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Practicing Safe Yoga -- 5 Tips to Avoid Injuries

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Can yoga wreck your body? A recent article in the New York Times argues that it can, quoting the increase of yoga-related injuries in recent years as the number of yoga practitioners has soared.

Indeed, the number of yoga injuries treated in emergency rooms or doctors' offices rose to 5,500 in 2007, according to the Consumer Products Safety Commission. The same year, the number of yoga practitioners reached an estimated 15.8 million. That pegs the number of injuries at 0.035 percent, or about 3.5 out of every 10,000 practitioners.

Can weight training wreck your body? Between 1990 to 2007, an estimated 970,000 weight training-related injuries were treated in U.S. hospital emergency rooms, according to the American Journal of Sports Medicine. That's an average of 57,000 injuries per year among an estimated 37 to 45 million practitioners, or roughly 0.12 to 0.15 percent, about 1.2 to 1.5 out of every 1,000 practitioners.

Can golfing wreck your body? In 2007, an estimated 103,000 of the nation's estimated 26.2 million golf players visited the emergency room for golfing-related injuries, according to data from the Consumer Products Safety Commission. That's 0.39 percent, or 3.9 out of every 1,000 golf players incurring an injury.

Any type of physical activity aiming to increase fitness carries with it a certain degree of risk. Pegged next to the injury rate of common physical activities like weight training and golf, however, yoga comes across as far safer than even a relatively innocuous activity like golf (ignoring for the moment that yoga is not just about fitness).

Exercise improves health by challenging the body, triggering changes that make the body stronger: increased muscle mass, stronger bones, greater flexibility, coordination and range of motion -- depending on what is targeted. That is the core of what makes exercise work, but that is also what makes any type of exercise program carry some degree of risk.

As the above statistics indicate, however, making claims about the injury risks of yoga without backing them up by the relative percentage risk is at best poor reporting, at worst could discourage someone from trying yoga who might otherwise benefit from the practice.

Yoga has more than 50 well-documented health benefits according to Dr. Tim McCall, author of Yoga as Medicine. Numerous studies on yoga as therapy demonstrate that yoga offers not just effective stress management, but also is a useful complement in the treatment of diabetes, cancer, MS, heart disease, back pain and many more conditions. Physicians, for example Dr. Loren Fishman, have effectively used yoga in the treatment of numerous debilitating musculoskeletal issues, including rotator cuff tears, back pain, sciatica and much more.

That being said, any type of physical activity that challenges the body should be practiced with awareness and caution. To help you develop the safest possible yoga practice, follow these five tips:

1. Adopt a beginner's mind. You wouldn't go into an advanced ballet or kickboxing class without working your way up through the basics first. Yoga may look comparatively more simple, but it's not. Start with a series of yoga classes targeting beginners, which introduces you to the basics in a systematic way. Not all studios offer intro courses for beginners, so look around. Make sure you build a solid foundation of knowledge of alignment before you try your hand at more challenging classes like a rigorous Vinyasa flow class or a hot yoga class.

2. Learn to listen to your body. In any yoga class, your body, not the teacher, is the real guide to what is best for you. Listening to your body and honoring its signals is key to a safe practice. If something doesn't feel right, ease out of the pose. If something feels like a strain, you're pushing too hard. If your body feels like it needs a break, relax back in child's pose.

3. Do your own pose, not your neighbor's. For most of us, the mind tends to overrule the body. So if the person next to you gets her face all the way down to her shins in Paschimottasana (seated forward bend), by golly, you're gonna get there too, no matter how much your hamstrings howl. However, yoga at its essence is about getting in tune with your body. The only right way to practice a pose is to practice it in the way that honors where your body is at, and not trying to force yourself into your neighbor's pose.

4. Look for your intelligent edge. Look for the sweet spot in every pose. That is where you are challenging the body and yourself, but still staying completely within your comfort zone. Your intelligent edge is that place in the posture where you are feeling a soothing stretch and your muscles are working, but there is no pain, strain or fatigue.

5. Pick the right teacher and approach. When it comes to practicing and teaching yoga, it's not a one size fits all. Yoga teachers vary in approach, style, experience and training. If you're young and fit, you will be able to handle a wide range of yoga styles and classes. On the other hand, if you're a 50+ year old male with super tight hamstrings just starting out, it may be better to start with individual yoga sessions with an experienced teacher. The same thing applies if you have any injuries or physical limitations you're working with. Let your teacher know before the class, and don't be shy to ask if the class will still be suitable for you. If the teacher isn't able to offer specific feedback related to your condition, that's a good indication the teacher might not a good fit for you.

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