Yoga is trendy and no one doubts its positive effects on the body and mind. But be careful: if you get it wrong, you risk injury.
Even if yoga now has a certain lifestyle flair and some may only start doing it because it “somehow feels good” or because a course is offered in the gym: Most people come into contact with it for health reasons. Some people are overworked, exhausted or sleep poorly and hope that yoga will primarily relax. Another might suffer from back pain , tension , circulatory problems or joint problems – and would like to see an improvement in his situation, a healthier, stronger, and more healthy body.
Yoga can do you all good. Yoga relaxes muscles, strengthens and tones them. It stimulates the metabolism, acts on the nervous system and through it on the body. Blood values can improve, and regular practice even has a positive effect on the immune system, studies have shown. And all without side effects? Only if used correctly. “Similar to drugs, the dose makes the poison,” says Prof. Ingo Froböse from the German Sport University Cologne. “Yoga is very helpful, but under two conditions: You need a certain body awareness, that only develops over time, and a good teacher.”
Finding it can be a challenge. Not because there are so few, but because there are so many yoga teachers. The Association of Yoga Teachers in Germany (BDY) estimates that at least three million Germans practice yoga regularly in Germany. With the increasing demand, so has the offer in recent years – the number of teachers who offer yoga in Germany has increased fivefold in the last 20 years and is more than 10,000 according to the BDY. The variety of styles alone is confusing. Ashtanga, Bikram, Kundalini, Iyengar or power yoga: who knows what is behind which name, let alone which type they like best?
If you are serious about it, you will not be able to avoid testing a few schools and styles at the beginning until you have found the right one for you. Or the right teacher, because it doesn’t work without him. Experts strongly advise against learning only from books or DVDs – even book authors if they are serious. The risk of injuring yourself in the process is very high – for various reasons.
“Most people are stiff in certain parts of the body and overmobile in others,” says Marina Pagel, who runs an Iyengar studio with her partner in Hamburg. The body usually compensates for this. Yoga is about recognizing these weak points and working on them. “Especially at the beginning, many people don’t have a pronounced body awareness,” says the Iyengar teacher, who has been practicing yoga for around 20 years. It’s like with small children who are just learning to walk: If you don’t pay attention to what they’re doing, they could fall or their fingers jammed. “Many yoga students are similar. If they were not given instructions, they would be injured.”
In the best case scenario, nothing happens if you adopt the wrong posture. However, with the corresponding previous damage or with constant repetition, it can have unpleasant consequences. Muscle strains or tendon irritation, ligament stretching, blockages of the small vertebral joints are possible. Cartilage or intervertebral discs can react sensitively to long-term incorrect loading.
“Some postures are also very demanding on the body and are problematic in terms of cardiovascular regulation, for example,” says Froböse. “If untrained people suddenly go into a headstand, the work of the heart can increase significantly, which not everyone can tolerate well.” In any case, it is advisable to consult a doctor from the age of 35 before starting a new sport as a couch potato. That being said, beginners shouldn’t do a headstand anyway – such exercises are reserved for advanced users. In open courses, a good teacher can therefore always assess the level of performance of his students and will not suddenly confront newcomers with exercises that are too difficult and therefore dangerous, but rather prepare them for them.
Mindfulness with oneself, listening is a central point in yoga. “It’s not about just learning certain movements or exercises, but about learning to move,” says sports scientist Froböse. What is meant is: to feel the limits of stress, to develop a sensitivity for one’s own body and not to ask too much or too little of the body – a certain stimulus threshold should be reached if something is to change. Just don’t overdo it.
In the beginning, the exercises should therefore not be too demanding. As with any sport, the body needs a certain time to adapt to the new load and to tolerate more. “Our structures, i.e. the ligaments, tendons and joints, have a different metabolism, which means that they react differently to new stresses,” explains Froböse. Muscles react the fastest, around four weeks. Ligaments and tendons take longer, about three months. Only then can you expect more from the body, increase the load.
False ambition and the body’s own weak points
False ambition is therefore also problematic, for example when someone absolutely wants to master a lotus position or a headstand without the body having the necessary prerequisites for this, i.e. without the necessary strength or flexibility to be able to perform this exercise correctly. Something like that damages the body in the long term. To stay with the example: a lotus position – that cross-legged position where the legs look like a knot – requires articulated hips. If you force yourself into the posture despite stiff hips, although you are not yet ready, you will eventually have problems with your knees. This can be continued at will.
In addition, every body has its own weak points. For some it is the cervical or lumbar spine, for others it is the knee joints or shoulders. The teacher must be aware of these weak points, which is why good teachers always ask new students about previous illnesses, injuries or operations. The background is as follows: Some postures (asanas) cannot be practiced with certain injuries, those affected are then given an alternative asana or, as in Iyengar yoga, practice with aids such as blocks, chairs or wall ropes particularly precisely so that the body regenerates.
To avoid injuries, you always need an external corrective, nobody can do that alone. “In Iyengar Yoga, we teachers demonstrate the posture and go in with the students together. We observe and instruct at the same time. Then we come out of the asana so that we can see the group better, and first correct verbally so that the participants are aware and can actively improve, “says Pagel. “If that is not enough, one must, where necessary, carefully touch the student where the body is not yet moving.”
Qualification is crucial
To do this, the teacher has to know what she is doing. The quality of a course therefore stands and falls with its qualification. The problem here is that there is no standardized training in Germany. Basically, every yoga teacher can call himself, regardless of whether he has acquired his knowledge in a few weekend courses or whether he has completed a three-year training in which great value is placed on in-depth knowledge of anatomy and physiology. Serious schools also require prospective teachers that they can demonstrate at least two to three years of their own practice under supervision before starting their training. This is important because you can only pass on to others what you have experienced in your own body.
Interested parties can contact the BDY. The association has established a number of criteria that a qualified teacher should meet (see box). The Iyengar Yoga Association has similarly strict requirements.
Inquiries are therefore welcome: a good teacher should be willing to provide information about his or her training in advance – if you are shy, you probably do not have the appropriate qualifications. When in doubt, he can’t teach you anything. At least nothing to alleviate serious back or joint pain.