I had a student come up to me before class recently and she told me this was her first class since breaking her ankle. When I asked her if she’d be cleared to do exercise by her doctor, she said no, but she didn’t think it would be a problem.
I had another student recently show me the leg tremors she gets when she uses her hamstrings to flex (bend) her knee. She said she’d been doing a lot of bootcamp style classes and she needed some “stretching.”
As you can see, there are many instances when you’ll have students in your class who are dealing with an injury. At least these are the stories you know. Think about all the stories you don’t know! Or, maybe the things that students don’t know about… injuries that might be brewing just waiting for the right conditions upon which to make themselves known.
Now, I definitely don’t mean to scare you and I not trying to be overly dramatic. But, it does point to the need to know something about anatomy and biomechanics, enough to be able to work with students who present to you with injuries.
Generally, when I hear from a student that they have an injury, the first thing I like to know is:
- Have you seen a physician and what is wrong?
This helps me hear from them if 1- they’ve seen a doctor and 2- what is the nature of the injury.
If they answer “yes” I like to then ask if they have been cleared for physical exercise, as I did in the example of the student I referenced above. If they say, “no,” as she did, I won’t stop them from taking class but I will caution them to move slowly and take things as they come. I also suggest that if they feel the need to stop and rest to do so, as many students get very enthusiastic that they are back on their feet and overdo that first class back.
If they haven’t been to a physician, I ask them to:
- Describe the nature of the injury, along with what they were doing when it occurred
- I ask if they have pain throughout the day or only when doing certain things
- If there is a particular movement that brings it on, I ask them to show me that movement
- I also ask if it only comes up when they’re in yoga class or when they’re doing other activities as well
The other piece to consider is the responsibility on both sides; that of the teacher and of the student. From the student’s perspective, it’s always helpful to get cleared by a physician before returning to exercise after an injury. Going back to yoga or any exercise after no exercise for a period of time can cause a set back and re-injury. This lies with the student. Along those same lines, it is always helpful for students to share with the yoga teacher anything specific about their body and their physical condition before class. I can recall I had a student in class who had a severe wrist injury and could not weight bear on the hands. As you can imagine, this presented quite a challenge in a group setting and a vigorous flow type class. What made it all the more interesting is he didn’t share this with me beforehand; I noticed him struggling at the beginning of class and went over and he told me on the spot. So, if you are injured, mention it to your teacher.
By the same token, the teacher should be responsible in offering poses that are generally accessible for large groups of people. Unless you have a small class where you can get to each person and assist them, it’s always helpful to offer postures that are are generally accessible by students. This might mean shifting from Shoulder Stand to Legs up the Wall Pose; or leaving out calling for handstands in the middle of the room. I might even mean eliminating double binds for more of an open shape. Having said all of that, some studios offer advanced classes where it’s known that these kinds of poses will be offered. This all doesn’t mean that you’re backing away from challenging your students; it simply suggests that if you know the anatomy behind the different postures, that you make intentional decisions about what to offer so as to minimize risk in a group situation. Having said that as well, people can get just as injured in Downward Facing Dog as in another more challenging pose, but I think you get the idea of my point here.
As far as what to say to the injured student as you get answers to the above questions, much of it will depend on your knowledge and experience in anatomy and working with students with different injuries. The general advice of “take your time,” “rest as you need to” definitely applies. Beyond that, the suggestions are going to be more tailored to the students’ concern. So, for the student with the wrist issues, I suggested he refrain from going up and down and simply do the standing poses until we get the section in the sequence where we’re on the back and belly. For the student with the shaking leg syndrome, I suggest she work poses like Downward Dog with a slight bend in the knee and that she rest as she sees fit. For the student with the broken ankle/recently healed, I suggested she try it and see what happens and certainly rest for the standing poses if she is in pain (with her it was more of a risk because she had a clear injury and was not cleared to return to exercise).
Your role as a yoga teacher isn’t to be a physician or to treat anyone. The responsibility lies with them to take care of their own health. However, you are seen as an authority in a field of movement (yoga) so be sure you don’t give out any advice you can’t stand behind. Speak to what you know, suggest modifications, keep your eye on the student as she/he practices and check in with them throughout and at the end.
If you want to learn more about the anatomy of yoga, please check out my newly released anatomy manual called “The Bare Bones Yoga Guide to Anatomy.” You can check it out here. The first 3 people to read this post who want to purchase the manual will get it for only $49 (instead of $65) by sending me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line: “Read your post! I’d like to buy your anatomy manual!”
If you’d like a free download on yoga anatomy, click the link below. These PDF’s feature muscles of the neck, hip and tips for backbending.
Thanks for reading!