This one has been percolating away in my mind for a while and it’s a response to two issues:
– doctors and fitness professionals recommending yoga as a cure-all for flexibility and rehab issues
– yoga being perceived as a purely physical discipline, as a workout, or as a stretching protocol.
Let’s get started by reminding ourselves of what yoga really is as a practice.
(Me in mermaid pose. Yoga, or just a good old stretch?)
What is ‘yoga’?
Yoga in its modern form has become entrenched in the popular psyche as a pretzel-making form of stretching and contortion, maybe with some chanting thrown in for good measure.
It’s actually better understood as a belief system or philosophy composed of Eight Limbs (drawn from Patanjali’s Sutras, a classic and much argued over yoga text), that include codes of personal conduct and rules for behaviours towards others, meditation, withdrawal of the senses, and the physical practice, or asana, which is intended to prepare the body and mind for the demands of seated meditation and is only one of those eight components.
You can practise yoga without performing a single physical pose if you meditate regularly, develop spiritual discipline and are mindful and compassionate in your dealings with others and yourself. I suspect this isn’t what the average GP has in mind when they recommend a patient with low back pain to ‘try yoga’.
Why is the misunderstanding of yoga problematic?
I’m not a massive yoga purist and accept that many hybrid and gimmicky forms of physical yoga practices exist that bear little relation to what I think of as yoga. It may well lead people to explore yoga in more depth later on, which is great and, if it doesn’t, c’est la vie. However, not understanding what yoga is can be potentially a problem.
Turning up to a group yoga class could be a surprise in several ways. Depending on the class, you may find you don’t move much at all but will be expected to sit, chant, breathe and meditate. At the other end of the spectrum, you may find yourself well out of your depth and at risk of injury in a class too advanced for your needs: there is a world of difference between a slow, supported yin session and the rigours of the Ashtanga primary series.
Yoga teachers are not, by definition, experts in stretching
Please don’t labour under the illusion that a yoga teacher automatically knows what stretching is. Every training course is different and some place a much greater emphasis on spiritual teachings than physical practice. Yoga teachers are taught to teach yoga: alignment, basic biomechanics, joint actions, contraindications and modifications for injuries or pregnancy. They are not mobility and stretching specialists.
I have co-taught a yoga anatomy workshop to teachers who did not know what I meant by basic terms such as flexion and extension in the spine, and have clients in my own classes who have been physically and painfully pushed into poses by other teachers of which their body was not capable. Do not assume training in advanced anatomy and physiology in a yoga teacher.
Do your research before booking
If someone with low back pain or tight hamstrings is recommended to try yoga by their doctor or PT, they need to do some research. I would argue that they should really book a 1:1 with an experienced yoga teacher who knows about biomechanics, the science of stretching (stretch reflexes, positional isometrics, myofascial release) and have a session tailored to their needs.
It may actually be preferable that they see a physiotherapist or a personal trainer with a specialism in mobility work and movement assessment. Do your homework and choose someone who is least likely to cause further injury, not an over enthusiastic teacher who thinks yoga can cure all ills. Yoga teaching, compared with personal training and physiotherapy, is a frighteningly unregulated industry, so do your homework and check your teacher’s training background and insurance. They should not be offended by you asking.
Doctors and fitpros, please take the time to learn the difference between yoga styles, as well as the difference between the very broad church that is yoga and the purely physical training involved in Pilates, for example, which might be a much better option for a client with poor core stability. Have specific teachers to whom you can refer clients or patients, whose credentials you can trust, rather than making a blanket recommendation to ‘try yoga’. They may come back to you in worse condition than you found them.