Yoga Injuries / Yoga Musings

Is Vinyasa Flow Yoga Safe?

There was a recent article in Time magazine, I think, that highlighted some of the physical risks of practicing yoga. Despite what many people think, even gentle forms of yoga can cause some serious injuries. I’m interested today to consider one particularly vigorous type of yoga, Vinyasa Flow (aka Power Yoga), and its safety.

First, let’s (very roughly) define Vinyasa Flow. Vinyasa Flow yoga is a type of yoga that usually involves continuous movement between poses, with the intention of building up “internal heat” — i.e. making you sweat. The intensity varies quite a bit from class to class, teacher to teacher, and studio to studio. In the most vigorous Vinyasa flow classes, you’ll be dripping sweat on to your mat and will burn 500+ calories in an hour and a half practice. (Here’s a post from a while back with a more detailed description of Vinyasa Flow yoga.)

Over the past several years, I’ve seen so many people with injuries at my local yoga studio, I can’t help but wonder if Vinyasa Flow is really safe in the long term. Of course, there are people who have been practicing for years and who have never suffered any kind of injury. But my experience has been that almost anyone who has practiced Vinyasa Flow for about four or five years continuously will, at some point, find himself or herself dealing with some kind of chronic injury.

My basic assessment is that Vinyasa Flow can be safe, but it is often not. Many students do not know proper alignment and form. Merely knowing what a pose is supposed to look like does not amount to knowing proper alignment and form. One has to have an intimate understanding of how to engage the muscles in subtle ways, how to make minor adjustments to accommodate the quirks of one’s own body, and how to connect the poses safely in order to avoid injury in the long term. In most Vinyasa Flow classes, however, teachers just bark out the names of poses, and students fling themselves mindlessly between poses without the slightest thought to smooth, controlled, safe movements.

You can get a really kick-butt workout from doing Vinyasa Flow, even with bad form. But over time, the bad form will catch up with you. It’s no surprise that Iyengar classes are often filled with very advanced flow practitioners who, one way or another, have suffered a humbling injury that made them revisit the basic.

Lately, I’ve been taking more Iyengar and Iyengar-influenced classes, and attending Vinyasa Flow classes that are a little bit more controlled than some of these crazy “boot camp” free-for-alls. For both new and experienced Vinyasa Flow students, I would recommend always taking some Iyengar classes, or even level 1 or 1-2 Flow classes, to make sure that you continually revisit the basics of alignment. It’s amazing how much more I learn, actually, from taking a beginner or intermediate class than an advanced Flow class.

Of course, an on-going yoga practice can be much more than just a workout. But if the workout part of your practice puts you in a physical state of injury or pain, it’s going to be pretty difficult to make yoga an integrated and healthful part of your life in any higher sense.

5 thoughts on “Is Vinyasa Flow Yoga Safe?

  1. I can relate to what you are saying in this article. I have a strong Iyengar background and feel that I have really good alignment in the basic poses. Still, several times, I have pulled a hamstring by going into triangle or the splits too early in a class when I am not properly warmed up and the teacher is moving us quickly from one pose to the next. I am now going to a great studio (yoga yoga in Austin, Tx) where I take an anusara flow class and have found that the alignment techniques even with a faster pace are keeping me from doing something stupid to injure myself.

  2. I believe that Vinyasa Flow is what each teacher makes it to be. If the teacher’s primal intention is to heal and protect his students, no harm will be done. If form takes priority over substance, injuries will occur for sure. I believe that as in everything else, the teacher’s quality and dedication makes a world of a difference.

    Interestingly, my experience with Anusara is totally different from Jocelyn (previous comment). I recently attended a workshop with one of the most famous Anusara teachers (no name shall be given of course :p) and I ended up very badly injured in my back and shoulders. It seemed the purpose of the workshop was to prove that the Anusara Method was right and worked for everybody in every posture, and not to honor me or other students. I was forced badly into a few postures, and resulted with a very badly stretched trap, which is still hurting me now, a week after the event.

    So again, it all comes back to the teacher, his skills, and his intentions.

    Shanti Om.

  3. I also have a strong Iyengar background. Unfortunately, I’ve known even seasoned Iyengar teachers and students who have injured themselves in their loved ashtanga classes. My favorite teacher blew out her shoulders, and two others tore hamstrings. Even having the knowledge of good alignment can be lost in a serious flow as the body tires. But it’s not just one style. I’ve also had not-so-great experiences with Anusara. An advanced teacher taught an “all levels” workshop and it was just crazy, crazy backbending that really turned me off of that approach all together. And I’m “good” at backbends! It is all about the teacher, after all, and not necessarily the style. But more importantly, I don’t think there is any “right” approach. We each find what is optimal for us at that moment. And that is subjective. And we might change styles as we grow or get older. The bigger question is why do we push ourselves beyond our known limitations? Ego. And that is much much harder to un-learn than it is to learn asana.

  4. I have studied iyengar yoga for the past 4 years. I am very fortunate that I have never had any injuries , although I did start to have chronic knee pain about half way through teacher training.

    I have since left that school and teacher training and I am now working with another teacher who is teaching me correct feet and hip alignment, something that believe i should have been taught at a beginner level at my old school.

    My point is ,just because a yoga teacher teaches a particular style and has a good reputation does not necessarily mean that they are a good teacher or that you want get injured.

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