As I looked through this post by an accomplished yoga instructor on the "Top 10 Yoga Postures for Strength," I tried to look at the words and images through the eyes of our typical patients. The chosen postures made the list as they contained foundational "alignment and strength needed to master many more advanced postures." While this may be true for some, I can easily imagine the trouble that most of my patients would find by attempting to cruise through the demonstrated techniques. With jump backs, headstands, handstands, and one arm side planks, there is little caution made about hyper extensibility, about "gripping" postures as Diane Lee explains so well, or about compensatory patterns that can cause strain or injury.
The yoga instructor is not to be blamed- any magazine, blog post, or website that sells fitness or wellness attempts to package information to the public in attractive and efficient methods. An impressively toned, graceful, and high-level yoga practitioner is perfect for such a marketing goal. Unfortunately, any person reading an instructor's guide to finding your physical strength does not have said instructor giving the required feedback about joint position, compensations, and necessary modifications or starting postures.
Patients everywhere espouse the benefits of a yoga practice, and we all have likely met someone whose life was drastically changed for the better after finding yoga. Can yoga also be the cause of an injury? I recall entering a new yoga class at a gym (where the instructor had created a "guru" type following) and I was horrified at the instructor's lack of restraint in guiding a room of 70 or more students through very advanced poses that they were simply expected to push themselves through. The students wore their suffering like a badge, telling each other to "stick it out" as they would keep getting stronger. The instructor then approached me and, without knowing anything about me or my body, twisted me aggressively into a posture that I quickly unraveled as soon as she moved away. As if students cannot find enough ways to push the body outside of a comfort zone, having an instructor violate basic safety principles (was I returning to yoga after a spinal surgery?) adds to the potential for injury.
In a systematic review of adverse events associated with yoga, Cramer, Krucoff & Dobos describe musculoskeletal injuries such as fractures, ligament tears, joint injuries, disc annular tears, and several cases related to breathing techniques. Headstands were a common method for acquiring a yoga-related injury. The authors suggest that for patients who have physical or mental ailments, yoga can be adapted to a patient's "…needs and abilities and performed under the guidance of an experienced and medically trained yoga teacher."
While yoga does not need to be discouraged, we may need to consider the patient's abilities and challenges, and be familiar with our community resources prior to suggesting that a patient begin yoga. If you are more interested in advancing your own practice and in learning how to apply yoga principles and postures to your patient populations, the Institute has several means to accomplish this. For patients who have pelvic pain, Dustienne Miller will teach Yoga for Pelvic Pain in March, where you can learn how to tailor specific yoga techniques for specific patient presentations and conditions. You can also check out Ginger Garner's live and on-line yoga courses by clicking here (scroll down to Yoga as Medicine).