Making Yoga Safe in the Healthcare & Wellness Space

by Dr. KC Coninx PT, DPT COMT, PYT

Safety in yoga is a common concern in the healthcare industry.  I’ve had many patients receiving physical therapy tell me their doctors have given specific instructions to avoid yoga indefinitely after a surgery.  

I used to be frustrated by this lack of understanding from physicians…but over time I have come to understand that they have a point. There is a lot of unsafe practices done in the name of “yoga,” and it’s why Medical Therapeutic Yoga was written.

The truth is that we haven’t done enough to educate our fellow healthcare professionals about how we make make yoga safe inside the healthcare and wellness space.

When we think of safety in yoga from a strict physical therapy standpoint…our considerations are around the physical body and risk of injury. As physical therapists and occupational therapists, we have a deep understanding of the biomechanics of our human body. But safety concerns should also include our nervous system, emotional state, as well as the social connection and environment.

Making Yoga Safe for your Physical Body

making yoga safe includes eschewing phrase like this one
Part of the toxic positivity culture that has led to harm in the yoga world

I practiced yoga well a long time before ever learning the principles of Medical Therapeutic Yoga.  I often remember hearing variations of these phrases:

  • “Push to your limit”
  • “Good vibes only”
  • “Use a prop when you need one”
  • “Go as far as you can”

But here is what my mind interpreted these phrases as:

  • “Push to your limit”
    • From My Mind: Where you are isn’t good enough
  • “Good vibes only”
    • From My Mind: Negative emotions are bad
  • “Use a prop when you need one”
    • From My Mind: I’m not flexible enough and a block proves my inflexibility to everyone else”
  • “Go as far as you can”
    • From My Mind: Wasn’t I already doing that?

The sad part is that I am conditioned at this point to rebel against these or similar comments, so it is actually quite hard for me to go to a group yoga class anymore.  

I see students in the class pushing themselves farther than their bodies can realistically control and safely navigate in that moment.  As a result, they sacrifice the health of their body to achieve a desired pose or position.

That being said, I wanted to pass on some important concepts when it comes to the physical postures of yoga from a Medical Therapeutic Yoga perspective.  

These are NOT the goals:

  • Go farther
  • Get deeper into the stretch
  • Get more flexible

The goals ARE:

  • Find your control.
  • Get strong and stable within the range you have.
  • Maybe expand that range of control and stability when you feel safe and supported to do so.

Many people believe that the physical practice of yoga is about stretching and getting more flexible.  That may happen for some people.  But to do it safely, you must have the strength and control to manage that new flexibility and range.  

When the emphasis is on mobility before stability…we lose that foundation, we lose our center, we lose our grounding.  This increases the risk of physical injury AND creates disconnect from our emotional center.

Making Yoga Safe for our Nervous System

Making yoga safe in healthcare, stay safe

Maybe this has happened to you….you’ve stretched a little deeper into a pose.  You suddenly begin to experience tremors or shakes in your body, maybe you begin to feel flushed, light-headed or dizzy.  

What happened?!  

Essentially…your central nervous system (i.e. brain) is perceiving this position as a threat.  This leads to a host of physiological changes that impact your heart, lungs, hormones, and more.  The effect can be short lived…or can linger for varying amount of time afterwards, if you don’t appropriately complete the stress response.

This is unsafe.

Safety for our Emotional Health through Yoga

Why does yoga help things like anxiety?

One of the key attributes of yoga that make it such an effective practice, is the mindful movement component.  This strengthens the connection between our brain and our bodies that tends to decrease as we get older.

The really amazing thing that happens with this mindful movement is that we experience less anxiety as we reconnect with our body.  We have less pain, because we listen to our body more deeply, and we experience less stress because of these changes.

If you find yourself in a class where the teacher or the culture at large encourages you to push into your limits and disconnect from the signs your body is giving you…know that you always have a choice on how you want to practice.

You can listen to the signs your body is giving you.

Making yoga safe in healthcare
A version of extended side angle, that is often practiced in an unsafe way for the physical body.

From a personal example:  I was taking a yoga class at my local climbing gym in Nashville, TN several years ago.  The teacher was guiding us into an extended side angle pose and I noticed something in me that said not to do that.  So I chose to find triangle instead.

The teacher kindly came over and encouraged me to practice the original pose she was instructing, and I (perhaps a bit too abruptly) stated, “this is what I need right now.”

Moments later, she announced to that class that she is simply the guide and that ultimately each individual is free to decide what they need during the class.

Sometimes when you stand up for yourself….you also stand up for others.

Do these principles resonate with you?  Are you interested in learning more about how to implement these principles in a group or individual setting within your current healthcare practice?

Want to bring yoga into healthcare in a sustainable way?

Check out our CEU Bundle to Learn More about Medical Therapy Yoga

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