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.