Is Yoga Safe?

by Dr. Stephen Sinatra
Filed Under: Heart Health, Heart Health Principles
Last Reviewed 02/06/2014

As beneficial as yoga is, it's also important to keep these tips in mind for practicing yoga safely.A few weeks ago, my wife Jan and our daughter Kristin attended a yoga class. As the group gently moved into inversion positions, Kristin who was in the final weeks of her own certification in yoga, protectively cautioned her mom to be careful since the positions could be too much for their necks.

Both Jan and Kristen have suffered multiple whiplash injuries, and are very careful about their cervical spines. Afterward, they spoke at length about the need to modify or skip various poses in deference to the body. Call it irony, but the very next day an article came out in The New York Times called “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body”—speaking about the very same thing.

So, is yoga safe? Yoga is very powerful medicine, helping to heal everything from everyday stress to hypertension. Yet, as with any physical activity there is the potential for injury. Since the 1970’s there have been isolated reports in medical journals attesting to injuries to practitioners, instructors, and lifelong yogis alike. But there are very few cautionary notes in most books devoted to yoga.

With an estimated 20 million people engaged in yoga in 2011 compared to only 2 million in 2001, it’s no surprise that yoga injuries are on the rise. It’s important to remember that its very essence is to get in touch with your body and to read your body as you practice it.

The most common yoga injuries stem from inversion postures and forceful hyperextension of the neck that exceed your physical tolerance, but can occur with overstretching any muscle, cartilage, or ligament. Plus, strokes can be caused by impingement of the basilar artery and extreme motions of the neck and head that can constrict, causing swelling and even clots or bleeds. 
   
Here are some of my top tips for practicing yoga safely:

1. Connect with your breath, exhaling on effort and inhaling to ease back. Go slowly and never force your self into any position. By the same token, never allow any one else to touch you to push your body into a posture.

2. Be cautious of neck hyperextensions as with plough and cobra poses, as well as headstands to name a few. In fact, some consider headstands too dangerous for general yoga classes.

3. Be careful with—or avoid—inversion poses, extreme backbends and twists.

4. Remember, yoga isn’t about your ego, comparing yourself with others, or pushing yourself. Pay attention to, and read, your own body.

5. Learn modifications for poses that suit your body, age, and health issues.

6. Should you have any aches or pains you think may be caused or aggravated by yoga, take a break from it to see if they resolve.

Yoga may look simple, but I compare it to learning downhill skiing. You need to be in touch with your own body and your limits, and seek medical advice in advance if you have any medical issues.

Now it’s your turn: What has been your experience with yoga?

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