Hold that stretch: Being safe about yoga

Being safe about yoga

By Jessica Yadegaran

Contra Costa Times

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 21 2012 4:00 p.m. MST

Tony Briggs, director and owner of Turtle Island Yoga, demonstrates the correct way to do the head to knee yoga pose, stressing the use of the supplemental equipment that is meant to help prevent injury, at the Berkeley Yoga Center in Berkeley, California, on January 30, 2012. (Laura A. Oda/Oakland Tribune/MCT)

Laura A. Oda, Mct

WALNUT CREEK, Calif. — Mark Goldman was a relative newcomer to yoga when he found himself teetering in standing lotus pose with an instructor barking over him like a drill sergeant.

"You can get into this pose," the yogi said. "Push harder."

Goldman, a "typical Silicon Valley" go-getter who works in high tech sales, took the bait. The harder the better, he thought. He deepened his squat, forcing his knee down. Then — snap.

He'd torn his meniscus, the tissue that aids motion in the knee. Surgery would repair it. However, it would take Goldman, a longtime runner with a stiff body, years to develop a mindful yoga practice more in line with what Indians intended when they developed the lifestyle 5,000 years ago.

He listens to his body. And he doesn't compete with the person sitting next to him. "I'm much smarter," says Goldman, 61, of Los Gatos, Calif. "When I start feeling any discomfort now, I back off."

Yoga is a physical, mental and spiritual discipline with numerous styles. In the West, where the popularity of the postural component has helped yoga to stretch from 4 million practitioners in 2001 to as many as 20 million in 2010, injury — as with any exercise regimen — is a possibility.

Classes are too big, restricting one-on-one attention. Instructors often are inexperienced, missing opportunities to prevent injuries. And the ego — that inner-voice telling us to push — increases chances of pain, even for advanced students. However, experts say that if you develop a practice based on proper form and your own ability, you can avoid injury and reap yoga's benefits, such as stress reduction and heart health.

When you match the postural practice to the person's needs, then you're being true to the intention of yoga, says Roger Cole, a University of California-San Francisco-trained psychobiologist and certified Iyengar yoga instructor of 30 years. Iyengar encourages the use of props such as blankets, blocks and straps to help bring the body into alignment. Cole has studied and written extensively on the topic of yoga injuries. The most common injuries he sees involve the knees, lower back and neck.

"Injuries happen, but when they do either the teacher or the student did something wrong," says Cole, who lives in Del Mar, Calif. "The people I'd be concerned about especially are the ones who are trying to go beyond the limits that they once achieved."

Doris Livezey had been practicing yoga for at least five years when she popped into her San Jose gym for a class. The regular instructor, who often walked around the room adjusting improper form, was out sick, and the substitute had the students in a pose Livezey had never done.

It was a chest opener that involved using a strap to bring your hands behind your back while bending at the hips and allowing gravity to bring your arms forward and over your head. She tried it.

"My left arm didn't make it, and I tore my rotator cuff," says Livezey, who froze her gym membership because of the shoulder injury. It required a cortisone shot for pain. A simple strengthening exercise recommended by a surgeon eventually fixed the problem. By then, Livezey had traded in yoga for hiking and square dancing. However, she still loves doing the basic stretches at home.

"Yoga is a great workout," says Livezey, a 60-something. "But if you have a big class moving quickly through some poses, you can't rely on the teacher to help you. You have to know your body."

Tony Briggs strives to develop an intimate relationship with every student's spine. He brings 34 years of experience, including training under the legendary B.K.S. Iyengar, to every class he teaches at the Berkeley Yoga Center and Turtle Island Yoga in San Anselmo, where he trains soon-to-be-instructors. Injury prevention is one of the things he stresses most.

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