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Teaching Yoga, the SAYF Way

Teaching yoga can be a beautifully creative endeavor.

There are as many diverse approaches to guiding yoga as there are ways of making music. Creativity flourishes in the words we offer to describe the many limbs, paths, and benefits of the tradition of yoga. The possibilities are seemingly endless, and this is a beautiful thing!

I’ve been a yoga studio owner now for 18 years, and have been training teachers for 20. Ten years ago, after receiving substantial training and education in human movement mechanics and anatomy, I was struggling to truly honor all of the diverse teaching approaches and lineages at our studio while maintaining enough consistency within our community to not leave students confused. Teachers were, unknowingly, contradicting each other with didactic alignment cues, and students would approach me with questions. Students were also experiencing minor injuries in classes where teachers were not trained in the importance of progression and options. These teachers were often trained in a specific sequence of asanas to “master” with their own bodies, without really learning anything substantial about the mechanics of how each body moves, or how to provide options for bodies different than their own. 

Around this same time, I began to realize that understanding how the body moves is really quite simple. The more I learned, the more I became enthusiastic about the benefits of movement. Slow movement. Fast movement. I saw great potential in all yoga movement approaches. My motto became: “All movement is good, unless it’s too much, too soon, or too often.” Moreover, I was learning that the healing yoga classes many of us were intending to create were actually contributing to injury more than we thought. Orthopedic injury is not unique to yoga. In my Orthopedic Exercise Specialist training I learned that 30% of us, by age 30, have an orthopedic injury that we may not even be aware of. This does not need to happen! 

Too many beginner yoga students quit practicing after experiencing a minor orthopedic injury early on. I’ve heard from countless people who have said things like, “Well, I tried yoga, but I hurt my knee.” Or, “I can’t do yoga any more because it’s too hard on my wrists.” Unfortunately, many students who are injured in yoga do not inform the studio or teacher. They just never come back. As a result, they often miss out on all the other benefits of yoga beyond just the physical practice. As some of us have experienced, the physical practice brings many to yoga, but the deeper benefits are what keep us coming back. Discovering the incredible overall life-enhancing benefits occurs over time. If someone is injured early on in their practice, they may never have the opportunity to experience all yoga truly has to offer. SAYF is committed to helping people sustain a yoga practice, while also making yoga more accessible to those who never thought a yoga practice was possible.

Is Injury in Yoga Really a Concern?

A 2016 article “Yoga-Related Injuries in the United States From 2001 to 2014” by Thomas A. Swain MPH and Gerald McGwin, MS, PhD, tracked data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS) from 2001 to 2014 in order to estimate the incidence and type of yoga-associated injuries. In this research article, concern was expressed over adequate training in injury prevention for yoga teachers:

"Since there was an increase in incidence of injury among all age groups from 2001 to 2014, factors besides aging must also be present. One potential cause for the increase is lack of qualified instructors. With an increase in the number of yoga participants, there has been increased need for instructors; according to a 2015 article, there are more registered yoga instructors than ever before, even more than needed by the industry. With the increase in both the number of certified instructors and injuries it would seem that there is a potential lack of appropriate education even for certified instructors. Some in the industry agree with this assessment and state that training programs, particularly dominated by one alliance standard, do not prepare instructors well to prevent injury."

Back to the studio owner’s dilemma: 

How to honor diverse and creative approaches to teaching the tradition of yoga while offering a consistent message to our community about practicing in a way that reduces the likelihood of yoga injury? I remember wishing that if we all had just learned, in middle school, the basics of load, progression, range of motion, and how to keep our tissues healthy, it would be SO much easier to teach asana.

From this wish, SAYF was born!

SAYF guides teachers and empowers asana practitioners to sustain a practice long enough to discover the psychological and personal/spiritual benefits of yoga. SAYF is an online educational program that deepens your knowledge of the body as it applies to yoga. SAYF training helps you to really learn to apply anatomy and human movement mechanics to your teaching to reduce the risk of yoga injury. 

