Ten Ways to Get Started with Yoga After an Injury

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been approached or have had conversations with people in class about how to best get started back with yoga after an injury. This also applies to starting yoga for the first time after an injury. I thought this would make a good topic for my next column.

Maybe you’re reading this and like one of the people I spoke with, you’re afraid you’ll get hurt again. Maybe you have a memory of how fit you once were and now, faced with your injured body, you’re frustrated and feel there is no way you’ll be able to taste that feeling of strength and flexibility again. Maybe you have “good days” and “bad days” and have just given up on the idea of doing anything physical.

The good news is yoga is the perfect exercise to do in instances like this. Why? Because yoga poses and sequences can be modified to fit just about anyone’s body and physical condition. Yoga’s intensity and be increased or decreased depending on the pace, the poses selected, the use of props and the sequence offered. Here are some tips for getting started back or getting started for the first time:

Check with your physician before starting a yoga practice. This is pretty obvious but depending on your injury, you might not think to check. Yoga is getting a great deal of exposure these days as being a contributor to injuries and despite that, there are a number of physicians who are actually suggesting it to their patients, as well as physical therapists who encourage people to attend class as well as therapy.

Review the classes on the schedule at your local studio and make a selection based on your physical condition and requirements. This may require some consultation with the studio owner or one of the teachers. Generally speaking, if you’re a beginner, these are the best classes to attend. These classes will be geared towards people with little to no experience. Even if you have experience, with your injury, you may be looking for a slower pace and more time to move from pose to pose. These classes generally provide both.

If you are unable to put weight on your hands or have an injury to the upper body, power yoga or vinyasa (flow) classes may not be the best choice. There’s a great deal of movement from standing to the ground as well as many poses where weight is put on the hands in these classes. Now, having said there, there absolutely is a way to modify these sequences so you can skip placing weight on the hands. This would require one on one time with a teacher to customize the sequence to your ability.

If you have any issues with dizziness, blood pressure, or are looking for something slow, with poses that are mostly seated and lying down, restorative classes are perfect. These classes combine deep breathing, a slow sequence and the use of props to support the body in many of the postures.

Speak to the teacher before class. Share the functional impact of your injury or condition on your body. Catch the teacher before she or he goes into the room. This will give you privacy and give you time to discuss your situation. Rather than telling the teacher what you’re working with (for instance, a herniated disc in your lower back, sciatica or carpel tunnel syndrome) let the teacher know not only “what” you have but also “how” it affects your movement. Yoga is a movement-based practice and the teacher will want to know if you can bend forward, backward, put weight on your hands and move from standing to the ground.

Stick with the same class and/or the same teacher for at least 3 months. Once you find a class that works for you, stick with it. Your body needs to build strength and flexibility and it will be harder to do if you’re changing up the sequence from week to week.

Schedule at least two private lessons with the teacher as early in the process as possible. Yoga can be modified to meet you where you’re at when you start, but this may require modifications that you haven’t considered. The sooner you can learn these modifications, the sooner you’ll be on the road to building greater strength and flexibility. Working with a teacher privately is much more realistic than expecting to get personalized attention in class. Depending on the size of the class, you will get more or less from the teacher. In any event, investing in a private lesson or two will give you what you need but also give you private space to ask questions personal to your situation.

Be compassionate with yourself. I work with many athletes and there is a tremendous drive to conquer yoga just like one might approach a competitive sport. Especially when you’re coming to yoga after an injury, your body needs time to heal. Being compassionate doesn’t mean going easy on yourself or looking for a way out, but it does mean treating yourself with increased awareness and a gentle approach as you’re on the road back.

Listen to your intuition but also ask questions. During yoga practice, there are a number of temptations that can sway you from doing what’s right for you and pushing yourself too hard. You can do whatever the teacher says, regardless of your body’s reaction. You can watch other people and follow them versus doing what works for you. You can listen to that tape in your head telling you you’re no good unless you’re pushing yourself hard. All of these things take you out of your body and into your head and further away from the intuition that will protect you from injury. 

By the same token, in some instances, you may be guarding yourself out of fear. This can also come from a lack of knowledge about how to approach certain yoga poses or can come from misinformation you’ve received in the past. Always keep an open mind and ask qualified teachers you know for advice on how to approach any poses that you feel are off limits to you.

Reward yourself for hard work. Hard work without reward is punitive. As you start to see results, reward yourself in a meaningful way for sticking with it. 

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