Yoga is a gentle, low-impact exercise suitable for students of all ages and skill levels. That said, there are some important things about yoga student safety that everyone– from novice practitioners to instructors– need to keep in mind to prevent serious injuries from happening. This is particularly the case with inverted poses like headstands or shoulderstands.
To begin with, not all yoga practitioners can do every pose. Women may wish to avoid performing inversions while menstruating, as some believe that it may increase the risk of endometriosis or cause a heavier menstrual flow. There is no prevailing opinion on this matter, however. While no significant increase in the risk of endometriosis has been linked to yoga inversions, some experts still recommend that women avoid them while menstruating. Generally speaking, since menstrual discomfort and energy levels vary widely from woman to woman and cycle to cycle, the decision to do inverted poses should be left up to the woman in question.
Next, some yoga poses may increase the risk of stroke. In patients with a history of stroke or other cardiovascular problems, inversions can place undue strain on the delicate vasculature in the brain. Poses that overextend the neck can also result in strokes– either by causing tiny tears in the lining of the carotid artery, or by interrupting blood flow in one of the vertebral arteries. This can cause blood clots to form that deprive the brain of oxygen, leading to tissue death and permanent brain damage. These kinds of injuries don’t just occur in the elderly, either. They have even occurred in otherwise healthy practitioners in their mid-twenties.
Inversions aren’t just able to affect the brain, either. Practitioners that suffer from conditions like intracranial hypertension should avoid inversions since they can lead to increased intracranial pressure and damage to the optic nerves. Even healthy yoga students can develop retinal tears due to increased intraocular pressure. Students should attempt any pose that places the head lower than the torso very carefully, and stop as soon as any discomfort occurs.
Not all yoga injuries are as catastrophic as strokes or retinal tearing, however. A big part of ensuring yoga student safety is remembering that yoga is not a competitive sport. While anyone who exercises likes to see improvement in themselves, yoga is not about pushing one’s limits. It is not necessary to stretch to the point of pain or discomfort. Even basic poses can result in torn tendons or other soft tissue injuries if students neglect yoga’s meditative aspects and push themselves too far, too soon.
Yoga instructors and their students can prevent injuries like these by remembering that some poses are not suitable for a general yoga class, even at advanced levels. In fact, some physicians recommend against headstands and shoulderstands as a general rule. Yoga, when improperly applied, can and will do more harm than good. Yoga classes should never be "one size fits all," and yoga practitioners should not feel compelled to push themselves farther than their bodies are comfortable with.