Question from Jim B. in Chicago:
My doctor has recommended Yoga as a way of dealing with the residual effects of trauma from an auto accident. I’ve finished physical therapy and am cleared to go back to normal activities, but I’m worried about reinjuring myself. I tried a class at my gym but it was very vigorous. It’s hard to imagine I’ll ever be able to do some of those poses. How important are they and, more to the point, how do I know if a class is safe and appropriate for me?
Thanks for that excellent question. You are not alone in asking it. It’s terrific that the medical community has begun to embrace yoga’s healing potential, but sometimes neither the patient nor the doctor really knows exactly what is meant by that recommendation to, “Try yoga.” Finding a safe way to incorporate yoga after injury, illness, or some other physically compromising event is an increasingly common goal.
I’ve encountered a number of people recently whose doctors suggested yoga, not just for structural issues such as yours but also to help improve or manage conditions like high blood pressure, weight management, chronic stress and sleep disturbances. Yoga does offer potent tools to help mitigate all of those conditions and more, but it is important to understand your options. You’ll want to find a practice that uses those tools appropriately and is tailored to suit your specific needs.
In asking the question the way you did, you’ve actually illuminated an important point: It’s rarely appropriate to go from injury or illness into a large group class.
It’s almost never a good idea to be in a class that is moving at a pace and level that is outside of your abilities and/or comfort zone, but for when coming back from illness or injury it can be downright dangerous. From what you’ve shared, you’d be far better served by starting with a series of one-on-one sessions with a highly trained teacher or yoga therapist.
A skilled professional who has familiarity with your condition can help you develop a practice that reflects your physical needs and limitations, emotional state, commitment level, and schedule. Understanding not just what you are capable of but also how motivated you are, what your availability is and any secondary issues, such as residual feelings about your accident, are all important considerations in devising your healing strategy.
Working one-on-one with a teacher reduces the likelihood of re-injury or taking on too much too soon. As you yourself discovered, now’s not the time to conform to what everyone else is doing at a pace that alarms you. A carefully thought out physical practice will help you to restore range of motion, help you to strengthen safely, and build gradually, taking on more only as you are ready.
Don’t get me wrong. I love group classes and teach a bunch of them myself. A good teacher can transmit a lot of solid technique and philosophy in a group setting, offering modifications and safety precautions for every pose. But there is far less opportunity to customize in a group setting. By definition, those classes must serve the entire group.
Historically, the standard ratio of student to teacher was 1:1. In the traditional student/teacher interaction, each student acquires a personal practice that employs all eight limbs of yoga, not just asana, the physical practice that is the mainstay of so many group classes.
Depending on the circumstances of your injury, you may need to recover energy, cope with trauma, sadness or grief, or counteract a sense of imbalance in addition to your physical issues. You may be experiencing changes in your sleep cycle and/or eating patterns, which can cause secondary problems and affect your mood. A vitality-boosting pranayama sequence or a mantra-based meditation to help you cope with acceptance of a difficult situation may be your best first step toward recovery.
In seeking out a teacher/therapist to work with, look for background, experience, and training, specifically as it pertains to your condition. An “RYT” designation after a person’s name signifies that they are registered with the Yoga Alliance, currently the only association creating standards within the yoga teaching community. The two credentialing levels–RYT-200 and RYT-500–represent the minimum number of teacher-training hours completed. An “E” before that means the person has devoted at least 1,000 hours to teaching yoga.
To work therapeutically, most teachers/therapists will have put in many more training hours than those minimums. For example, my designation is ERYT-500, but I’ve completed over 2,000 teacher-training hours. And I’m hardly the exception to the rule.
There is currently no credentialing organization for yoga therapists, although the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) is in the process of devising a set of competencies and trainings. But there’s nothing stopping you from doing a bit of snooping on your own. Any therapeutic training your prospective therapist has undergone will have website. Google it and take a look around. Judge for yourself whether the training appears rigorous and comprehensive.
In addition to yoga-specific training and experience, factor in the person’s other trainings as well. Many people come into teaching yoga from other health professions, such as physical therapy, massage therapy, chiropractic, etc. Look at the whole picture and don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions. I personally find my coaching training to be an invaluable aid in devising ways to help my clients to tap into their own healing potential.
Granted, I am not the least bit impartial on this subject, having myself found freedom from 8 years of chronic pain via Viniyoga, but if you are looking for someone to work with and I’m out of your geographic range, I’d start my search for someone to work with here.
Does this mean you’ll never be able to go into a large group class again? Not necessarily. Once you have a handle on your needs, feel more confident in your physical abilities and understand any ongoing physical restrictions, you should be fine in a group setting. Make sure that you know what positions to avoid and how to modify postures to accommodate your needs. (I’ll share more pointers on what to look for in a group class in a later post.)
That said, once you’ve had the experience of creating a dedicated space in your home in which to practice a personalized sequence that suits your body to a “t” at a time that fits your schedule, you may not want to go back to class!