One resemblance between yoga and jiu jitsu is that both involve exploring the outer limits of your body’s range of motion. In yoga, a pose that feels like a really good stretch might lead to injury if you pushed it just a half an inch further. In jiu jitsu, when we’re caught in a choke or a joint lock, we tap to avoid injury. If we didn’t tap, and the other person continued to tighten their hold on us, we would either go unconscious or end up with torn ligaments and broken bones. Whether you’re practicing yoga or jiu jitsu, the way to avoid injury is the same- by being mindful and in tune with your own body, and by knowing your limits and respecting them.
It sounds so simple, yet yoga and jiu jitsu practicioners injure themselves (or others) all the time. Most people are not surprised that you can get hurt while doing jiu jitsu- it is a combat sport, after all- but, more shockingly, injuries incurred while practicing yoga also proliferate. How can a form of movement designed to be low-impact and therapeutic harm rather than heal? Yet, one can read about almost any form of yoga injury: broken toes, strained knees, hips weakened from overstretching, slipped disks, broken ribs, impinged rotator cuffs, carpal tunnel…. the list goes on and on. I have a threefold interest in avoiding injury: as a yogi, as a jiu jitsu practicioner, and as a yoga teacher who wants to keep her own students safe.
People harm themselves in yoga for exactly the same reasons they harm themselves in jiu jitsu: 1) They might not be paying attention, and fail to notice that they’re overtaxing their joints until it’s too late. 2) Their ego might get in the way and prevent them from tapping or backing off because they want to look good, or at least not look bad. 3) Another person might be irresponsibly egging them on and telling them to push their limits.
The third reason for injury, when the fault partially lies with another person, is really interesting. In jiu jitsu, we might roll with someone who is too rough or uses too much strength, or hear a spectator encouraging us to go harder. This was exactly how I tore my ACL and wound up needing surgery, by the way- I was rolling with a bigger, stronger opponent and one of my teammates kept yelling at me that I needed to submit him, so the intensity of the roll escalated until my knee popped like a celery stick. (It really did sound like that).
In yoga, the guilty bystander who encourages the student to keep going when they should back off is typically the teacher. Once, during a power yoga class, I dropped out of a wheel pose early and began to stretch out my wrist because it felt irritated from all the chaturangas we had just done. In fact, I had just gotten done with my yoga teacher training, and my wrist had been bothering me for the last month or so because, for the training, I’d been practicing yoga around five or six times a week. The yoga teacher didn’t know that, however, and she looked straight at me and said, “Your wrists are fine,” by way of exhorting me to go back up into wheel. I’d never met her or talked to her before in my life, and it seemed shockingly irresponsible to make assumptions about the well-being of a student’s body, especially when I was obviously trying to be cautious of my wrist.
I’ve heard stories of teachers roughly pushing and yanking students into bends and binds, and injuring them. When I adjust someone in yoga, I try to be aware of their physical signals, just as I try to apply submissions slowly when I’m rolling during jiu jitsu. If you tighten a submission like an armbar or a kimura somewhat gradually, you can actually feel your opponent’s joint extending and moving through its normal range, and the exact moment when it hits its limit, won’t move any further, and your opponent has to tap. It’s really quite fascinating to see the differences between different opponents’ bodies.
Protecting ourselves from being injured by others in jiu jitsu or yoga is fairly easy- we just avoid bad training partners and overzealous yoga teachers. It’s more difficult to protect ourselves from our own ego, and perhaps more difficult still to protect others from injuring themselves. This last task, that of protecting one’s own students, is a constant concern and source of worry for yoga teachers, who can all share stories of beginning students attempting to headstand or handstand on wobbly limbs long before they had built up sufficient strength for those poses. How exactly do you tell a stiff-shouldered 55-year-old man, intent on kicking up into a headstand against the wall with a loud THUNK, that what he’s doing looks like an injury waiting to happen?
The reality is that, once you’ve said your piece and made your intelligent, well-argued case for safe practices, either in yoga or in jiu jitsu, there’s little you can do but hope that your students will internalize your message. Sure, in yoga you can go the authoritarian route and simply forbid them from doing certain poses in your class, but that doesn’t prevent them from seeking out other, more permissive teachers, or simply attempting those tantalizing advanced poses at home. In jiu jitsu, a favorite mantra is “tap early, tap often,” and yet inevitably there will be those who attempt to grit it out to the bitter end and wind up with an overextended elbow or knee.
Obviously we all want to protect our students or our training partners, but we also have to realize that we’re teaching adults (in most cases), who should be respected and allowed their own space. After all, the role of the teacher in yoga is really secondary to that of the student practicing and exploring his or her own body. Although body awareness is key in yoga, it’s not really something a teacher can bestow upon a student, in the manner of teaching someone the date of the Battle of Hastings- the student has to develop it for herself. Even in the college history classes I teach, I’ve realized over time that I can’t make students learn or force them to absorb the material; I can only share what I know and invite them to listen and discuss it with me.
In yoga and jiu jitsu, injuries serve as a more blunt mode of feedback from the body, which kicks in when we ignore the subtler signals of the body telling us to stop. Injury is actually an excellent teacher, although its pedagogical methods are somewhat harsh. If you have been injured in yoga or jiu jitsu, then don’t let the pain and the opportunity go to waste: ask yourself, what was I doing when I was injured? Was this something my teacher told me not to do? Have I been in the habit of doing this, and did I get any warning signals before the injury? If this is a repetitive motion injury from yoga, then back off from the poses that led to the injury for a long time, even longer than you think is necessary.
I would say to err on the side of caution, in both yoga and jiu jitsu. Don’t trust that yoga teachers will necessarily set safe boundaries for you, or that they know what they’re doing when they push you further into a pose. After all, no one knows your body better than you do.