yoga

Is Your Yoga Practice SAFE?

Is Your Yoga Practice SAFE?

Alyana Ramirez, E-RYT 200
Alyana Ramirez, E-RYT 200

North America’s yoga industry has grown exponentially in the past 10 years. Over 36 million people practice yoga in the United States – a number that has doubled since 2012.   Doctors are recommending yoga for everything from Parkinson’s Disease to PTSD. Even at social gatherings, groups of yoga enthusiasts can be found discussing how amazing they feel after their first month of yoga classes. With this increase in popularity also comes a plethora of new yoga teachers and classes. With so many new teachers and studios popping up on every corner, practitioners have more choice than ever. Yoga is a broad term for a very complex and varied practice. It’s difficult to know what you’re walking into when you walk into your new neighborhood studio, or even a class taught by a different instructor. When presented with so many different choices, it becomes clear how essential it is to offer a yoga program which creates an inclusive and safe environment for every practitioner. SAFE Yoga (Sensitive Approach For Everyone) is a yoga program which honors the heart of yoga practice.

At its heart, the practice of yoga is a practice in meditation – an effort to create more connection between mind, body, and the present moment. In application, the importance our culture places on physical appearance, fitness, and youth has pressured many yoga teachers to modify classes so that the physical benefits of the practice are emphasized. With classes named CorePower Yoga and teachers encouraging students to “push to your edge”, “burn off your Thanksgiving dinner”, or “do more, reach further”, the practice becomes unrecognizable. While there’s nothing wrong with taking care of our bodies, making this the primary focus means that practitioners find themselves walking into yet another self-improvement course. The yoga classroom becomes one more place where we aren’t good enough, strong enough, flexible enough, or young enough, as opposed to the mindful, self-compassionate practice that it was originally intended to be.

When a healthy individual goes into a class described above, it can be frustrating but probably won’t have lasting negative effects. They might still receive some level of benefit from the practice, enjoy the movement and breathing, and receive some inspiration. But what about an individual who comes in with an injury, body dysmorphia, or depression? In these cases, asking them to push harder, do better, or burn more calories can actually be dangerous.

Every person that walks into a yoga class is an individual in the truest sense of the word. We all are coming in with a different body type, background, fitness level, and mental and/or physical health concerns. While it is common for a yoga teacher to make adjustments for visible injuries or limitations, many people will walk into an open class with a concern that is not easily visible. Over 3 million people are diagnosed with a herniated spinal disc every year. 1 in 5 Americans struggles with mental illness annually. At any given time, almost 10% of the U.S. population is dealing with anxiety, major depression, or bipolar disorder, and over 31 million people have struggled with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Additionally, between 10-15% of the U.S. population suffers from an eating disorder.

Even for individuals who aren’t coming into class with an identifiable physical or mental health issue, the Western approach to yoga can have the opposite of its intended effect. Orthopedic surgeons report an increase in the need for hip replacements on younger patients who are also yoga teachers, and also note that it is not uncommon to see devoted yoga practitioners coming in with chronic pain in their shoulders, elbows, and necks. It’s easy to see how hot yoga, an extremely popular style, can be dangerous when practiced in a 104 degree room, possibly leading to dehydration or overstretched ligaments.

This doesn’t mean that the benefits of yoga aren’t real. Many individuals do experience real healing through yoga. But when practitioners are pushed by their teachers to do things that aren’t appropriate for their circumstances, real damage can occur. Making sure a teacher is well informed on the different mental and physical conditions that may require modifications in the practice is one step to reducing this risk. Of course, it isn’t possible for teachers to be aware of the unique needs of every single practitioner in their group class, nor would it be possible for them to modify the class in a way that works for everyone in it. Therefore, it is essential that teachers learn how to encourage their students in a different way, empowering them to do what is most compassionate for themselves in the moment.

If we can make mindful meditation the guiding focus of classes again and recognize the uniqueness of every individual, yoga becomes more accessible for populations that can deeply benefit but may have avoided the practice due to misinformed or insensitive instruction. And isn’t accessibility really the point? Non-harming and compassion for self and others is a core tenet of yoga philosophy. If we want to promote this practice as a source of healing, peace, and strength, we need to do everything possible to make yoga accessible to everyone who wants them.

