urdhva-mukha-svanasanaEver been injured in a yoga class? Chances are, we’ve all felt a twinge in one class or another. So, who’s at fault? The teacher? The student? Or are occasional tweaks simply part of being active and exploring our limits?

Since William Broad began writing about yoga injuries in the New York Times, most fingers have been pointed at unqualified yoga teachers. Michaelle Edwards, founder of YogAlign, goes further, claiming that yoga injuries are prevalent because many poses are anatomically incompatible with the human body. This is a complex issue, too long for a blog post. A few thoughts for starters:

utthita-trikonasanaPain versus strong sensation

In February, a few weeks into winter session, a new student politely told me, “Last week my back hurt the day after class.”

What?! “How long did it hurt?” I asked her. “Did you feel pain during class?” I couldn’t imagine any intro poses injuring this healthy 20-year-old university student.

It turned out that her muscles were temporarily sore from holding an upright posture instead of her habitual slouch. Sometimes beginners mistake post-class “delayed onset muscle soreness” for injury. Or, during class, they stop as soon as lactic acid builds up. Over time, they must learn to distinguish between injurious pain and strong sensation, which is essential to progress.

parivrtta-parsva-konasanaAccidents happen

Experienced students are probably more likely to sustain injuries since they do trickier poses, including deep backbends and long inversions. Interestingly, among Iyengar yoga students anyway, longtime practitioners are less likely (I’d say unlikely) to “blame” the teacher.

Once, a decades-long student broke her humerus doing a strapped version of Parivrtta Parsvakonasana in a class taught by a highly respected senior teacher who knew her well. “I toppled over,” she said, shrugging and smiling. Not once did she imply that the teacher was at fault. Clearly her bone density must have been compromised, and she knew it.

Her injury was unexpectedly severe, but anyone can strain a muscle going too far or holding too long. The question is whether the teacher’s instructions were… reasonable.

Reasonable person standard

One of the few things I remember from law school is the “reasonable person standard,” a common law doctrine that determines negligence. Legendary US District Court Judge Learned Hand wrote that one’s duty to prevent injury is a function of three variables (paraphrased big-time here):

  • Is it likely that an accident will happen?
  • How serious would the resulting injury be?
  • What is the cost/burden of taking adequate precautions?

Applied to yoga, we might ask whether a teacher acted according to a “reasonable yoga teacher standard” (or a “reasonable Iyengar yoga teacher standard”).

If I teach Salamba Sarvangasana (shoulderstand), is it likely that students will hurt themselves? If they do, how serious would their injuries be? What could I do to prevent such injuries? Here, the answer is clear: Most would hyper-flex their necks doing perpendicular shoulderstands on the floor. That would cause major damage. The precaution is the classic modification: Use a stack of blankets to raise shoulders and protect cervical vertebrae.

parsvottanasanaVerbal versus manual correction

The issue of fault is slipperier when there is “touching” involved. It’s one thing verbally to direct a student to twist further or bend lower. It’s another thing altogether manually to push a student deeper.

Recently a yoga colleague (also a teacher) injured a wrist when a well-regarded yoga teacher adjusted her hands in Paschima Namaskarasana in Parsvottanasana during a workshop that I also attended. It was a “big adjustment” that sent shooting pain along her outer wrist; months later she was still in distress and seeing an orthopedic surgeon. She noted that the teacher was unaware of her shoulder restriction on that side–and thus didn’t blame the teacher.

Was that a reasonable adjustment? Was it likely that a student might be vulnerable? What was the potential for major injury? How else could a teacher guide a student into a deeper pose?

Personally I’ve always appreciated hands-on adjustments, perhaps because my original teachers were firm yet careful in their touch. I’ve heard of the life-changing, forceful adjustments that BKS Iyengar would give: a sharp prod, a hard slap. Well, all I can say is that most teachers should not try those.

parivrittijanusirsasana-backBe in charge of your body

Ultimately we are in charge of our own bodies. Years ago, one of my first teachers, Mary Lou Weprin, instructed me to do something, say, straighten my leg or turn my ribcage. I complied with such alacrity that Mary Lou said, “Whoa, slow down. Don’t move so fast.”

She warned that I might hurt myself; I should check in with my body, from the inside, not instantly jump to perform a teacher’s instructions. That stuck with me. When we step into a yoga class, we must accept responsibility for our bodies.While a huge manual adjustment might take us by surprise, we can certainly avoid causing harm ourselves.

Images: Yoga Anatomy, Leslie Kaminoff