Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Improving Yoga Student Safety: Honoring Boundaries

safety tips for yoga teachers
By: Virginia Iversen, M.Ed

As a Yoga teacher, improving student safety is of paramount importance. Ensuring Yoga student safety, while still offering your students a challenging and thorough workout, can be challenging, to say the least. This is particularly true if you are teaching a mixed-level class or a class to a group of students who drop into your class sporadically. If you are teaching Yoga at a gym, health club or community center, you may frequently have students attending your class who do not have an established, regular Yoga practice at home. 

If you find that many of your students take your class only occasionally, or that they do not have a regular Yoga practice, paying close attention to your students’ fitness levels, individual abilities and needs will help to improve their safety during your Yoga classes. Even if you are teaching classes to a dedicated group of students in a professional Yoga studio, you may find that many of your students will encounter a variety of physical challenges through the years. For instance, a very dedicated and fit student, whom you may have been teaching for several years, may fall skiing and partially tear several ligaments in his or her knee. 

Although this student may be very adept at a strong intermediate series of asanas, your student may need some extra attention and a variety of modifications, in order to continue to practice Yoga during his or her recovery process. In the same vein, one of your students may be going through a difficult divorce or a family situation that is causing him or her a great deal of emotional distress. In this case, you may be well advised to offer this student some restorative forwarding bending postures at the end of class, in order to soothe and balance the student’s mind and body. 

A very important skill to develop as a Yoga teacher is to honor your students’ current needs and ability levels, by honoring their boundaries. It is not uncommon for Yoga teachers to dismiss a student’s personal boundary when, for example, the student is very quiet and polite and the teacher is trying to lead a relatively large group of students through a brisk 45 minute Yoga class, during their lunch hour! Understandably so, but it is critically important to listen when your students tell you that they are experiencing pain in a certain part of their body. 

For example, several years ago I fell skiing and partially tore several ligaments and the meniscus in my right knee. I was advised to have immediate surgery by a prominent orthopedic surgeon in my area, but I declined. 

I believed that with time, patience and physical therapy, I would be able to rehabilitate my knee without such an invasive procedure. Five years later, my knee is at 95%. During the time when I was recovering from this injury, I was still participating in Yoga classes. In order to protect my knee, I would place a folded blanket on my mat underneath my knees. On more than one occasion, even after I explained the situation to the Yoga teacher, the teacher would absolutely insist that I remove the blanket! If I had removed the blanket and continued on with the class, I would have further strained my torn meniscus and partially torn ligaments.

This is a very clear example of not honoring a Yoga student’s boundaries. Although it may feel irritating to slow down enough to accommodate an individual student’s needs, it is critically important if you are working on improving student safety in your classes. By keeping the lines of communication open with your students, you will know if and when your students need some specialized instruction. In this way, you will be able to wisely guide them in their practice by choosing asequence of asanas that best suits their individual needs, and by incorporating the strategic use of props and modified Yoga poses when necessary. 

Virginia Iversen, M.Ed, has been practicing and studying the art of Yoga for over twenty years. She lives in Woodstock, New York, where she works as a writer and an academic support specialist. She is currently accepting Yoga and health-related writing orders and may be contacted at:

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Improving Yoga Student Safety: Chair Yoga

student safety
By: Virginia Iversen, M.Ed

As the popularity and availability of Yoga classes continues to expand throughout the world, many teachers are finding that they are teaching a specific group of students who need the support of a chair to practice Yoga safely and effectively. This is particularly true if you are teaching a group of elderly students or students who are disabled from head injuries or chronic disease. By offering these students fun and engaging Chair Yoga classes, you will enable them to participate in a comprehensive practice, while improving their safety with the support of a chair. 

By learning how to modify Yoga postures, so that the postures can be practiced with the support of a chair, you will also be expanding your teaching skills, so that you will be able to offer Yoga classes in non-traditional venues, such as senior centers and nursing homes. A regular practice of asanas has also been shown to be effective for relieving some of the pain and stiffness of arthritis, which is so common in later years. In addition, by offering specialized Chair Yoga classes to older students, you will give them the opportunity to remain socially engaged and active in their communities, which is an important aspect of warding off isolation and depression in their sunset years. 

