yoga teacher

Tips for Teaching a Low-Risk Class

Written by AYC Instructor, Rosie Mulford

As a yoga teacher, you will likely encounter a student who gets injured. If an injury arises during your class, it doesn’t necessarily mean you were the cause. Regardless, it is important to know how to be aware of potential injuries so that you don’t unknowingly contribute to one.

David Keil, an expert in the anatomy of yoga, says, “Our first responsibility as a yoga community is to acknowledge openly and honestly that yoga asana is a physical activity. It is not risk-free. From there we can look at the places where teachers can reduce the risk to yoga participants, as well as the ways that yoga students can take responsibility for their own experience in yoga practice and yoga classes.”

In accordance with the yogic philosophy, we must become a witness to the entire concept of yoga asana classes. In these classes, it is important to practice the yogic idea that truth is the only thing that exists. If a student is practicing in a way that is not truthful to his or her body, he or she will eventually suffer the consequences of living in that untruth and become injured.  That is where linking the breath to your innate and true self becomes imperative.  If the teacher guides the student in taking a breath before the action of moving into the pose, the student will then be given a brief moment in which to tap into his or her inner voice (truth) and know whether or not it is appropriate to go deeper, stay in the same position, or back out with each exhale. In this way, it is critical to always listen to the body.

There is a public opinion that yoga is a “cure-all,” and there is an underlying assumption that one may get injured in a Cross-Fit class or a gymnastics class but not in yoga. The first thing we need to do is change that misconception. Modern-day yoga is just like any other group class, in the physical sense, with the same risks.

Jeffrey Frick, CEO of the Fitness and Wellness Insurance Program at the Murria & Frick Insurance Agency located in Solana Beach, California says, “Compared with other forms of exercise, yoga generates fewer and less costly insurance claims. However, yoga continues to be one of the fastest-growing forms of exercise we insure.” Frick’s company specializes in coverage for fitness facilities including health clubs, yoga studios, and climbing gyms. The yoga liability program averages about 10 claims per year with the average paid claim amount being $6,000.

In contrast, the company averages about 200 claims per year from their other fitness programs, with the average paid claim amount being $20,000. The program’s largest yoga insurance claim, for more than $200,000 in 1994, involved a teacher overstepping ethical boundaries and injuring a student. More commonly, Frick notes, “Yoga claimants say the instructor pushed them too hard into positions that caused injury to them.” Frick echoes Leslie Kaminoff and Judith Hanson Lasater by saying that to prevent problems, teachers need to be sensitive to their students’ ability to do certain poses. In the fitness industry in general, Frick says, “Half of claims are customer induced; that is, they come not from our negligence, but from an over-zealous client. The lesson is that instructors should have protected these people from themselves.”

How do we move forward and combat the risk of injury for students? First, we need to evaluate what a student is looking to gain from yoga and whether or not they have any prior injuries.

Secondly, as a yoga community, we need to openly acknowledge that yoga asana is a physical activity.  It is not risk-free. At this point, both the teacher and the student can figure out ways to reduce risk.

Leslie Kaminoff, an internationally recognized specialist in yoga and breath anatomy, says, “Some people have such faith in yoga that it overcomes their critical thinking. They think yoga practice, or a yoga teacher, can’t hurt them, which isn’t true.”

Roger Cole, Ph. D., scientist and Iyengar Yoga teacher relays ways to minimize the risk of injury in a classroom: “Teachers and students need to understand where the body is most likely to get injured in yoga and know how to protect these areas.”

Cole names the lower back, knees, and neck as areas of the body most prone to injury, followed by the sacroiliac (SI) joint and the origin of the hamstring muscle (where it joins the sitting bone). He notes that back and SI injuries are often linked to forward bends because they can place strain on the disks and ligaments at the base of the spine.

The riskiest postures are any seated, straight-leg forward bends that also include a twist. Cole says, “In order to make these poses safer, tilt from the pelvis as far as you can before the back gets involved, elongate the spine, don’t flex it too far, and never force yourself into the pose.” He further cautions, “Tilting the pelvis has its own risk. It puts more stretch on the hamstrings, so if you push too hard, you can strain them, especially at the point where they connect to the sitting bones.”

To prevent knee injury, Cole emphasizes the importance of not forcing the knees, especially in Padmasana, Lotus Pose, and instead advises turning the thighbone outward from the hip joint. “Pulling up on the foot or ankle or pushing down on the knee in Lotus puts a tremendous crushing force on the cartilage of the inner knee,” he says.

The most common posture to cause injuries, especially in people over 40, is Salamba Sarvangasana or Shouldterstand, according to Larry Payne, Ph.D., a Los Angeles yoga teacher, therapist and coauthor of Yoga Rx. For beginners, he suggests practicing Half Shoulderstand, a variation of the full pose where the hands are placed on the lower back to support the weight of the hips, thereby removing most of the weight from the neck. Full Shoulderstand can be dangerous because of the excess weight many Americans carry, notes Payne, who avoids the posture for anyone who is more than 30 pounds overweight. He offers students a continuum of options, including Viparita Karani, Legs-up-the-Wall Pose, Ananda Balasana , Happy Baby Pose, and Half Shoulderstand. He finishes by saying, “The attitude of a teacher is very important in avoiding injury. Teachers who make the class feel intimidated or wimpy if they need a modification or want to come out of a pose are asking for trouble.”

The best thing you can do as a yoga teacher to reduce any risk of injury is to constantly be aware of your student’s needs and capabilities. Offer modifications of more advanced poses that might result in a student injury. Above all, be thoughtful, caring and educate your students on how to keep themselves safe and injury-free during class and in their own practice.