Is Yoga Dangerous? Not When Done Somatically

In an article called "How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body," by William J. Broad the question of  yoga injuries is discussed. Many yoga teachers are hesitant to admit that they suffer from injuries. Yoga in its original form is a true somatic discipline ("somatic" meaning being aware of what it feels like to be you). The way it is taught in most yoga studios in the United States is more like fitness than mindful, somatic movement. For many Yoga students the element of somatic awareness is completely absent. The goal for many is to look like the teacher and get into the posture no matter what. This is how injuries occur.

"Athleticized" Yoga causes injury.

The rise in Yoga injuries and muscle pain says more about the way in which many embrace Yoga than it does about (most) Yoga postures. This is similar to Thomas Hanna's contention about the source of most back pain:

"The prevalence of back pain has everything to do with the kind of lives that we live and the kind of society in which we live."

We live in a culture that "athleticizes" everything, and Yoga is high on the list. Yoga can be practiced in a non-competitive way with the sole goal being one of mastering movement and improving posture and breathing. So can life. The answer lies in the awareness of what you're doing and how you're doing it.

3 Ways People Get Injured in Yoga

#1 They have Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA) and don’t know it. As you attempt to perform a Yoga movement, some muscles won't lengthen fully, while others over-work. You may be able to do an asana on one side (triangle pose, for example), yet not the same way on the other. You keep stretching and breathing, but the muscles don't release the way you're told they should.

#2 They don't know that they are stuck in a full body reflex pattern of muscular imbalance. SMA presents in patterns of contraction. If you've had a trauma, regaining muscular balance, symmetry, and coordination is critical before engaging in any sport - much less yoga.

If you do any sport or vigorous activity when your muscles are stuck in a specific Stress Reflex, you're bound to get injured sooner or later. Certain muscles will be recruited involuntarily when the muscles you're supposed to be using can't function optimally

(Hint: Our major goal in Hanna Somatics is to teach you to reverse SMA as it presents within the three somatic reflex patterns. It's easy and it gives you back control of your body!)

#3 They over-stretch.

You can read more about my take on stretching here. When you stretch a muscle quickly, or beyond its comfortable length, you will evoke the Stretch Reflex. It is a protective spinal cord reflex which contracts the muscle against the stretch to save it from injury. Over-stretching is a major factor in Yoga injuries, from hamstring pulls to lower back injuries.

Instead, learn to pandiculate. Pandiculation resets the muscle length and restores full muscle function at the brain level. In fact, you can easily learn how to pandiculate many of your Yoga stretches!

Ultimately, if you're getting injured doing yoga, you're doing something wrong – or you're overdoing it.

Hanna Somatics and Yoga complement each other. Hanna Somatics can improve your yoga practice and help you prevent many of the common injuries associated with Yoga.  Many Yoga teachers are in fact becoming Hanna Somatic Exercise Coaches and incorporating Somatic Exercises into their classes.

To learn more about Hanna Somatics and how it can help you eliminate chronic muscle pain and regain balance and symmetry, check out the Essential Somatics® store.

How Somatics Can Improve Your Yoga Practice

The New York Times recently published an article about the different ways people are getting injured while practicing yoga. It reported that in pushing the limits of one's ability to stretch and bend, more people are getting injured. Yoga is an ancient philosophy of life which includes the practice of asanas, (postures) and its benefits are numerous: improved posture and muscle control, improved breathing, balance, and calming of the mind. However, when you push it, yoga can cause injury. I've had several Somatics clients who have been injured in yoga class. In fact, some of my clients are even afraid of yoga.

The three reasons people get injured when doing yoga:

  1. Having Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA) and not knowing it
  2. Lack of awareness of one's body
  3. Stretching too much

Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA)

When you have SMA you have muscles that are involuntarily tighter than they should be. This means that while you're trying to perform a yoga movement, the muscles required to perform the posture aren't coordinating properly. Some muscles are working while others are compensating and working too hard. You feel out of balance; you can do a posture on one side and have trouble with it on the other side. In Hanna Somatics we teach you to reverse your SMA through slow, gentle movement patterns that make you aware of which muscles are under your voluntary control and which aren't.

Lack of awareness

When you can't sense your muscles, you can't do what the teacher is asking you to do. You'll imitate a movement instead of initiate a movement from within. You'll push yourself farther than you can comfortably go because you can't sense and feel what you're doing. Somatics is sensory motor learning. We teach you to regain sensory awareness and motor control from the inside out through basic, slow movements done at your pace.

Stretching too much

Overstretching is common in yoga. When you stretch, you passively take a muscle farther than it can comfortably go with the intention of making it longer.  This can invoke the Stretch Reflex, which contracts the muscle tighter than it was before. Overstretching is one reason why some people feel tighter after a yoga class than when they started.

So how can I practice yoga without getting injured?

In Hanna Somatics we teach pandiculation - an active lengthening that begins with a contraction. It's what cats and dogs do when they lengthen their bodies after getting up from rest. It overrides tight muscles and resets the muscle length at the brain level. When you pandiculate, you only lengthen a muscle to its comfortable length. There is no forcing involved.

Somatics and Yoga aren't mutually exclusive. They complement each other beautifully! Hanna Somatics can jump-start your yoga practice and help you prevent many of the common injuries associated with yoga.