There are so many opinions and contradictions on how to approach yoga asana that it can be confusing for even the most educated or well-intentioned teacher or practitioner. Research is limited, tradition is diverse, and experience varies. SAYF was created to help yoga teachers understand generally agreed upon basic principles compiled from decades of yoga teaching experience and practice, yoga community expertise, traditional teachings, and study of related research. The SAYF approach does not exclusively choose any one of the following: experience, expert opinion, tradition, or research. Instead, it is a common sense approach that carefully considers all of them.

yoga connection

Movement is natural and essential to overall health. However, any form of exercise has potential risks. Therefore, it’s smart to evaluate the risks along with the benefits. SAYF trains teachers to apply SAYF Guidelines to any asana practice in order to reduce and respect potential risks. SAYF is not suggesting that teachers and students eliminate all challenging yoga postures. Instead, we have created an educational certification program that reduces injury potential by understanding how the body is meant to move and how bodies differ, so that we can respect common concerns that are inherent in certain classical or modern poses or movements.

The SAYF program supports your students in developing a long term relationship with their yoga practice and significantly reduces the risk for chronic (from long-term practice) and acute (sudden) yoga injury. SAYF-Certified Studios can offer their students a greater comfort in knowing that the asana classes taught there are less likely to cause injury because all instructors will have received thorough and consistent SAYF education.

The SAYF Certification is a timely response to a recent increase in yoga related injury. 

The study referenced above found that incidence of yoga related emergency room visits are on the rise. The study found that these injuries were not typically life-threatening (mostly sprains and strains), and concluded that there is a need for greater education about biomechanics in yoga teaching programs: 

"Yoga is a safe form of exercise with positive impacts on various aspects of a person’s health; however, those wishing to practice yoga should be cautious and recognize personal limitations, particularly individuals 65 years and older. National standards for yoga instructor certification should be created and should more aggressively teach information about safety and injury prevention." 

It is also important to note that this study was limited to those who sought care at emergency rooms. Emergency rooms treat acute injuries. Chronic/repetitive use injuries may not be treated at an ER. When looking at these numbers, it is important to remember that many students, especially beginners, never report an injury or even see a medical professional - they just think “yoga is not for me” and don’t return to the practice.

The SAYF approach is unique, effective, and practical. 

Diverse teachers are what make yoga an amazing practice for students. Some teachers are not that interested in learning anatomy or biomechanics; some are. Neither is better nor worse, just different. However, SAYF believes that if you are teaching the physical practice of yoga (any form of asana or hatha yoga) with a basic understanding of how the human body is meant to move, you can benefit the entire yoga community and even create a more compassionate world. How? The longer you maintain a practice, the more your whole body, mind, and heart benefit.

Get SAYF! 

SAYF Certification is an in-depth online training that will deepen your knowledge of the body as it applies to yoga. Our training qualifies for CEs and satisfies the 20 hours of anatomy/biomechanics training that can now be taken online (newly enhanced Yoga Alliance standards). Again, movement is good, as long as it’s progressive and we vary load and range of motion for individual bodies. When it comes to yoga, this means offering options for every body that are informed by an understanding of the basics of human movement mechanics. We see yoga as a life practice, not just a mat practice. SAYF is a sacred and welcoming community born from the yoga experience. At the heart of our work is the intention to educate, support, and connect with yoga students, teachers, and studios to share the transformative benefits of yoga.

Written by Stephanie Adams Ruff, ERYT 500, YACEP

Studio Owner/RYS Director, Flow Yoga, Hood River, OR www.flowhoodriver.com 

Co-Founder, SAYF - Sustainable Asana Yoga Foundation, www.sayfyoga.com

Stephanie Adams
Stephanie Adams, is a long time yoga teacher and movement educator with 25 years of experience in the field as a studio owner, teacher trainer, and instructor. She is a co-founder of the Sustainable Asana Yoga Foundation. ERYT500, YACEP, ACE, SAYF.
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