Is Yoga Safe?

Is yoga safe with one yoga teacher for 30+ students?

As a yoga teacher, my first priority is to encourage a safe and empowering practice for students. There is currently a disturbing trend in the Melbourne yoga scene: large yoga studios, on a weekly basis, have huge classes of 30 - 50 (or even more) students. It is great that yoga is so popular. However, I am deeply concerned that these huge classes could be causing an increase in the incidence of injury from the practice of yoga asana. Can a ratio of 1 teacher to 30+ students ensure a safe practice for students? In my opinion, definitely not. Is it the ethical duty of the yoga teacher and the yoga studio owner to provide a safe environment for yoga practice? How can we work with these large numbers to provide a safe practice?

I recently worked with a yoga therapy client (alias Jane) who came to me for yoga therapy as she has a rotator cuff shoulder injury that was caused by her yoga practice at another studio. Jane had been practising a fast, vinyasa style. She loved her practice as it was both a physical workout and also a haven for her emotional and mental wellbeing. She noticed pain in her shoulder during and after her practice and was devastated when this culminated in a rotator cuff injury that has meant she cannot currently continue her vinyasa practice. 

I worked in collaboration with Jane’s osteopath who described Jane’s habit of rounding her shoulders and sinking her sternum, which brings the shoulders into medial rotation and protraction. We both agreed that this shoulder position is the weakest position for weight-bearing and the most likely position for injury. 

Jane said that her class usually had about 40 students, with just one teacher. Disturbingly, Jane said that the teacher did not ever give specific alignment instructions to the class on how to do the common vinyasa class sequence: high plank/low plank/upward facing dog/downward facing dog sequence. She said it seemed to be assumed that people knew how to do it correctly. She said the teacher gave general instructions, such as rest in child’s pose when you need to. The teacher mentioned the meridians, benefits of poses and relevant themes - but no alignment cues. No teacher ever gave her individual postural adjustments. Jane did not expect personal attention, but did not realise that practising with incorrect alignment could cause injury.

As I sat with Jane’s tears of frustration and disillusionment, I noticed my own feelings of anger and disappointment that yoga could be offered in such an unsafe way. Jane tended to blame herself for not listening to the growing pain in her shoulder. Of course students have a responsibility to listen to their bodies and stop any practice that is painful. However, students will not know to do this unless a teacher leads the way. Teachers - and yoga studio owners -  have a crucial leadership role in creating a safe environment for practice. Teachers need to maintain a clear dialogue with students about how to practise safely as part of their ethical duty to do all they can to provide a teaching environment that promotes a safe practice. Teachers and yoga studio owners that have a teacher to student ratio of 1:30+ need to seriously consider - and urgently address - the safety needs of their students. 

How then can we enhance safety in yoga classes? Here are some suggestions:

  • Studios with large classes need to improve their teacher:student ratio. There are no industry guidelines in Australia for the yoga teacher to student ratio. One suggestion is to have a teacher student ratio of 1:20, then have another teacher assistant for every 10 students above that. This would translate as 1 teacher for 20 students, 1 teacher and 1 teacher assistant for 30 students, 1 teachers and 2 assistants for 40 students and so on. This would be the bare minimum of teachers required. The teacher assistants could be roaming the room and ensuring that the verbal safety cues that the teacher is giving are carried out by all students. The assistants could give personalised attention using verbal cues and physical adjustments to individual students. If studios are regularly getting such large numbers, they can financially afford to provide enough teachers to create a safe learning environment.

  • Teachers need to ensure that verbal cues for safety and alignment for each posture are included in their teaching instructions. Teachers need to have a well-developed repertoire of alignment instructions for safety for each type of posture: standing postures, backbends, forward bends, twists, inversions and so on. Teachers also need to have a readily available set of verbal cues for safety around joints of the body. This includes cues for ankles, knees, hips, wrists, elbows, shoulders and the spine including the neck. These cues need to be clear, succinct and repeated again and again by teachers to encourage a safe practice.

  • Alongside verbal cues for safety, teachers should include demonstrations of how to do postures safely. It is challenging for teachers to find the time to do demonstrations in a fast-paced vinyasa practice, but a short demonstration of one pose each class at the start of the class, or as a short pause during the class, could be beneficial. Slowing the practice down, even for just a short interlude, could ensure that the alignment of difficult sequences or postures could be explored more effectively.

  • Beginners or those with very little yoga experience are especially at risk in large classes of 30+ students, if there is inadequate personalised guidance. Beginners should be in beginner courses that have small sizes (perhaps a maximum of 10-15 students) to ensure individualised attention. Beginners courses need to emphasise how to practice safely with every posture type and with every joint of the body.

  • Promote smaller classes as these greatly enhance the safety and effectiveness of yoga practice. Studios with smaller classes can promote this as a valuable advantage of their studio. I believe there is a growing number of students seeking more personalised and safe classes, some because they have been injured in classes that do not provide skilful attention to the individual. Students choosing a yoga studio need to realise that the quality of the teaching-learning environment is greatly enhanced with smaller classes that provide personalised guidance. On my own website home page I have written: “Most of the yoga classes at One Heart have 10-15 students to support a safe and effective practice. In our small classes, our teachers will give personalised attention, to help you adapt your practice to your needs and to greatly enhance your yoga learning.”

These suggestions are only a starting-point. There will be other creative solutions. I hope this article promotes dialogue, so that each teacher and yoga studio finds the solutions that will work well to enhance the safety and effectiveness of their students’ practice. 

Lastly, I want to acknowledge the fine yoga teachers and yoga studio owners that provide mostly smaller classes but also some larger classes, with personalised attention. These teachers actively promote an ongoing dialogue with students about a safe - and empowering -  practice. For us, a safe yoga practice is the norm.

Anahata Giri

Anahata Giri