Yoga’s gentle practice is not devoid of injuries

Yoga instructor Jill Abelson adjusts a student to demonstrate proper posture in a yoga pose. (Courtesy of Jill Abelson)

WASHINGTON – Most people see yoga as a gentler form of exercise that delivers an endless list of benefits, such as decreased stress, improved strength and a lower risk of heart disease.

But just because yoga is a practice that emphasizes graceful movements and peaceful thoughts, does not mean it is risk-free.

“The potential for injury is there for yoga, just like any other fitness regime or any other sport,” says Jill Abelson, an advanced yoga instructor who teaches in D.C. and San Francisco.

The issue of injuries related to yoga was recently highlighted in The New York Times story. The article discusses the growing debate over yoga’s safety, including an increase in hip injuries among highly flexible women who push their bodies too far in class.

Abelson says she is not worried that all this attention to possible problems may prompt people to shy away from yoga. In fact, she has seen the opposite trend in the practice.

“People are coming to yoga classes in droves,” she says.

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Abelson says beginners should pick a yoga style that matches their fitness levels. (Courtesy of Jill Abelson)

Statistics from Yoga Journal back up Abelson’s observations. The magazine’s 2012 “Yoga in America Study” reported 20.4 million people in the U.S. practice yoga, an increase from 15.8 million in 2008.

Abelson says her overriding concern is that yoga is growing so quickly, too many people are signing up for classes that are not suitable for their level of experience, body type, age and stage of life.

She says beginners should do their homework first and pick a yoga style that matches their individual fitness levels. It also is a great idea to seek referrals and check out reviews of yoga studios and teachers.

“Just like you would research a good doctor, or a good personal trainer or any other type of professional, do your research and try to find someone who truly matches your needs,” says Abelson, who has authored textbooks for advanced instructors.

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It’s important for yoga students to be realistic about their abilities and work at their own pace. (Courtesy of Jill Abelson)

Abelson says it is important for yoga students at all levels to be realistic about their abilities and to work at their own pace.

“Yoga is not supposed to be a competitive sport, but that does not mean people don’t compete with themselves or with each other in a class,” says Abelson, referring to some “type A” students she’s seen in the studio.

During a class at Flow Yoga in D.C., Abelson keeps a sharp eye on her students, gently using her hands to guide them into proper form. She offers encouragement, but also carefully adjusts poses that may be putting too much stress on muscles and joints.

It is a skill that has been honed in years of study and practice. While basic certification for yoga teachers requires 200 hours of training, more and more gyms and studios are looking for instructors with a 500-hour advanced certification and at least three years of experience.

The Yoga Alliance — yoga’s accreditation organization — is working on a new, tougher set of certification standards.

Abelson expects advanced certification will become the norm. She says mature, experienced teachers know how to work with individual students at various levels to make yoga both beneficial and safe.

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