Offering Chair Yoga classes to students of all ages, who are struggling with chronic pain, disability or a long term illness, will improve student safety. In this context, teaching Chair Yoga classes will make the practice of Yoga possible for many students who would otherwise be unable to benefit from this practice. For instance, students with MS who practice Yoga regularly report that they feel more energetic and that their sense of balance and coordination is improved. Additionally, a regular exercise routine, including Yoga, has been shown to ward off depression and dementia as the functioning of the frontal lobes and the hippocampus is improved. 

This is an important benefit of Chair Yoga, because many students who are living with chronic pain or a disability are at high risk for depression. Alleviating that depression is critical to maintaining a positive outlook on life and boosting the immune system. There are many different postures and pranayama exercises that can be practiced with the support of a chair. One such posture is Seated Spinal Twist. Seated Spinal Twist relieves muscular tension throughout the upper back, neck, shoulders, and side waist. This posture also aids in digestion and gently massages the abdominal organs. 

* Seated Spinal Twist in a Chair

Seated Spinal Twist is usually practiced towards the second half of a Yoga class, after the body is fully warmed up. If you have a neck or back injury, consult with a certifiedYoga teacher or your doctor before practicing Seated Spinal Twist. To practice this posture in a chair, sit comfortably on a straight back chair with your feet flat on the floor. If you have access to a folding chair that has no arms and an open back section, this is optimal so that you can turn your body sideways, if that is a more comfortable position for you to practice Seated Spinal Twist. 

Take a few deep breath before you begin, and then place the back of your left hand on the outside of your right knee. Place your right hand on the right arm of the chair, the back of the chair or flat on the seat of the chair directly behind you with your fingers pointing towards the back of the room. Where you place your right hand will depend on your level of flexibility and the style of chair you are using. Remember to keep your feet flat on the floor and pointing straight ahead. 

With each inhale, release the twist a little bit and with each exhale, move more deeply into the twist. As you inhale and exhale, continue to undulate your body in a gentle twisting motion. Hold this chair version of Seated Spinal Twist for three to five breaths, and then release the posture and come back to a neutral position for a breath or two. Repeat Seated Spinal Twist on the left hand side when your are ready. 

Virginia Iversen, M.Ed, has been practicing and studying the art of Yoga for over twenty years. She lives in Woodstock, New York, where she works as a writer and an academic support specialist. She is currently accepting Yoga and health-related writing orders and may be contacted at:

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Winter Yoga for Weight Loss: Core Strengtheners

By: Virginia Iversen, M.Ed

It is not uncommon for many Yoga practitioners to put on a few extra pounds during the winter season. If this is the case for you, practicing a vigorous, flowing series of Yoga postures, that includes a series of core strengthening poses, will help you to maintain a healthy weight and a strong core. Strong core abdominal muscles are very important for stabilizing the entire body, including the lower back. When the abdominal muscles are weak, the lower back is much more vulnerable to strain and injury, both on and off the Yoga mat. 

Many different sequences of Yoga poses offer core-strengthening benefits. A Power or Ashtanga Yoga series of asanas, however, is particularly effective at strengthening core abdominal muscles. The reason for this is that during an Ashtanga Yoga class, a practitioner links the postures together with the movements of the Sun Salutation in a long, flowing dance. This vinyasa or flowing style of Yoga helps to strengthen all of the major muscles groups in the body, especially the upper back, arms and core abdominal muscles. 

A flowing series of Yoga postures also helps to increase the metabolism and improve heart health, due to its vigorous, aerobic nature. This increase in your metabolism will help you to burn off excess calories during the cold, winter months. Of course, if you find a Power Yoga class to be quite challenging, and you need to rest in Child’s Pose periodically during the class, which is fine! It is far better to listen to your own body and honor your natural “edge” during a class, rather than push yourself to the point of possible injury. Over time and with consistent effort, your strength and flexibility will increase, so that you are able to move through an Ashtanga class with ease and dexterity. 

The continual repetition of Plank Pose, or Chaturanga, during a flowing sequence of Yoga asanas, is incredibly strengthening for the upper body and torso. In addition, by moving through Downward Facing Dog into Chaturanga, then into Upper Facing Dog with each vinyasa, you will be toning and firming many of the major muscles groups in your body, including your core abdominal muscles. By incorporating the practice of Navasana, or Boat Pose, into a sequence of finishing postures, you will further enhance the conditioning benefits of a challenging Power Yoga class. 