Alyana Ramirez has been studying the integration of yoga, health, and human behavior for over 10 years.  She has trained in trauma sensitive yoga, is certified in yoga for mental health, and has had students of all ages and abilities.  She has seen firsthand how thoughtful, intentional movement, when built on a foundation of mindfulness, can be the first step to more positive relationships – with both ourselves and the world around us.

Reflections on MBSR: Silent Retreat

MBSR alumni have discussed with great enthusiasm the silent retreat, which takes place during week six.   The retreat has taken on a mythical quality. Until one experiences the retreat, it remains an elusive and unknowable experience. There are many layers to this special time. It is such an amazing experience to just spend a day completely devoted to looking inward. No communication and minimal eye contact with others. The idea is to cultivate a space of self-awareness and non-judgment, not comparing or striving to emulate others.   By creating an external space of silence, we facilitate the ability to look inward.

With this sacred space created, we start the retreat with a short meditation. We set our intention for the day.   Our group transitions to yoga, which helps facilitate the mind-body connection. Thinking about participating in yoga has brought me the most anxiety, yet I am pleasantly surprised by how good each movement feels in connection with my breath. By savasana (corpse pose), I am completely relaxed. It would be fine if we just lay on our mats for the remainder of the day. That’s not on the agenda, though.

We gather into a circle and begin another short meditation, before participating in the walking meditation. The conference center where the retreat is being held has two labyrinths.   According to the Duncan Center’s website, the labyrinth “is a path and spiritual tool for growth, discernment, prayer and healing”.

We pace our starts and slowly start the winding way toward the center. Some walk somberly while others gently dance with the path. My own pace is slow. I find myself distracted by my other classmates. A large palmetto bug scurries across the path toward the middle. My instinct is to scream and run, but instead I continue walking toward the middle – symbolically walking toward my fear. I will later share this insight during our closing, attempting to turn the bug’s presence into something significant. (As an aside – most of us started from the wrong direction and did not end up making it to the center correctly. An excellent time to practice non-judgment!)

After the labyrinth, we have the option of either journaling or sitting quietly until lunch. I take that time to write down my reflections in my notebook. I don’t have any discomfort in not speaking with others. It is normal for me to keep to myself. What comes harder for me is giving up the niceties of daily living – offering someone a chair, blessing them when they sneeze, or using please and thank you in interactions.

It is those interactions that are most missed when we break for lunch. It is strange to splinter off from everyone else and eat lunch in silence. Even those sharing the dining room with our group sense our dedication to mindfulness. I choose a table that is tucked away in a corner. As instructed by Dr. Shutt, I really take a moment to observe the shape and color of the food before me. My inclination is to tear into the warm, buttered roll before me. Instead, I start with my salad. In between bites, I set my fork on my plate. I meditate on the softness of the chickpea, the fleshly qualities of my raisin, and the creaminess of blue cheese dressing. I honestly don’t think I could eat like this everyday; however, I vow to myself that I will try to eat at least three mindful meals per week.

After lunch, Dr. Shutt leads us through one of my very favorite meditation practices, metta (compassion) meditation. We start by extending compassionate thoughts to ourselves, expanding to those who we love, our friends, acquaintances, and eventually those we find challenging. I visualize my husband, my dog and cats, family members, the great people I call my coworkers, the kindness of random strangers, and that one cousin who really gets on my nerves. During the practice, I see the color purple surrounding everyone. Superficially, purple is my favorite color. It represents the women’s movement and I identify with it strongly. Purple also is the crown chakra color, and is symbolic of spirituality, reconciliation, and balance. Whatever the significance, my meditation is colored in various shades of violet.

Gathered in our circle, we finish the day by breaking silence and sharing our experiences. I really am sad for the day to end. I can easily see myself participating in a future ten-day retreat. I don’t want to misrepresent the experience as easy. Meditation and silence is extremely challenging and it forces you to sit with your inner turmoil. I have been on both sides, and I can tell you that I would rather sit in silence than react in fear. I am grateful to share this practice with such amazing people.