As Yoga Becomes "Safe" is it More Functional? - Kathryn Bruni-Young

Whenever I travel I like to practice with different local teachers when I can. A few times a year I end up in a yoga class, because I enjoy a nice sweaty flow, but also to check in with what is happening in yoga land. As we get smarter as teachers and students yoga is beginning to change, I’m thankful to see this change is already under way. We have figured out that some poses aren’t necessarily safe for the general population, poses like headstand, leg behind the head, splits, and lotus. As more teachers are brought up to understand the hidden dangers of extreme ranges of motion we are tailoring our classes to be more effective for the day-to-day people who attend the majority of classes.


This can be hard to figure out because at the end of the day we are all speculating about certain poses and movements. Is there clear hard data that demonstrates certain poses are actually dangerous? To my knowledge no. But if you just happened to fall on a slippery floor would you not turn back to warn or inform your followers?


My question is, just because we have removed the commonly thought dangerous poses, is our practice now safe, and is it functional? On the one hand removing challenging and seemingly dangerous poses from drop in classes is a great step in making the practice more accessible to beginners and intelligent. On the other hand, if we take something out, and replace it with something that is just easier, we might not be as evolved as we think. The magic happens when we know what to put back in, because if we strip everything away that isn’t completely safe, we are left with a lot of the same old thing.


The classes I’ve taken lately have been completely safe, when taken at face value. The teachers always instruct to stay within the limits of the individual body and to take rests when needed. The teachers I’ve experienced are doing a great job with the information they have. In yoga teacher training programs we have to teach people not only what the potential dangers are, but what the alternatives look like as well. 


The problem that still remains is the issue of repetitive strain, and that yoga alone, even when done “safely” is not balanced and in turn not as safe as we think when done six days a week. For the average person practicing yoga once or twice a week as cross training for running or lifting, great, keep doing what you are doing. My work these days revolves around finding ways to make the yoga practice work for the people who still want to practice multiple times every week, for the people who can’t go to the gym for whatever reason. In making this practice more healthy, balanced and functional we have to know what to remove, but we also have to know what to add back in. We can’t just tell people not to do yoga, we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water.


Yoga classes are full of lower body stretches, from sun salutations to standing and seated poses, it’s a lot of stretching a lot of the time. Next time you take a class, count the amount of times you perform a hamstring stretch, it really adds up! To balance this out I recommend removing some of the long held forward bends and adding a couple squats, clam shells, single leg deadlifts or hamstring curls instead (check out my free videos for more about those). These movements easily fit into the flow of a vinyasa class and can actually infuse strength and tension back into our soft backsides.


To address the shoulders without always relying on plank and push-ups try some isolation strength with yoga blocks to wake up the muscles of the back (here are a few great ideas). Blocks can also be used to prime the rotator cuff muscles and external rotation. Its not only about avoiding movements like chatturanga, as much as it’s about being strong enough to do it well, if at all. 


At the end of the day it has to be about balance and becoming more functional humans, unless you were hoping to make it to the yoga olympics, in which case keep doing what you are doing. Specialist training is for competitive athletes who’s livelihood and careers depend on their sport. As yoga teachers and practitioners, there is no advantage to not integrating the functional information being provided to us through exercise science and rehabilitation. At the end of the year there is no gold medal for the deepest backbend.