There are a number of Yoga poses that target the core abdominal muscles. Navasana and Chaturanga are two such poses. However, these poses can be quite challenging for beginning Yoga students to perform multiple times and in correct alignment during a class. If you are a beginning to intermediate Yoga student, who needs to practice some less strenuous core strengthening postures, integrating the practice of Vasistha’s Couch and Modified Side Plank Pose into your Yoga practice will help you to develop more strength in your oblique muscles, abdominal area and upper arms. If you are a Yoga teacher, who is teaching beginning to intermediate students, you may wish to include the practice of Vasistha’s Couch and Modified Side Plank Pose into your Yoga classes. 

* Vasistha’s Couch into Modified Side Plank Pose

To practice Vasistha’s Couch, come to a seated position on your Yoga mat. Extend your legs out in front of you, and then roll gently to your right side. Stack your legs on top of each other with your toes slightly flexed and your ankles gently pressing together. Bend your right arm and rest the weight of your body on your right forearm. Keep your forearm perpendicular to your body, your right elbow in line with your right hip and your right palm flat on the mat. Place your left palm on the outside of your left thigh with your left arm comfortably extended. The real key to Vasistha’s Couch is to keep your legs, hips and elbow in a perfectly straight line. 

This posture will elongate all of the muscles in your side torso and bring awareness to muscles that you may not think of often. It will also promote a sense of spaciousness all through your upper torso. To move into Modified Side Plank Pose, raise your body off the mat by simply pushing up against your right forearm and the outside edge of your right foot. Keep your entire body in a straight line, do not let your hips sag. Hold Modified Plank Pose for three to five breaths, and then release the posture by moving back into Vasistha’s Couch for a breath or two, before repeating the pose on the left hand side. 

Virginia Iversen, M.Ed, has been practicing and studying the art of Yoga for over twenty years. She lives in Woodstock, New York, where she works as a writer and an academic support specialist. She is currently accepting Yoga and health-related writing orders and may be contacted at:

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Improving Yoga Student Safety: Supported Malasana

By: Virginia Iversen, M.Ed

Over the past several decades, the practice of Yoga has grown exponentially! It is now possible to find Yoga classes in community centers, hospitals, prisons, health clubs, universities, and even at local homeless shelters. There is a wide range of Yoga classes offered to many different groups of students around the country. If you find yourself teaching classes to a diverse group of students, learning how to gently and effectively encourage your students to use props and modify challenging poses, will allow your students to practice more advanced Yoga postures with ease and safety.

If you are a Yoga teacher, improving student safety is most likely one of your top priorities when you are teaching a class. This is especially true if you are a new Yoga teacher. As you gain more experience, you'll be able to more easily spot students who are especially prone to injury, and you'll be able to identify students who may need special modifications and support in the postures quickly. As your teaching skills deepen, you will become more comfortable with the appropriate, strategic use of props and modifications, which will help your students to practice challenging Yoga poses in a safe and effective manner.

* Malasana or Garland Pose

Malasana, or Garland Pose, is a Yoga posture, which can be quite challenging for many beginning students. Correctly practicing this Yogic squat can also be very challenging for experienced students who have tight Achilles tendons, calves, hamstrings, and hips. With the appropriate usage of modifications and supportive props, many of these students will be able to safely and comfortably benefit from the practice of Garland Pose. The benefits of Garland Pose include elongating and stretching the Achilles tendons, upper back, hamstrings, shoulders, and neck. This posture also helps to increase flexibility and release tension throughout the groin muscles and hips. 

Additionally, practicing Malasana tones the abdominal muscles and helps to encourage a better sense of balance. This Yogic squatting pose is also particularly good for increasing the digestive fire. The digestive organs are stimulated as the energy of apana vayu flows downward. This downward flowing of energy promotes a feeling of being grounded and calm, as well as optimal digestive activity. Before leading your students through the practice of Malasana, make sure that you have enough wedges, rolled blankets or Yoga bolsters available for the students who may need props, in order to practice this posture safely and effectively. When you are ready to lead your students through the practice of Garland Pose, ask them to come to Mountain Pose at the front of their Yoga mats. 

