I recently attended a yoga class where the peaceful serenity of doing our inversion poses of choice was suddenly shattered when a woman across the room from me erupted in a loud voice, “Ouch! My back!” The class leader went over to see what had happened. The woman was in deep pain and could not easily move, so she crouched in a slumped-over child’s pose as people tended to her injury. I don’t know what caused the woman’s injury, but in my mind, I heard the words of warning that my favorite yoga teacher, Devin Morgan (a true teacher’s teacher) has been implanting in my brain from the very first lessons I took from her years ago, – “Always be extremely careful with your back. Most back injuries in yoga happen when you are not properly warmed up, so if anyone ever instructs you to do any backward bending pose or advanced inversion pose when it is cold or you are not sufficiently warmed up, don’t do it!”
Backward bending poses like Up Dog, Cobra or Locust are so much a part of most Hatha Yoga practices that we pay little mind to them when a class instructor calls them out, yet, too often, some instructors inappropriately add them early in the session before everyone has sufficiently warmed up. My teacher, Devin will often leave them out of the Sun Salutation routines just to make sure that no one hurts themselves. The back and neck are very fragile and the way the spinal vertebrae bones stack on top of each other can cause impingement and pressure on delicate nerves when you arch your spine backwards. Even worse, this pressure can possibly rupture and herniate the discs, which sit like spongey cushions sandwiched between all of the vertebrae. By warming up the spine before our practice with warm up exercises like rolling side stretches, seated twists and repetitions of Cat/Cow, we stretch and warm up the back so it is protected from injury. Another cause of injury can come from doing postures in a cool or cold room or other place. The room does not need to be as warm as it is for those who practice so-called “Hot Yoga” (sometimes 105° F and 40% humidity – Yikes!), but you should not feel any chills in the room. That doesn’t mean you can’t do Yoga when it’s chilly – just don’t do any back bends and be very careful with any other postures you do.
Yoga can be so beneficial for body, mind and spirit – and it is fun to attend a variety of classes with different teachers and styles, but we are each responsible for our own health and safety and should never feel pressured or intimidated into doing something that our body or our inner voice says that we shouldn’t. So please – never hesitate to avoid doing a posture or pose that doesn’t feel right for you to be doing at that time. Just stop and wait until that particular pose is finished and move to the next. If anyone asks you why you didn’t do it, just tell them that a master yogi (Devin) told you not to – because Devin knows the dangers and she’s got your back!
Post Note: I just heard, after several months, about the condition of the woman that I mentioned at the beginning of this article. The report from her husband was that she fractured the T-12 vertebrae, which is the lowest thoracic vertebrae just before the lumbar, or low back vertebrae, and she was laid up in bed for several months, unable to stand and walk unassisted. All that can be said in retrospect is that no yoga class and no yoga pose is worth the pain and suffering of fracturing one’s spine. In a large class situation, it is not possible for even a very good teacher to watch and know what every single participant in the class is doing every minute. It is important that you be your own best evaluator of whether or not you should do a certain challenging pose. Listen to what your body says as you cautiously set up the pose’s foundation before moving into the pose form – and if the messages your body tells you say “Stop, go no further,” heed that warning and stop right there. It is your body, your health, your well-being that is at stake!