Avoiding injury in yoga practice
Strike the right pose - by The Sunday Times writer TEO CHENG WEE featuring Pure Yoga teacher Felisa Fullerton
Want to take up yoga? Stretch yourself but know your limits to prevent injuries YOU meditate, you stretch, you hold a pose. Yoga hardly looks like a strenuous exercise, yet this ancient spiritual practice, which is booming in popularity in Singapore, has been racking up its share of injuries, according to a report by United States-based Time magazine. More than 13,000 Americans suffered yoga-related injuries over the past three years, said the article, published last month. This has resulted in orthopaedic surgeons and chiropractors seeing more such patients in the United States.
But Singapore yoga enthusiasts can breathe easy. Here, sports doctors, physiotherapists and yoga instructors tell LifeStyle that such injuries make up fairly small numbers. Even if there were more injuries, it could be because more people are taking up yoga, says Dr Ben Tan, head of sports medicine at Changi General Hospital.
According to the 2005 National Sports Participation Survey, which polled 8,000 respondents aged 15 and above, yoga was ranked the 10th most popular sport here, beating sports such as tennis and volleyball. Among women, it was the sixth most popular. In the previous survey in 2001, yoga was unranked. This is reflected in the surge in membership at the two biggest yoga centres here. True Yoga started with 1,000 members in 2004 and now has 12,000, while Pure Yoga's membership has risen from 3,000 a year ago to 5,000 now.
Still, yoga practitioners should be careful. Injuries can happen to anybody doing any sport, says Dr Kelvin Chew, director of Alexandra Hospital's sports medicine centre. In yoga, these tend to happen to people who push themselves beyond their limits.
True Yoga instructor Sukhdev Singh says: "We live in a 'no pain no gain' society and we are used to the idea that we need to push ourselves to the maximum. "However, the philosophy of yoga is to understand and listen to your body. You should do only what you can." Newcomers - who may see yoga as an "easy exercise" - are among those most prone to injuries, notes Physio Solutions' senior physiotherapist Aized Noor. "When beginners get too gung-ho, or they look around and are embarrassed because they are the only ones who can't hold this pose, that's when they might push and injure themselves," she says. Among the injuries she sees most often are joint and muscle strains. Joints tend to be injured when they are not flexible enough to be stretched beyond their usual range of motions. On the other hand, muscles get strained because they don't have the strength required to hold certain poses.
Another group who may be prone to injuries are those who already have injuries - and yoga attracts many of such people, notes Ms Felisa Fullerton, managing yoga teacher of Pure Yoga. "They see it as a low-impact sport that is safe to take up, like swimming," says Ms Fullerton, who estimates that one-third of the students in her classes have existing injuries. But experienced instructors are trained for such situations. They know how to correctly demonstrate poses, while looking out for students who are pushing themselves beyond their limits - a strained face, a fearful look or uneven breathing are tell-tale signs. If the student cannot do a certain pose because of an injury, it will be modified to accommodate him.
Ultimately, yoga instructors say that the onus is on the student to notify them and to know his own limit. As a parting shot, Ms Noor adds that people who are thinking of starting yoga should not be overly worried. She says: "I see more people get aches and pains from sitting in front of a computer for 12 hours."