“Yoga isn’t just a physical exercise program. It is a scientific system designed to generate greater clarity and harmony in life. With a regular practice, individuals often notice a stronger, slimmer and more flexible body, in addition to a mentally sharper, more patient and relaxed sense of self” (yogahealthfoundation.org).
If you’re looking for an exercise program to get stronger and more flexible while adding balance and calmness to your daily routine, take a long, deep breath and follow these tips for getting started safely. It’s National Yoga Awareness Month, what better time to start?
1. If you have any medical conditions, speak with your doctor before beginning. This is standard advice for any new exercise program. Dr. Jeanine Andersson, an orthopaedic surgeon at Arkansas Specialty Orthopaedics, recommends that anyone with chronic musculoskeletal problems, cardiac history, or lung issues including COPD or exercise-induced asthma consult their doctor prior to starting yoga practice.
2. Disclose any medical conditions to your instructor. Dr. Andersson recommends informing your instructor of any orthopaedic injuries, even old ones, like a blown-out knee from playing softball in high school. “A good instructor should be able to modify the practice for you,” she explains. This may mean alternate positions or incorporating props such as bolsters, blocks and mats.
3. Don’t go it alone. At least initially, practicing with a class is preferable to practicing at home with an app or video. “Someone who is in shape and who has more natural athletic ability may pick up the skills more quickly and would be a better candidate for home practice,” Dr. Andersson says. “Others may be in a beginners’ class indefinitely.”
Until you get the positions down, learning proper form is key. “Working one on one with an instructor before beginning a group class or practice on your own is not a bad idea,” she adds. A certified instructor also can give proper feedback and instruct you in hand and knee placement, for example. An app or video can’t pick up on those nuances.
4. Find a certified instructor. “Be really honest with your instructor regarding your fitness level,” says Dr. Andersson. “What are you looking to get out of yoga; what would you benefit from? Or be honest and say, ‘I have zero athletic prowess.’ If you’re a couch potato, admit it. This should be an easy conversation to have with someone who is certified.”
5. Know your limits. “You must pay attention to your body,” she says. “Sharp shooting pains are not good. Your body is pretty smart. If you listen to it, it will let you know.” Yoga instructors refer to “finding your edge,” where you are challenging the body and yourself, but still staying completely within your comfort zone. Your edge is that place in the posture where you are feeling a soothing stretch, and your muscles are working, but there is no pain, strain or fatigue.
6. Warm up before class. “Warm up is important because it increases blood flow to muscles and tendons, and makes them more pliable,” Dr. Andersson explains. “With some of the exercises, you are more prone to injury otherwise.”
Overall, Dr. Andersson says, the benefits of yoga far outweigh the risks. “The injury rates are incredibly low. Most injuries are because you stretched a little too far and have muscle strain.”
Whether you’re looking to shed a few pounds, supplement your current exercise routine or start new habits, yoga is a great route to go. It’s beneficial for everyone and has something to offer for people of all levels of fitness.
“As we get older, balance is one of the first things to go,” Dr. Andersson says. “Falling and breaking bones are a big concern. Yoga helps develop neurologic awareness of balance, muscle tone and a stronger core. From an orthopaedic perspective, that’s huge. From mood benefits, to reducing stress level and lowering blood pressure, to helping focus – there are so many great benefits.”
Dr. Jeanine Andersson is an orthopaedic surgeon at Arkansas Specialty Orthopaedics who specializes in surgery of the hand and upper extremity. Using microsurgery and the latest minimally invasive techniques, she treats work-related injuries, fractures, degenerative diseases and deformities of the hand, elbow and arm.