People who know me well also know I love a soap box, but out of respect for everyone else, I usually inflict those subjects only on my nearest and dearest. After many years practicing and teaching yoga, I’m becoming increasingly depressed by articles like this: Yoga Teachers ‘risking serious hip problems’ by Caroline Parkinson, because it’s all too true. So it’s time I stood up and spoke. In order to protect their bodies and those of their students, I would suggest the yoga community needs to address several problems:
- Teachers using their classes as their own practice. If a teacher is demonstrating while the class is practicing, how can s/he see what the students are doing? That’s not safe for either body.
- Teachers demonstrating on one side. Coupled with going further than is appropriate for their body because they have an audience, this will lead to imbalance. Then multiply that by the number of times that pose is practiced and taught in a year, the likely result is injury.
- Teaching poses based on their own ability, not that of their students. Managing a mixed ability class safely needs a very careful and experienced teacher. I have so many students who come to me saying they didn’t get enough attention in other classes, they didn’t know if they were ‘doing it right’, or ‘it was hurting me’.
- The key problem however, is teaching without understanding the sequencing of poses for safe practice:
In the article, Benoy Mathew says, ‘The problem lies in people repeatedly pushing their bodies into “prescribed” positions, when their physiology prevents it.’
He’s absolutely correct. (Iyengar Yoga teachers even have a name for it: they call it Teacher’s Hip.) There’s too much emphasis on ‘hip openers’ before we have learned hip stability. To protect our hips, standing poses should form a key part of our practice, especially as we get older. These are often ignored because they require strength and discipline. People blessed with a degree of youthful flexibility often favour more gymnastic, camera-friendly movements.
Using this article from Yoga Journal, let’s look at this in more detail. Click on this link below and look through the sequence of 11 poses, then refer to my comments on each one: 11 Deep Hip Openers For Tight Hips.
- Lifted leg twisting in the wrong direction, putting extra strain on the hip of the downward leg. (I wouldn’t necessarily start with this pose.)
- Ditto hip strain, only much, much worse.
- Fair enough – keep the back leg thigh well lifted. If you can’t get your body so low, use bricks to raise the body up and moderate the strain in the hip.
- Fair enough, but if the lower back is weak, this will hurt. (Look at your student – if their stomach is dropping down, their tailbone is loose and their lumbar spine overworking.)
- Bricks again.
- God only knows what this is. My best advice would be roll the front thigh in, to create ‘grip’ in the hip.
- See how the arm-side is longer than the leg-side in this pose? Feet not far back enough to work legs properly and lift or grip the hips. (Why does the sequence not start with this pose?)
- Fair enough. To go forward safely, most people will need support for the right buttock bone.
- Look at the joints under pressure here: knees, hips, shoulder and toes. Without that support (this time for the left buttock bone), this could lead to lots of problems.
- That’s better! If your student has trouble with this pose, why have they just tried the other nine? I’d put this pose third in the sequence and modify their practice from there on.
- And this pose second.
In my twenties and thirties, I tried many types of yoga. When I decided to learn to teach, the only method that seemed to me to stack up was Iyengar. It was a tough choice – there are easier routes up the mountain – but the Iyengar teachers I had come across really knew their stuff, and I respected them. Simply put, it’s classical yoga, classically taught, with an emphasis on helping people. (All the props you see in classes today were invented by BKS Iyengar, for precisely that reason.)
Along with his gift of the props for ‘those who cannot do’, the gift of BKS Iyengar’s sequencing through some of the 13 assessment levels is nothing short of genius. If they want to protect their teachers, the yoga hierarchy would do well to put politics aside and pay more respect to this huge and valuable body of work.
P.S. Can you see the differences between this pose, Utthita Parsvakonasana as demonstrated by Birjoo Mehta with BKS Iyengar teaching, and the one that illustrates the BBC article? Look at the position of the hand, the angle of the hip and shoulder, the position of the head and top hand. (But as my husband often says to me, nobody likes a smart arse….)