With an exhale, instruct your students to come to a squatting position on their mats with their feet comfortably far apart and parallel to each other. Have your students place their hands in Prayer Position, as they gently apply pressure against the inside of their thighs. The pressure of their upper arms against their thighs will increase the stretch throughout their inner thighs, hips, shoulders, and neck muscles. For those Yoga students who need to practice the modified version of Garland Pose, have them place a rolled blanket or a foam wedge underneath their heels, if their Achilles tendons are particularly tight today.

If some of your students experience mild knee discomfort in this posture, have them sit on a bolster for support, in order to relieve undue pressure on the knees. If any of your students are recovering from a serious knee injury, it is advisable to have them practice Happy Baby Pose, instead of Garland pose. Instruct your students to hold Garland Pose for 30 seconds to 1 minute, and then release the posture and move gently and mindfully into Standing Forward Fold, before coming back to Mountain Pose at the top of their Yoga mats.

Virginia Iversen, M.Ed, has been practicing and studying the art of Yoga for over twenty years. She lives in Woodstock, New York, where she works as a writer and an academic support specialist. She is currently accepting Yoga and health-related writing orders and may be contacted at: 

Monday, February 09, 2015

Improving Yoga Student Safety: Creative Class Formatting

creative class formatting
By: Virginia Iversen, M.Ed

The systematic practice of Yoga poses, meditation techniques and breathing exercises can have a profoundly healing effect on a Yoga student. This healing may come in the form of a healthier body and/or in the form of a lighter, happier more peaceful mind. However, if a student is working above his or her ability or fitness level in a class, the possibility of injury can derail many of these benefits. By creatively formatting your Yoga class and maintaining an awareness of any students who may be prone to injury, you will lessen the likelihood that a student may injury him or herself in your class. 

In addition, by facilitating easy and comfortable communication between yourself and your students, you will further mitigate the possibility of injury. This ease of communication will help you to be aware of any students who may need extra support or modified Yoga poses and props, in order to practice certain asanas safely. One of the easiest ways to improve the communication between you and your students is to have each student fill out a questionnaire about their health concerns prior to practicing with you. As you review the student questionnaires, you will be able to identify students who are healing from injuries or who are contending with serious health issues. 

In this way, you will be able to keep on eye on these students, so that you can support their healing process through their Yoga practice. The other way to facilitate easy, fluid, ongoing communication is to have “office hours” prior to, or just after, a Yoga class. Even a fifteen minute slot of time when you are available to meet with your students individually, on an ongoing basis, will help you to stay aware of any students who may need some extra support and attention during class. Additionally, by creatively formatting your Yoga class, so that you can quietly and unobtrusively keep your eye on any students who are injury prone, will greatly improve your students’ safety during a class. 

A wonderful way to creatively format a Yoga class in order to improve student safety is to practice in a circle! Although this class format is unconventional, practicing in a circle will help you to have a direct line of vision to each student. This will facilitate your keen awareness of each student’s needs, on a moment-to-moment basis. Although some students may feel a bit shy about practicing Yoga in a circle at first, if you exude an air of acceptance and fun, these students will begin to relax and most of them will enjoy the enhanced contact with you and with the other students. 

Another creative way to format your Yoga class in order to improve the safety of your students is to rotate the direction that you are demonstrating the poses. In other words, in the traditional Yoga class format where the teacher faces the front of the room, by demonstrating the first pose or first series of postures facing your students, you will put them at ease. As the class proceeds, by rotating the direction you, yourself, are facing, you will be able to quietly keep on eye on any injury prone students. By simply turning a quarter of a turn towards each adjacent wall as you demonstrate each posture, with your students following suit, you will be able to more easily spot students who may need additional support to practice the postures safely and effectively. 

This is particularly true when the class turns to the back wall and you can observe your Yoga students from behind, without them becoming self-conscious. This observational stance will allow you to identify those students who frequently choose to practice in the back of the class, but who clearly need additional instruction, modifications and props to safely progress in their Yoga practice. By creatively formatting your Yoga classes, you will facilitate increased connection between your students and yourself, as well as increasing the connection between your students. This increased connection will further enhance a sense of community, fun and safety during your Yoga classes. 

Virginia Iversen, M.Ed, has been practicing and studying the art of Yoga for over twenty years. She lives in Woodstock, New York, where she works as a writer and an academic support specialist. She is currently accepting Yoga and health-related writing orders and may be contacted at: