Long-time yoga teachers tell me tales of how students have passed out in their classes, thrown up, sprained a ligament, even broken bones. As my Saudi friend, newly arrived in the U.S., gasped at me once when I showed her vinyasas involving arm balances, “This isn’t yoga, this is exercise!” In particular, the intensely heated, high cardio, deep stretch classes that progress quickly without significant warm-up do have a bit of a reputation for students passing out, irritating muscles and joints, walking out, and yes, sometimes throwing up.
Though many teachers are very mindful of the risks such classes inherently pose, and cue their students appropriately when they see them tiring or straining, I notice this is often not the case, and that teachers allow and even encourage an environment of competition. In a class I attended recently, the teacher cued six successive bridge/full wheel postures. I happily complied with bridge only, having severely wrenched muscles in my back several months ago doing urdhva danurasana/full wheel and slipping out of it due to sweat; I was not taking that asana even though I physically could do so at this point. As I was moving through bridge, another teacher taking the class yelled out, “if you can do full wheel, you MUST!!” As little as a year ago, I might have taken her up on her challenge, just as I likely would have done every single vinyasa in a class, all with a screaming shoulder. I cringed and kept doing bridge.
While the intent of tough teachers is never that anyone get injured, competition and overextension often thrive in the environment such teachers create, whether with oneself, with others, or to impress the teacher. This, at the same time as the teacher espouses self-love, non-competition, and non-harming in her dharma talk.
That is why it is essential that students be taught and understand their body’s (and their doctor’s/physical therapist’s) signals come first; the teacher’s instructions come second. And, from the student’s perspective, everyone else’s asanas in the room should come dead last.
While one student may be going full tilt at the most challenging expression of each pose, the muscular student next to her may be recovering from a nasty car accident, and wishing desperately to get back into headstand, just as his neighbor is doing, and thinking maybe it wouldn’t be too terribly against the physical therapist’s orders to do so…
Fundamentally, yoga is about living a balanced life. It is about cultivating non-violence, healing, strengthening, and contentment, among other things. So, if the hottest, most strenuous yoga class you can find balances your life and strengthens you without injury, continue! But if you feel pain during or after the class, or mental stress brought on by the environment, listen to yourself. Ideally, be aware of this before an injury or a discomfort creeps in. Your yoga is YOUR YOGA. Do not let commercialism, competition, and ego (your own or others’) deny you that. Even if it’s coming from your teacher.