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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Spence

Elevate Your Practice Through Strength

Let’s pretend I’m your substitute teacher for the day. Like any good sub, I’ll start with a pop quiz.

Me: “What’s most important, increased flexibility or improving your balance?”

You moan: “Ugh, I don’t know.”

Me: “You’ll need to know to ace the quiz, or you’ll end up in pain. Serious pain. Why? Because it’s the one test you’ll fail at some point if you’re not careful.”

You shrugging: “Flexibility?”

Me: “Strength. Trick question, I know.”

Yoga can be tricky if you’re in a class and the teacher can’t monitor every student as closely as they want. With a packed room of moving bodies, a teacher simply can’t monitor each pose, and more importantly stop the class to demonstrate proper alignment.

So, if you have picked up bad habits from moving from pose to pose without someone stopping you and making an adjustment, you may be in danger of overuse injuries or setting yourself up for future injury.

If you think strength is about holding a pose, that’s only a part of the picture. The kind of strength you need moving through a flow class is more about stabilizing the muscles surrounding key joints than the number of push-ups or core stabilizing boat poses you can do.

We have all been there. We’re in a studio full of others who are doing their best to do the poses correctly. Then you hear the teacher say, “push to your edge.” We all strive to perfect the pose, and then our ego shows up and we push past our strength levels. Normal? Sadly, it could also be problematic if we strive so hard to impress that we compromise the integrity of our practice. I won’t be surprised when you tell me you’ve compared yourself to others based on hoping to get to another plateau in your practice. We’re hardwired to strive. We’re in class with a goal in mind. Only in Savasana are we instructed to just be instead of do. Which is part of the reason I am passionate about the importance of balancing strength and flexibility to avoid injury and enable you to practice yoga for a lifetime.

Let’s not forget, yoga is about balance. It’s a body, mind and spirit practice, but in many classes I attended in the last year the physical aspects have surpassed the focus of yoga’s core ethos, mind and spirit development.

Even if you think you are doing the poses correctly and you have normal strength, there is also the complexity of repetition. It’s simply a matter of doing the math. For example, if you plan on going to yoga X number of times per week with most classes doing X number of sun salutations, that’s a lot of sun salutations in a given year. It’s self-evident that your muscles are working overtime. If you are even slightly doing the poses incorrectly, or simply becoming fatigued and unable to move through the poses safely, your risk factor of injury increases exponentially.

Yoga postures can be fairly demanding of flexibility and require strength of the stabilizing muscles to be performed safely and provide benefits. Even if a movement or posture does not elicit immediate injury, if performed incorrectly, it can strain structures over time at the weakest point, which eventually may progress to an injury. Musculoskeletal injuries related to yoga can occur as a chronic repetitive strain injury, an acute event, or a combination of an acute event superimposed on chronic strain.

Let’s use one movement to illustrate my concern. Most people move from the top of a push up to the bottom incorrectly. Now, let’s factor in fatigue and the shoulder will eventually be in trouble. I can’t tell you the number of classes I’m in where I council a student to do less instead of more based on watching them move through a sun salutation incorrectly.

Repetitive movements without proper strength creates shoulder problems. The rotator cuff is particularly vulnerable in forms of yoga that involve flowing sequences that put weight on the hands. Sun salutations (Surya Namaskar) are a common sequence of postures performed in flowing forms of yoga whereby the practitioner moves from standing to downward dog (Ado Mukha Svanasana) position in a repeated fashion. The combination of movement through postures while partially bearing weight on the hands through different shoulder positions can result in impingement on the rotator cuff, particularly the supraspinatus.

Scapular (shoulder blade) movement should work synergistically with our arm movement to ensure our rotator cuff does not become over worked. Our shoulder joint is a ball and socket joint, this should glide smoothly, however, if our foundation is affected (our shoulder blades) this will affect the movement of our ball and socket in the joint therefore, increasing loading through our shoulder. Shoulder protraction and retraction should take place and remember, we don’t want the scapular to be forced into downward rotation, we want the natural movement of the scapular to be working.

Although yoga is relatively safe, statistically the number of injuries is increasing according to a recent Orthopedic Journal of Sports Medicine study from 2001-2014. According to a new study from researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who conducted the first large-scale examination of yoga-related injuries, they found the overall rate of yoga-related injuries climbed to 17 per 100,000 participants in 2014, up from 10 per 100,000 in 2001. 

And if the overall yoga injury rate doubled from 2001 to 2014, it may be due to factors that you simply can’t control. With the increase in both the number of certified instructors and injuries it would seem logical that there is a potential lack of appropriate education even for certified instructors. Some in the industry agree with this assessment and state that not all teacher training programs prepare teachers well to prevent injury. You might be shocked to know thatin a Yoga Alliance-Registered training, no specific curriculum is required to be taught, nor is there any required assessment of a registered teacher’s skill. There is discussion under way right now with Yoga Alliance, and its members, as to what/when new standards should be set. Use your best judgment. If a class has little instruction, and you feel you need more, change classes, instructor and studio if necessary.

William J Broad‘s book “The Science of Yoga: The Risks and Rewards” explores the injuries and mishaps that have happened in modern yoga classes, and many students “blame” a teacher for their injury due to poor knowledge or lack of communication. In defense of teachers, I’m a teacher and I pride myself on alignment-based instruction and safe sequencing, and most teachers are more than prepared to teach safe classes. Even with the level of education it takes to become a teacher, no one is immune to yoga related injuries. I found out the hard way that overstretching can harm the body. I tore my hamstring. This sidelined me until I recovered. But I was not done learning. What I found harder to discern, over time, was that I was also incapable of engaging certain muscles correctly. For example: when a teacher in class would say “lift your kneecaps” to engage the front of the quads to stabilize the knee in certain postures, I thought I was. In truth, I wasn’t but I had incorrectly learned the way to do even simple poses, like mountain pose.

My bad habit was believing that the more advanced I became, the healthier I would become. Not always true. The more advanced the class, the more chances for injury if you don’t balance it with strength training. Don’t get me wrong, I love a physical class. But here’s the bummer: I’m the girl in class everyone loved to hate. The Bendy Wendy, the super flexible girl that made it all look so easy. Teachers would single me out as an example of “where your practice could be taking you”, which I loved. Sadly, though, teachers should have balanced my ego boost with a caution to make sure and work on strength.

So, here’s your assignment from your sub for the day:

Ask you teacher for poses you can do to make sure what you’re doing is supported by strength. Consider working with a trainer and stressing you want your strength training to support your practice. Support your practice with swimming, endurance, strength and power.
Forgo fad equipment and focus on form.

With the many positive health benefits associated with yoga, the injury analysis provided in this article should not deter individuals from participating. However, caution should be used, as with any physically exertive activity, to make sure and continually evaluate where you are physically. Although one should participate in yoga at a well-known studio with qualified instructors, more important, an individual should not engage in poses that they feel are beyond their physical limitations. Leave your ego at the door, it’s simply not worth the risk if you plan on doing yoga forever.



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