Why Yoga Injuries Are on the Rise

What Jane Fonda did for aerobics, Madonna did first for women lifting weights and, now, for yoga. Thus, what used to be an exotic fitness specialty has become a full-blown mainstream trend with 18 million participants in the US alone. For the most part, this has been a positive development because people are now giving flexibility training the respect and importance it deserves.

Yoga, as exercise, also develops strength in a more functional manner than lifting weights does, so it is an excellent cross training activity. The focus and concentration skills that you develop from practicing yoga can be used in real- life situations. Lastly, because yoga puts a great emphasis on breathing (as they say, without the breath it is not yoga), it is a powerful tool for relieving stress and anxiety.

Personally, I am happy to see the application of yoga as an exercise format. It ought to have mainstream recognition. Those who were practicing yoga in the '70s were usually branded a hippie and a weirdo for doing it. However, because the current interest in yoga has been so explosive, yoga injuries are on the rise.

As yoga expert Mara Carrico told Idea Health and Fitness Source magazine, "Sometimes, it seems that the only thing growing more quickly than the number of yoga classes offered in fitness facilities is the number of injuries sustained by eager participants."

This saddens me because I don't want to see yoga go the way of kickboxing, which is on a decline because of the high rate of injuries. Step aerobics also lost a lot of enthusiasts due to knee injuries. Just like the injuries sustained from these two forms of group exercise, yoga-related injuries are usually due to three main reasons: poorly trained instructors, competitive students and overcrowded classes.

Because of the great demand, there is a shortage of well-trained "pure" yoga teachers. Also, since many people practice yoga as exercise and not as a philosophy, they prefer to do it in a gym with a fitness instructor.

Nothing wrong with that if the instructor has a solid background in anatomy and kinesiology (the science of body movement), has taken specialty courses in teaching yoga, and is teaching basic yoga poses. After all, many of the traditional stretches taught in gyms were inspired by yoga.

However, since the more athletic and aggressive styles of power yoga and Ashtanga are the vogue, many fitness instructors are in over their heads. They are teaching advanced and demanding poses that they themselves do not fully understand, to students whose bodies are not strong or flexible enough.

Some advanced yoga poses require several years before they can be safely mastered, and people are attempting to do them within a few months or, worse, within a few sessions, because their teachers are not teaching them more appropriate modifications.

Instructors cannot fully take the blame for the rise in injuries. Overly enthusiastic and competitive students also have to say "mea culpa." It's that old devil of an inflated ego that gets them into trouble. Many pure yoga teachers are very concerned about this decidedly un-yoga-like attitude, destroying the essence of what yoga is really all about. Since this destructive, competitive spirit is such a major cause of yoga-related injuries, and it is the one thing that a yoga participant has direct control over, I will go more in-depth into this in next week's column.

Just like academic classes that are too full, overcrowded fitness classes mean that the teacher cannot possibly give his or her full attention to everyone. In kickboxing classes, there is also the danger of kicking your class mate. In yoga, the problem is falling down on your neighbor.

Last month, the New York Times interviewed a physiotherapist whose main source of income these days is from people with yoga injuries. The therapist said, "People fall over all the time. One client's neck got wrenched when someone doing a headstand in the middle of the room fell onto him. My client, in turn, knocked over the person next to him. With classes so crowded these days, falling can have a domino effect."

I can vouch for the overcrowded classes. About two years ago, my cousin invited my friend and I to attend his yoga class in Santa Monica, California. He called it "bohemian yoga." No kidding. I was totally unprepared for what I saw. The lines to the class spilled over to the street and around the building. We were at least a hundred people in what looked like a community social hall. The mats were exactly one inch apart at the sides and from top to bottom. With everyone inhaling, exhaling and sweating, the windows, which were closed, had rivulets of fluid running down. Everyone was drenched in so much sweat that it looked like we had taken a communal bath.

There were a few moments when I was gasping for air and almost walked out. But it was such an absurd experience that I told myself I would stick around to the bitter end for "research" purposes. Of course, it is something I never want to do again.

To add to the strangeness of the whole affair, the teacher was walking around with nothing on but surfer shorts and, of course, looked like an Italian demigod (which is why I suspect three-fourths of the class were women). He wasn't the only one who was half-dressed. Most of the men were similarly clad and many women were in bikinis. In comparison, my friend and I looked like we had come straight out of a convent even though we were wearing workout outfits. Only in Southern California...

As the son of a famous yoga teacher told a writer for Yoga Journal, "If my father only knew what the Americans were going to do to yoga, he would have left it in the caves with the hermits."

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