I’ve been asking a lot of questions in the course of conducting this project. The one question I’m most frequently asked in turn is: “What should we do as a culture to reduce incidence of injury?”
This is thorny. It immediately provokes a conversation about the pros and cons of tighter regulations for studios and training standards for teachers. In the seeming absence of any concrete external pressure to regulate from governmental agencies, it’s a conversation that quickly reveals the basically libertarian bias of yoga culture. For the most part, yoga’s primary stakeholders — senior teachers and prominent studio owners — are strongly resistant to the idea that an art form for personal growth should be subject to collective oversight. Perhaps North American yoga is so rooted in 1960s countercultural ideal of self-expression that talk of self-regulation will always be distasteful. And where’s the money in it, really?
In 2010, I was a co-director of Yoga Community Toronto. One night we organized an open forum for the city’s studio owners who ran YTT programmes to meet and discuss the meaninglessness of collectively paying thousands of dollars every year to the Yoga Alliance rubber-stamp mill, in another country. We wanted to gauge interest in organizing a more local regulatory agency or guild. We spent a lot of time that night discussing the inadequacy of the YA 200-hour curriculum in terms of producing well-rounded teachers and safe classes. There were a lot of nodding heads.
We were happy about the cordial spirit in the room — up until that point, many would have said that the city’s studio owners would never have had tea together. But in the end, talks fizzled. Not a single studio owner or YTT director saw any personal benefit in collectivizing standards. The harsh truth was that as much as folks loved to complain about the YA, its irrelevance (at the time — things might be changing) had the priceless value of allowing the culture to pretend it was self-regulating, when it had no intention to.
I think it’s inevitable that in bits and pieces, yelling and screaming, yoga culture will be dragged down the road — probably through personal injury litigation — towards higher regulatory standards. But the raw stories that are emerging from my interviews and research are just too poignant to gum up with this particular acrimony. So I don’t think I’ll be giving much space to the regulation issue in the final WAWADIA book, because I don’t want a perceived political agenda to obscure accounts of great psychosocial complexity.
But if an interview subject offers some really interesting advice for studios and trainers about injury mitigation from a best-practices perspective, I’ll definitely pass it along. The following manifesto was tagged onto the end of an email I received from a subject that began with an account of the injuries she’d sustained in practice.
Background: she’s been practicing yoga for 13 years, starting with a devoted Ashtanga practice in the Jois tradition, then moving on by force of curiosity (as well as injury) to its modifications by North American teachers, and private viniyoga and traditional hatha yoga instruction. Since 2011, she has completed over 600 hours of YTT with certifications to teach hatha yoga, restorative yoga, and yoga philosophy. She currently teaches 3 times weekly or more in a commercial studio, as well as in a therapeutic setting where her students are young adults dealing with trauma or mental health challenges. She also works full-time in a corporate, hi-tech job.
Here’s what she has to say. Comments are most welcome.
Methods to Reduce Injury
Start small. This is not popular in North American cities where rent economics make large group classes a necessity if studio operators are to remain afloat financially. Regardless, this makes sense considering that yoga studios rely on a stable membership payees and drop-in students to function financially. As you pointed out in the chapter you contributed to 21st Century Yoga, most studio customers will drop out after 3 years. In many cases, injury or lack of personal attention will be the cause.
Strongly recommend Intro class attendance before Level 1 group classes are possible, or make them mandatory. In smaller European studios, I know of teachers who don’t allow students to take a full length class when they are new. An area is reserved in the back where they can be sent to do closing postures once the instructor notices they’ve reached their limit, with an assistant to lead them through these asanas quietly. Students gradually move from 30 minutes of regular practice to 45, then one hour etc., building endurance. This is explicitly stated in the studio’s “About” section, and adhered to.
Empower your front desk person to be a friendly, enthusiastic risk manager. When customers who are new to yoga show up for a first class that’s not a ‘Yoga Basics’ or a restorative session but an intermediate or advanced Level 1, don’t pussyfoot around. Encourage them to sign up and return for a more appropriate class, or explain that what the instructions they encounter might be difficult to follow, and they should accept that, if they choose to attend this session, it will be an observation and learning experience where they will need to respect their physical limitations.
Focus on breathing long and moving small initially, expanding to deeper asana as the body gains in suppleness and strength as well as alignment knowledge. Instruct with very clear markers as to “end of realistic movement range”, such as: “if you can do this, you can try this next step. If not, stay in this variation until it’s so comfortable you can move into this next stage”.
Break the rule of focussing on your own mat space and invite students to look at others. Start more advanced classes by telling attendees: you can move forward even if you can’t do an asana fully. Do just what you can. Then watch someone who can go further carefully (and respectfully). You will learn a lot just by doing this. You’re not just learning from me but from each other. Watch. Your body can learn how to move from other bodies. This is not envy. This is learning through observation. The brain gets this non-verbal stuff.
Integrate injury prevention and healing in YTT programs. And by this I don’t mean teach asana with variations. I mean survey your YTT students from the start to find out what their current and previous injuries are. Match them in pairs: one injured, one learner/teacher. Make them work together and report on results in their therapeutic dealings while a YTT teacher supervises them. Make it an obligation for YTT students with injuries to also report them to program leaders and to work with them to heal these issues. Create a standing forum in the training weekends or sessions for all to share and learn.
And finally: what I think is my most useful suggestion. In my professional life outside of teaching yoga, I work in technology services that support customer interaction with a large business’s offerings. We take customers’ money, we offer them software to connect with us and what we sell. With every software implementation, we deliver new features and also imperfections, which has become expected by every computer, software and smartphone app user over the past 20 years. Part of my job is very simple: Track complaints. Measure their frequency and prioritize them. Propose and design changes. Implement fixes and resolve them. Train staff to do better. Customers expect no less of us and we know that we won’t retain them unless we address their issues.
From a yoga perspective, this translates into the following: invite your students to report injuries sustained in class – not just by speaking with teachers afterwards, which is often impossible or too intimidating for many, quite apart from the fact that you may not realize you hurt yourself until later. Make it part of your studio’s membership benefits that you will help you address yoga injuries. Create an online form where students can report on what happened, how they are hurt, and who taught the class. Follow-up on these complaints. Reserve core teacher time to meet with these students and offer a therapeutic solution, direct them to other classes, suggest that they consult a doctor or a physiotherapist as necessary, etc. Consider it the cost of doing business and ensuring customer loyalty.
Offer regular workshops on injuries most often reported and how to avoid them. Give feedback to teachers invoked in complaints so they may learn what they are teaching incompletely, incorrectly, with insufficient variations, etc. Track results. Start again. Delight your students by making them feel they are looked after when they subscribe to your studio, and improve your teachers’ instructions all the while.