Saturday, March 9, 2013

5 Things You Must Do When Practicing Yoga with a Medical Condition

In 2012, we learned that it is, in fact, possible to be injured during yoga (asana) practice. We also learned the easy ways to avoid injury: don’t compete, be mindful, and listen to your body topped most lists. But what if you already have an injury or medical condition, and want to practice yoga? Is yoga still safe?

The answer is yes. You can still practice yoga even if you have a pre-existing medical condition, ailment or injury; you just might not be able to do every pose. Simply modifying a pose can often accommodate a yoga contraindication. But some more serious medical conditions – like stroke, high blood pressure, heart disease and glaucoma - require you to avoid certain poses to ensure a safe practice. Whether you’re a yoga pro recovering from a car accident or a total newbie with a history of high blood pressure, these five essential tips will help you work around your ailment and maintain or begin a safer yoga practice.

1) Educate yourself 

Unless you are fortunate enough to practice with a private instructor, who is also a medical doctor, it’s wise to educate yourself on what postures you might need to modify or avoid while your medical condition or injury is present. Learn the poses that are contraindicated for your injury or ailment, especially if you have a home practice. If you’re experiencing a simple muscle or joint strain or sprain, then trial and error of common poses probably isn’t that risky. However, if you have high blood pressure or have a history or are at risk of stroke or heart attack, then the stakes are potentially much higher and it’s essential that you approach your yoga practice mindfully. There just isn’t enough research on the relationship between certain yoga postures and these conditions available today to completely rule out a potential causal relationship, so learn the contraindicated poses, avoid them, and enjoy the rest of your practice.

2) Talk to your doctor

This should be a no-brainer, but the misconception that yoga is “just a gentle exercise” is likely the reason that many folks don’t think they need to actually get their doc’s signoff. It’s crucial to discuss your yoga practice, or your intention to start one, with your doctor if he’s limited your movement activity due to an injury or ailment. Don’t forget to describe the intensity level of the classes you’re taking, how long a pose is typically held and whether classes are heated or utilize props. Many doctors are beginning to understand, and even recommend yoga to their patients as treatment.

3) Find the right teacher 

It’s particularly important for students with injuries and medical conditions to work with a truly experienced yoga instructor. A yoga teacher with RYT200 credentials will likely have had very little training in yoga contraindications (unless of course, they have medical or physical therapy training, too). Ideally, look for an instructor who is E-RYT500, a yoga therapist or any of the above who is also a doctor, physical therapist or other medical professional. Once you’ve found someone who’s qualified, make sure you feel comfortable with their style of teaching, energy and level of compassion, so that you can communicate freely and trust that your teacher is listening and able to give you the attention and advice you need, and deserve.

4) Inform the studio

If you decide to practice in a studio setting with group classes, be sure to alert the studio of your condition or injury. If the studio tells you that they aren’t equipped to handle your condition, then be grateful for their honesty, because only the most advanced yoga teachers and yoga therapists, and those with medical degrees, actually have the chops to adequately advise and instruct folks with more serious medical conditions. If a studio turns you away, don’t take it personally, understand that they are being responsible and looking out for your best interest and your personal safety. Most likely, they will recommend a teacher who is qualified to work with you and help you get in touch.

5) Slow down

Yoga means many different things to many different people. While you are recovering from an injury, or experiencing an ailment, you simply might not be able to do every yoga pose. But that doesn’t mean you can’t practice yoga. Try to be mindful of the fact that yoga, at its roots, is the practice of uniting the mind and body. It is not a contest to see who can contort their body into the biggest pretzel. So what if you can’t do headstand for a while, or ever? It doesn’t matter. Practice being present, practice quieting your mind, practice uniting body and breath and you are practicing yoga.


Victoria McColm is a consultant, connector and entrepreneur with a passion for yoga - and making it safer. She founded Prevent Yoga Injury and serves as Editor. She is the author of The Contraindication Index for Yoga Asanas - an essential reference guide to injuries, ailments, and medical conditions that can be exacerbated by certain yoga postures.  
Victoria entered teacher training with a consultant's mindset and immediately saw gaps in available yoga resources, as well as disconnects in the yoga community and industry at large. A problem solver by nature, she set out to fill these gaps and facilitate a needed dialogue on the issues of yoga safety. Her vision is to build Prevent Yoga Injury into a one-stop-shop for reliable and pragmatic information on best practice, yoga safety, injury prevention and contraindications. She is a registered yoga teacher with 200 hours of training and is a member of the Yoga Alliance Standards Committee Advisory Group.


  1. This is a very important post. It's quite important to assess the risks before you start any type of exercise. Great share.

  2. Thanks yoga pants! I think lots of students might believe the teacher knows exactly how to handle all injuries and conditions, but few of us have had that kind of training. Best thing is for students to be aware.