- Share relevant information. If you’re in a class, tell your teacher about any injuries, illness, conditions or problems that might affect your ability to certain poses or put you at risk. She can then advise on what you need to avoid, and give you alternatives.
- Pay attention to pain. Learn to tell the difference between sensations that are potentially good for you, such as the healthy stretch of a tight muscle, and those that are potentially injurious to you, such as over-stretching a tendon or ligament, or compressing structures to the point of injury.
- Listen to your breath. Although your breath may speed up in demanding poses such as backbends or long-held standing poses, gasping for breath indicates you’re over-stressed. Notice if you are holding your breath because this a possible sign you are becoming fearful or anxious, or reacting to pain. If you find you are holding your breath, consciously relax your breathing, avoid holding it, and see if you need to come out.
- Rest if you need to. If you feel you’ve reached the limit with your time in a pose, no matter what the rest of the class is doing, come out and take a rest. Likewise, if you are suddenly sweating much more than normal, take the same precautions. If you feel like you just can’t finish the rest of a class, either let the teacher know so they can give you a resting pose to finish with or just lie down in a comfortable Relaxation pose (Savasana) Don’t just leave in the middle of a practice, without cooling down.
- Stay balanced. If you are weak or have trouble with balance, use props, such as a chair or the wall, to stabilize yourself so you don’t fall over and can practice with confidence. You can practice with your back to a wall, with one foot on the wall in standing poses, or with a hand on the wall in certain poses. If you know you have problems with balance, come to class early and stake out a place next to the wall so the wall will always there when you need it.
- Use props. Even if you have not been specially instructed to use a prop and you know that it is important for your safety (to keep you from over-stretching or falling or to use as padding for sensitive areas), go ahead and use it. And if you know you typically need a certain prop, such as a block or blanket, have one ready at your side before class starts.
- Resist peer pressure. If your class is doing a pose that you feel is beyond your capabilities or that you just aren’t ready for, ask your teacher for an alternative or take a resting pose. Or, you can just watch the others do the pose, and learn through observation. If you find your class is consistently too challenging for you, look of another a class that fits your level of ability, such as an eight-week introductory series for beginners or a class that is designed specifically for older students.
- Only do inverted poses if they’re okay for you. Inverted poses are contraindicated for people who have uncontrolled high blood pressure or who are having eye problems, such as glaucoma or detached retina. If you are having neck problems, refrain from Headstand and Shoulderstand, please. If you have no contraindications and want to learn inversions, start by finding a special class, series, or workshop that is designed to introduce you to step by step to the inverted poses, so you can learn to practice these poses safely, under the careful guidance of an experienced teacher.
- Talk to Your Doctor. If you have had a surgery, or if you have a medical condition or an injury, explicitly ask your doctor or physical therapist which physical actions are safe for you and which are not. Don’t wait for the medical professional to tell you! Some doctors in particular (no offense, Baxter) often don’t even consider that you might be going upside down or twisting yourself like a pretzel, so you have to be sure to ask: Can I go upside down? Can I round my spine? Can I twist my spine? Can I cross my legs? Can I put pressure on this or that part of my body? And if you get no for an answer to any of those questions, be sensible, and follow the doctor’s recommendations.
(Edited from ‘Yoga for Healthy Aging’, and with grateful thanks to the team there.)