Dr. Scott Levin Offers Tips to Yoga Enthusiast to Minimize the Risk of Injury in 2013

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Controversy still rages today on yoga safety

Dr. Scott Levin

Many people think uncritically of yoga as a gentle and benign practice that is good for everyone. But, as with any form of exercise or physical activity, there are right and wrong ways to do yoga.

Yoga has been practiced for 5,000 years and has never been more popular than it is today. According to various estimates, as many as 20 million Americans have practiced yoga. Its adherents find yoga beneficial for flexibility, strength, stress reduction and general health as well as improvement in specific conditions, ranging from neck and back pain to high blood pressure and asthma. But the yoga world was roiled earlier this year when an article in the New York Times documented extensive and serious injuries that have been suffered by both new and experienced practitioners. Yoga instructors and fans pushed back and the controversy still rages.

“This is an issue that calls for common sense,” says Dr. Scott Levin of Somers Orthopaedic Surgery and Sports Medicine Group. “Many people think uncritically of yoga as a gentle and benign practice that is good for everyone, a cure-all that will promote general fitness and well-being. But, as with any form of exercise or physical activity, there are right and wrong ways to do yoga and there are real risks of injury to those who don't observe basic safety guidelines.”

Yoga injuries range from mild, such as strains and sprains, to devastating – broken ribs, ruptured spinal discs, torn Achilles tendons, even brain damage and stroke. The parts of the body most often injured are the lower back, shoulders, knees, wrists and neck. Many injuries are caused by performing poses incorrectly and some poses put undue stresses on various parts of the body.

Safety tips to minimize injury
“Many injuries can be avoided by avoiding the more extreme poses,” says Dr. Levin. “But any pose can be dangerous to someone with an existing weakness or if the pose is performed incorrectly. We recommend a few practical safety tips.”

Choose the right form of yoga and the right instructor: There are many styles of yoga: gentler ones, such as Kripalu, Viniyoga, and Integral Yoga; and more vigorous forms, such as Ashtanga, Bikram (hot yoga) and Power Yoga that are generally not recommended for beginners or inflexible people. Visit and observe several classes to decide which is right for you and to find an instructor who is qualified, safety-conscious and attuned to individual needs.

Know your limits: Don't push yourself beyond what you can do. If a move doesn't feel right, don't do it; pain is a signal to stop. If you're not sure if you're doing a pose correctly, check with your instructor. Yoga is not a competitive sport. Don't try to keep up with others in your class; focus on your own progress. Master basic poses first and move on to more difficult ones gently and only when you're confident your body is ready.

Dress properly: Wear comfortable clothing that allows you to move freely but is not too tight or too loose; do not wear jewelry. Bare feet are best or wear yoga socks that separate the toes to improve balance and that have sticky soles that grip the mat.

Warm up before every session: Cold muscles are more easily injured. Ten minutes of warming up with easy movements will increase blood circulation, lubricate joints and get your body to stretch. Start poses with the simplest and progress to the more difficult.

Discuss injuries or limitations with your instructor. Let your instructor know before your session of any injury or condition that might be aggravated by the session. He or she may be able to modify poses to reduce the risk of further injury or may suggest that you skip the session altogether.

Some safety-minded reformers in the yoga community have addressed injury avoidance by modifying poses to make them less dangerous, for example, by reducing the angle of neck extension, and some recommend eliminating certain poses, such as the headstand, from general classes. “But each yoga enthusiast is responsible for personal safety, must listen to his or her body and not push beyond its limits,” Dr. Levin concludes. “Practiced correctly, yoga promotes general fitness and well-being significant benefits to millions of

*“How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” by William J. Broad, New York Times, January 5, 2012

Somers Orthopaedic Surgery and Sports Medicine Group, founded in 1988, is one of the most comprehensive and specialized practices in the region. http://www.somersortho.com

Scott M. Levin, M.D., F.A.A.O.S is a board certified orthopaedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist.

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