Is Your Yoga Practice SAFE? 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.