Fitness

Prevent yoga injuries

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Fitness

Prevent yoga injuries

Last May, I was an hour into a sweaty workout when I felt a pop, followed by excruciating pain, in my left knee (the woman in front of me said it sounded like a rubber band snapping). No, I wasn't doing power squats at boot camp.
I was taking a yoga class. The next day, after an X-ray ruled out a fracture, I called my friend Cathy, a physiotherapist, in tears.

It turns out yoga is not the risk-free physical activity you might think it is. Although there are no known Canadian statistics tracking such mishaps, injuries are definitely on the rise as more and more people try out yoga, according to Wendy Jardine, a physiotherapist in private practice and a professor at Dalhousie University's School of Physiotherapy in Halifax. In the past five years, Jardine has treated an increasing number of patients with yoga-related injuries.

The dangers of yoga
There's no argument that yoga, the ancient Indian practice of meditation, breath work and poses, has physical and mental benefits. According to a Harvard Medical School study, "yoga and meditation practices are effective in stress management, alleviating anxiety and musculoskeletal problems and improving mood.”

But yoga is also athletic and carries with it many of the same risks of injury as do sports such as skiing and soccer. Those risks may even be higher because yoga practitioners, intent on focusing on their poses, may fail to pick up on warning signs of an injury.

Or, like me, they just want to push themselves harder. I felt my knee was going to pop every time I did a pose called “half-bound forward lotus fold,” in which the knee is bent and rotated to the side, I kept on doing the pose. My body was trying to tell me something, but I wanted to push myself.

Of course, my knee eventually did give out. My friend Cathy determined that my fibula (the calf bone whose tip sits below the knee joint) had popped out and then immediately back into place during the half lotus position. The pain was caused when the bone pushed through surrounding muscles, tendons and ligaments.

Common injuries
Injuries to the knees are among the most common in yoga. “With the knee, you must watch poses that incorporate extreme bending or rotation, especially when those movements are combined,” says Jardine. “The knee is basically two bones sitting on top of each other; it's good for mobility, but not for strength or stability.” Poses that incorporate the half or full lotus cross-legged position, or those such as the revolved side angle pose, where the knee is bent and rotated and taking some of the body's weight, are particularly hard on knees.

In addition to the knee, injuries to the back and wrists are also common in yoga. Poses that fully extend the back, such as the full upward bow, can cause disc problems, while wrists are vulnerable in weight-bearing postures such as the downward dog (hands and feet on the ground with legs straight and bum in the air) and plank (pushup position with straight arms and legs). One major warning sign is losing the feeling in any part of your body. “If you start getting pins and needles in any part of your body, you're blocking circulation from tight muscles or there is tension in a nerve,” says Jardine. “That's a red flag. You should come out of the pose carefully, give your muscles a break, then try the pose again.” If pins and needles persist after the pose, consult a health-care specialist.

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Find a good yoga teacher
While it's important to listen to your body, part of the onus on injury prevention lies with the instructor. One of Jardine's patients, a woman in her mid-60s, was attending her second beginners' class when the teacher put the students into a headstand, a relatively advanced pose. Afterward, the woman had a tension headache as well as lingering neck and shoulder pain (she didn't return to the class). "That was just stupid [of the teacher]," says Yogi Akal, the founder and director of The Institute of Yoga Therapy and Yoga Teacher Training in Toronto. "That's the reason I started this school; to train teachers properly. Accreditation is very important, but even still, some accredited teachers are good and some are awful."

Jeannie Vasilakos, 40, a teacher of ashtanga (which can be a strenuous style of yoga) at Ganges Yoga Studio on Salt Spring Island, is one of the good ones. "I begin every class by asking whether my regular students have any new injuries and if new students have any injuries I should know about," she says. "I watch the ones who have an injury or a problem area, such as a tight hip, very carefully during the class. I tell them that if anything feels painful, they should stop."

Vasilakos advocates for a gentle approach to yoga. “The less resistance there is –- and pain is a resistance –- the more our bodies can open. I want to make sure my students are safe.”

Treating a yoga injury
Trusting your teacher is important, but students also must learn to pace themselves. Here are five steps to follow if you injure yourself during a yoga class:

1. Tell the instructor right away if you hurt yourself.
2. Put ice on the area.
3. Keep weight off of the injury -- do not continue the class.
4. Elevate the injured limb if possible.
5. Massage, acupuncture, and physiotherapy have all been known to treat yoga injuries.

Getting back on the horse
I continued doing yoga at home but I waited three months -– until I felt my knee had healed adequately -– before resuming my regular yoga classes. I learned that being patient was exactly what experts advise. "It's easy to reinjure an area that hasn't fully recovered," cautions Jardine.

The good news is that, regardless of the type of injury, it's unlikely you'll have to stop doing yoga forever –- you'll just have to practise it more mindfully. "There is no kind of yoga that isn't good for you,” says Akal. "Just be careful."

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