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Climbing and Yoga: Injury Prevention or Causation?
By Courtenay Schurman, MS, CSCS February 2003
Climbing gyms across the country, including such gyms as Cascade Crags in Washington, Aiguille Rock Climbing Center in Orlando, Florida, and Summit Climbing Gym in Texas, are beginning to include yoga classes targeting climbers in order to help them increase their flexibility, cope with pre-existing injuries, relieve stress and anxiety, and focus on the mental aspect of sport.
However, the number of injuries related to yoga itself is quickly on the rise – many times because the participant 1) is not yet strong or flexible enough to hold a certain pose, 2) is doing the pose incorrectly without properly modifying for his body’s needs, 3) has pre-existing physical conditions (such as a problem with elbows, shoulders, wrists, knees, neck or back) that is made worse by getting into or holding certain positions, 4) has joined a class that is too advanced and puts him into poses inappropriate for his skill level; 5) is competing with an overly flexible friend on a nearby mat, 6) is in an overcrowded class with lack of space or supervision; or 7) has pushed himself far beyond his current ability.
In a recent BBC News Online article , Keith Waldon, vice chair of the Society of Sports Therapists, stated that yoga should be tightly regulated: "A lot of people take up yoga thinking it is a gentle activity that will not cause them any harm, but that is not necessarily the case.” While yoga can be a wonderful practice that helps train and focus the mind as well as the body, it is increasingly important to exercise caution in finding the appropriate instructor, class, and training level for you. Remember that yoga, like any other sport or exercise discipline, takes time to learn and perfect. Be especially cautious entering into yoga if you 1) are prone to hamstring pulls or lower back strain, 2) currently have any injuries to the knees, hips or sacroiliac (SI) joint, shoulders, neck, or wrists, or 3) are weak in certain areas of the body that need supplemental strength training as a precursor to participating in advanced yoga classes.
Many people begin yoga classes in order to alleviate pre-existing lower back pain (LBP; after all, 8 of 10 Americans experience LBP at some point in their active lives!) only to find that some of the poses such as downward dog, backward bend, cobra, or spinal twists such as the pretzel only aggravate their conditions. In Tina Juan’s 3-part series (http://www.inq7.net/lif/2002/oct/01/lif_21-1.htm) on avoiding yoga injuries Juan offers the following advice:
“Bend forward by tilting the pelvis bones at the hip joints, not by pushing or pulling on the spine [this helps properly stretch the hamstrings as well; try to keep a slight bend in the knees to prevent locking out or hyperextension]. Bend backwards by lifting the chest and pushing the hips forward to prevent overworking the lower back [consider preparing for back bends by lying over a stability ball initially to help stretch the abdominals and prepare the lower back for such full range extension]. When twisting, make sure the effort begins in your core muscles. Do not use your arms to bind you into the pose until your muscles have done the actual twisting first.” [information in brackets added by Body Results]
She adds that by having another person push or pull on you, or by using your arms to pull yourself deeper into a twisting position, you may go too far for your body’s current state of flexibility and cause strain.
If your hips are quite tight and you have difficulty sitting in a butterfly position with the soles of the feet together and knees touching the floor at the side of your hips, you might end up experiencing pain in the knees if you attempt to get into the more challenging lotus pose with one foot on top of each knee. If you have a prior history of knee or ankle injuries, you will also want to be careful getting in and out of the more moderate warrior poses, which are great for strengthening the quadriceps, but can be painful if you go too far down or press the knee beyond the ankle. Be sure not to lock out (hyperextend) the joints when doing forward bends in order to protect the hamstrings. Stiff-legged deadlifts (see www.bodyresults.com/E2Hamstrings.asp), controlled dips or static lunges (see http://www.bodyresults.com/E2freelegs.asp), and other leg strengthening exercises might be good ones to include in preparation for your first series of yoga classes.
People who are unable to lift their arms straight up over their head either because of shoulder impingements, tight pectoral muscles, or weak upper back muscles may have trouble with any position that requires externally rotated shoulders such as the yoga triangle pose; poor alignment can actually cause pinched nerves or irritated tendons if forced into this position. To assess your posture, try standing in front of a mirror in a tank top or snug short-sleeved shirt. If you notice that your shoulders are hunched or tend to round forward, and your hands face the front of your thighs rather than the sides of your legs when you stand comfortably, your first plan of action would be to include some stretches for your chest muscles and strengthening exercises for the rhomboids (postural muscles in your upper back) before trying more advanced yoga poses that stress tight shoulders. Try the active shoulder stretches at: www.bodyresults.com/S2Warmup.asp
Climbers typically load the neck and upper back (trapezius muscles) through extended periods of belaying (which can cause strain if the follower spends much of the time watching the leading climber) and long days of carrying heavy backpacks (which can pinch nerves if the backpack isn’t properly fitted or is too heavy). Yoga poses can help keep the neck and upper back healthy by providing some strength in forward flexion. However, advanced poses such as the plow, shoulder stand and headstand, three poses that force the head into forward flexion, also put extreme pressure on the neck and should only be done by more advanced students under the watchful eye of an experienced instructor. Putting a folded blanket under the shoulders can help relieve pressure on the neck doing the shoulder stand. The headstand is a little easier on the neck as long as the student uses the arms and shoulders to support the body’s weight; otherwise, discs and vertebrae can become compressed, resulting in pulled neck muscles. Properly strengthening the neck and upper back before trying more advanced poses can greatly help prevent neck strain. See www.bodyresults.com/E2keystiff.asp for a good stretch for the trapezius (upper back/neck) muscle complex.
Yoga can strengthen the wrists and prevent carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), common in this era of long hours in front of computers or repetitive rope handling required in belaying your buddies. However, your situation can get progressively worse by doing downward dog or plank poses that require you to put much of your body weight on your wrists. In some cases, if you already know that you have problems with your wrists, you can provide support by rolling up a washcloth in your palm, using pushup handles or hex dumbbells to help keep your wrists in their neutral position, or simply avoiding the poses that cause additional discomfort. Better yet, add several wrist strengthening and stretching exercises before beginning your first series of yoga classes.
According to a recent article by Alice Dembner in the Boston Globe (1/8/03) at www.globe.com/dailyglobe2/008/nation/Stretching_has_its_limitsP.shtml: “While there is no licensing or official certification of yoga instructors, a group of longtime yoga teachers has formed the Yoga Alliance to promote a minimum of at least 200 hours of teacher-training for any instructor. Nearly 5,000 teachers have registered with the alliance as fulfilling that standard, but an untold number of others are teaching after completing correspondence courses or weekend trainings aimed at general fitness instructors.” Your best bet is actually to avoid the commercial gym classes and to take yoga offered studios specializing in one type of training: yoga. Find out about your teachers. Be sure you’re getting safe, sufficient, and proper instruction.
Bottom line? 1) Know your own body and its limits, and only push gently within your personal limits to see progress but not pain; 2) find out more about the course ahead of time, the level of difficulty, size of the class, the instructor’s training, and type of yoga; 3) NEVER try to “compete” with anyone else in the class; and 4) back off if you experience any discomfort beyond a stretching sensation. Remember, “No pain, no gain” does NOT apply here!
For quality instruction in the safety of your own home, check out Karen Voight’s wonderful selection of yoga videos and DVD’s
Yoga & Sculpting DVD
70 min Yoga + 85 min strength
Yoga Focus DVD
30 min strength, 20 stretch