Vijay Krishna had been in the pink of health when he joined a yoga institute. In his late 20s, he had all the enthusiasm one would expect from a youngster keen to keep his body in ship shape. A week into the class Vijay* was impressed to see a few veteran yoga practitioners meditate calmly and comfortably in the Padmasana (lotus pose) a yoga posture involving two important joints – the hip joint and the knee joint – and one that requires practice and some experience to get into position. Keen to imitate them, he sought the yoga instructor’s help who did not think twice of pushing Vijay to slip into the pose.

The young man remembers struggling quite a bit stretching his leg joints to get into the position when he heard a dull ‘pop’. The sudden searing pain in his right knee made him scream out and roll over.

Later, he would learn from his doctor that he had torn a ligament in his knee – a problem that would take two years to heal completely.

Vijay, incidentally, has not set foot inside a yoga class ever since.

‘If done right, yoga can work wonders on a person’s physical, mental and emotional well-being,’ says Dr Riyaz Badami, homoeopathic practitioner and medical director at Good Living Medical Centre, Dubai, stressing on the word ‘right’.

Sumit Manav, founder and lead yoga instructor at Lifestyle Yoga, Dubai, agrees. If not practised correctly, yoga can cause severe injuries to the body, says the yoga practitioner who has been teaching the ancient lifestyle and has scores of students in the country.

[A balanced body and mind: lessons from a yoga teacher]

The ancient Indian practice of yoga is said to have the power to improve spiritual awareness, calm the mind and strengthen the body. Contrary to popular Western belief, yoga is not just about twisting the body into various complicated positions (asanas); that is but one form of yoga – known as hatha or hot yoga.

‘Yoga is more than a form of exercise; it’s a lifestyle,’ emphasises Sumit.

When it comes to this form of lifestyle, the first mistake people make is in choosing the form, he says. ‘No two people have the same body constitution. In fact no two bones in a body are the same. Then how can one form of yoga be suitable for everyone?’ Sumit asks.

Taking care of Yin too

According to the Indian expat who runs several yoga studios in the UAE, the body is divided into two parts – yin and yang. The yang is the muscular part of the body, while yin represents connective tissues, bones and ligaments.

‘Most forms of workout focus on the yang part of the body,’ Sumit says. ‘Yoga is the only form of workout which has exercises designed for the yin part.’

He explains that most yoga-related injuries happen when the yin part of the body is exercised in a yang way. ‘Suryanamaskar (sun salutation), for example, is a very yang form of exercise. Trying to do 60-100 salutations in one stretch can be extremely damaging to the spine, which is a very yin part, made up of bones and tissues,’ he warns.

Sumit also voices his concerns about the various free yoga sessions that are in trend nowadays. These sessions take place in parks and other areas, where people can drop by, spread a mat, and just randomly join the crowd in practising various asanas or breathing and meditation techniques.

In many such situations, the instructor might know the health condition of a person who is practising under him/her.

In fact very often the practitioners themselves might not be aware of some hidden health condition that could be exacerbated by certain yoga postures.

‘Just because it is free does not mean it is good for you,’ Sumit says, with a smile. However, he does agree that people who have a certain degree of knowledge and experience in yoga might be able to reap some benefit from such sessions.

Understanding limitations

Viewing yoga as a competitive form of exercise is yet another potential cause of injury. From the vantage point of a yoga instructor, Sumit has observed that people have a tendency to compare their progress with that of others. ‘The capacity of each individual is different, and it is important to keep that in mind. Forcing yourself to do something just because others are doing it is one of the biggest, yet most common, mistakes many beginners make.’ He suggests that people practise yoga at their own pace. That would be beneficial in the long run too, he says.

Yoga can also cause problems if discontinued abruptly. ‘Most people today opt for yoga classes to cure themselves of an ailment’, says Sumit. This in turn makes people quit yoga when they think its purpose has been achieved. ‘Yoga was never meant to ‘cure’ any disease. That is merely a side-effect of following such a lifestyle,’ he points out.

Yoga, he stresses, would prove beneficial if practised regularly as opposed to doing so just to achieve short-term goals.

However, depending solely on yoga to cure a health condition can be just as harmful as not taking the required medication. Dr. Riyaz mentions about many cases he has seen where people who took up yoga to cure a health condition ended up getting worse after they discontinued taking the prescribed medication.

Yoga, he says, is not a replacement for any form of medication. Rather it has to work in tandem with medication for a positive outcome. ‘For example, if a person suffering from a thyroid-related issue suddenly stops medication she has been on, it can put the body through severe turmoil.’ Dr Riyaz underscores the importance of keeping your doctor updated regularly on medication intake even as you practise yoga.

Yoga online

A trend unanimously opposed by yoga experts is of learning yoga from home through tutorials available online. ‘If there is no one to watch and correct you, there are chances that you will keep doing an asana the wrong way for a long time,’ Dr Riyaz explains, adding that this can have several adverse effects on your body.

What is missing in such online tutorials is interaction with the teacher. Sumit cannot stress enough about the importance of guru-shishya (teacher-student relationship) sacred in the discipline of yoga.

‘If the teacher is not knowledgeable and good enough, the student does not benefit’, he says.

As someone with years of training in the science of yoga, he finds it difficult to wrap his head around the fact that there are people becoming yoga instructors with just 200 hours of training. ‘It is doubtlessly a good place to begin, but is it enough?’ he asks.

What’s the best way to practise yoga?

Dr V L Shyam, an award-winning Ayurveda practitioner based in Dubai, has a few suggestions. The first step, he says, is finding the right teacher. It is important to check the yoga teacher’s educational qualification and licenses.

‘The Ministry of Health issues therapeutic Yoga practice licenses for BAMS (Ayurveda) and BNYS (Naturopathy & Yoga) practitioners. If you opt for a yoga studio, you must ensure that the facility is licensed by the General Authority of Youth & Sports Welfare and has qualified yoga teachers on-board.’

He adds that smaller groups or individual yoga classes, and classes that offer breathing and meditation in addition to asanas, are preferable.

Next step is choosing the right kind of yoga. The person’s medical history is a strong decisive factor, he says.

Patients of hypertension, glaucoma and spondylitis, among others, may find that their condition has worsened after they have started yoga particularly if they perform certain asanas.

‘For example, a person suffering from glaucoma should not be doing inversions as it can increase the blood flow into your eyes,’ says the ayurveda doctor. His advice is to consult an ayurveda practitioner for the right guidance before starting yoga.

Dr Shyam also mentions age as a factor. He believes that children can start yoga from as early as six or seven years of age.

‘However, their bones are still growing and tender in this age, so it is important to avoid certain postures that might put stress on the bones bending them [unduly],’ he warns. Following wrong postures or performing yoga wrongly can potentially result in limb issues, he says.

The doctor suggests suryanamaskar and pranayama – two yoga practices – as good starting points for children.

In case of people over 65 years of age, it is important to take into account their mobility, lung and chest conditions and cardiac status before deciding on the form of yoga.

Apart from age and medical history, gender too is an important factor, he says.

There are certain postures, for instance, that a menstruating or pregnant woman should avoid. The yoga teacher should be aware of the health conditions of his/her students before beginning a class, say experts.

Dr Shyam’s advice to beginners is to not make the mistake of trying out complex asanas immediately after signing up for a class.

He recommends wearing comfortable, loose-fitting clothes while doing yoga, and to not to practice asanas on a full stomach.

Sumit seconds that. ‘Follow your teacher’s instructions carefully, and above all, listen to your body – the best judge of its own capacity,’ he says.