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

"I know all of their aches and pains," says Briggs, who uses teaching assistants when there are more than 25 people in class or he's having a hard time seeing everyone. "If I don't recognize someone, I go over and ask, 'Do you have any issues I need to know about?' "

Disclosure can be a problem. Once, he was guiding a student he had known for a few months in a shoulder stand for the first time. In the advanced pose, the student's upper back and shoulders are on the floor while their hips and legs are shooting up to the ceiling in a straight line.

"She looked up from the floor and asked me, 'You think this is OK for my pacemaker?' " Briggs says. He asked her to get out of the pose. Very carefully.

Briggs says the sad truth is that the competitiveness behind so many injuries is not necessarily driven by the students. It often is the teachers who have the ego problems.

"A lot of teachers have an investment in creating razzle-dazzle students," he says, referring to those who can do head stands, deep back bends and other difficult poses. "But yoga is done to make your life work better. It's not about getting better at yoga. Teachers have to be really careful with this."

Noelle Gillies learned that the hard way. She had been practicing yoga for 26 years when she enlisted in a teacher-training program in 2010. One day, the instructor asked her to take over for 20 minutes. Gillies thought she'd start her fellow trainees in a plank pose.

"I wasn't warmed up, and I felt a sort of crunch in my right shoulder," says Gillies, who developed rotator cuff tendinitis as a result. "It was inflamed, and I couldn't move my arm for a couple of days."

Physical therapy put her on the mend, and now, Gillies, 47, practices a therapeutic style of yoga that she loves. Looking back, she says too many people strive for the epitome of the pose.

"You have to take it in steps, not get hung up on the end result, but it's hard in this culture because we're always trying to get ahead," Gillies says.

In her three decades as an orthopedic physical therapist, Linda Meneken has seen hamstring tears and various strains and sprains as a result of yoga. Still, she sings its virtues over its potential dangers with the caveat that anyone who wants to start a yoga practice should consult their doctor. And they should focus on proper alignment and always ask for modifications if they can't do something.

"Pushing through the pain? No, no, no," she says.

Dist. by MCT Information Services

5 postures worth pondering

According to the research of Roger Cole, a UCSF-trained psychobiologist who teaches yoga and studies its effects, these are the five postures most likely to cause injury depending on body structure, previous injury, and fitness level.

Lotus: Avoid this seated pose if you are really stiff in the hips or leg muscles because it can put stress on the inner knee. Some people's joints are aligned and bones are shaped in a way that makes lotus difficult. If it hurts, don't do it.

Forward fold: This seated or standing bend can cause a hamstring tear or compressed or herniated disc in the lower backs of people who push too hard. Aim for a modest curve and gentle stretch of the back.

Shoulder stand: Because of the neck flexion involved in this pose, a stack of blankets should always be used to support and help to elevate the hips and lower back and avoid putting strain on the neck muscles. Otherwise, there is a risk for ligament tears, and, while rare, bone spurs in the neck.

Chaturanga: This flowing pose, which begins as a plank pose that you slowly lower to the ground, is not dangerous but because it's often done multiple times, form can be compromised, resulting in a repetitive strain injury in the back or shoulders.

Splits: Yoga instructors and other flexible types who practice the front-to-back splits and other postures where the pelvis tilts forward can retain muscle tears resulting in scar tissue.YOGA TIPS

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