do them. It may feel tempting to simply follow instructions, or be a “good student,” but remember that the teacher is teaching a roomful of people and everyone is different. Always respect your own body and your own limitations. This, not the ability to twist into a pretzel, is the mark of an “advanced” yogi. A good teacher will respect your modifications, and this can even be a signal to them that you could use some extra guidance.
b. LEAVE COMPETITION AT THE DOOR: I cannot emphasize this enough. A competitive attitude is the enemy of a yoga practice, and the enemy of safety. Part of yoga is turning your focus inwards, and doing only what is right for YOUR body. This means accepting the idea that the “advanced” version of the pose is not the one where you reach beyond your toes, but rather the one where you maintain good alignment. This may mean even practicing with your eyes closed when possible, to worry less about what is going on around you and more about what is happening inside. Many studios intentionally have classrooms without mirrors, to encourage this inward focus.
c. Find a “home” posture that you are comfortable going into when you can’t/don’t want to do the pose the rest of the class is doing. For many people this is child’s pose, but it can be as simple as sitting down, standing still in mountain pose or lying on your back in savasana.
d. Learn the difference between “good pain” and “bad pain.” When I say “good pain,” I am talking about the sensation you feel when you are stretching a muscle or the burning from using/strengthening a muscle… it isn’t really “pain” at all… more like “intensity.” A good rule of thumb is the following. If you want to reproduce the sensation on the other side (you are stretching one leg, for example), the discomfort you are experiencing is probably okay. If you have no desire to stretch the other side, however, or you experience a shooting, popping, tearing or giving way sensation, you should stop what you are doing immediately and seek assistance. Similarly, pain in the joints (as opposed to the muscle) is generally bad, and you should come out of any pose causing joint pain.
e. Use your breath as a guide: If your breathing becomes constricted, short or stops during a pose, back out of it until you are breathing comfortable again. This is often an indication that you are not in optimal alignment in the pose, or that you are trying too hard. Yoga is a balance of effort and ease, and your breath can tell you when you have gone too far. Remember that because of anatomical variations in people’s bodies (variations that you are born with), the “ideal” version of a pose will look different for everyone– your breath can help you find your ideal variation.
f. Move slowly. By moving into and out of poses slowly (and with awareness of body and breath), many injuries can be prevented. Remember that the transitions between poses are as important as the poses themselves.
g. If you are a physically flexible person to begin with, your yoga practice may be more about cultivating strength then flexibility. Flexible people are often the people most prone to injuries, as they are able to easily move joints out of a healthy range of motion. If this is the case for you, try backing out of your maximum range of motion, and trying to find where you could add more strength/stability to a pose.
h. Don’t be afraid to refuse hands-on adjustments. Though these types of assists from experienced teachers can heighten body awareness or assist with optimal alignment, they should generally not be used to “deepen” a pose, or to push you beyond your limits. It is also okay to refuse hands-on if you simply prefer not to be touched, for whatever reason. Teachers are used to these requests, and it will not hurt their feelings.
i. Be wary of “hot yoga.” Some styles of yoga (including Bikram and others) heat the room to 100+ degrees in an effort to allow people to go “deeper” into poses. Heat loosens muscles/ligaments and allows more stretch in them. This can be dangerous in many cases, particularly for flexible people who are prone to overstretching. Heat and humidity is also particularly dangerous for those with heart disease, inflammatory conditions (lupus, inflammatory bowel disease), pregnant women, those with epilepsy, MS and fibromyalgia. For people with risk factors for heart attacks (such diabetes, smoking, high blood pressure, family history of heart disease, high cholesterol or previous heart attacks), you should get a stress test before beginning a hot yoga practice. If you are unsure, it is best to practice in a non-heated room.
j. Avoid Falling. This too, sounds obvious, but it is an important point nonetheless. If you are prone to falls, have fragile bones (osteoporosis), a bleeding disorder, or take a blood thinner (such as heparin or warfarin), you should take particular care not to fall out of yoga poses. This may mean practicing near a wall (so you can reach your hand out for stability), widening your stance during standing poses, or avoiding balancing poses altogether.
k. Be careful with lengthy meditation and intense pranayama (breathing exercises). Though these can be extremely powerful tools for mental health, they need to be practiced in a supervised fashion for those with psychiatric disorders. If you have a psychiatric disorder (severe depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, etc), consult your mental health professional before beginning a meditation practice. If you become uncomfortable while practicing, it is always okay to open your eyes or adjust your body, and ask your teacher about it after class.
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