No pain, more gain

Take the agony out of choosing a yoga teacher

Ten years ago, Bernie Clark had no interest in yoga. The physicist and VP with MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates-the company that codesigned the Canadarm for the Space Shuttle-had taken up meditation years earlier, in part to relieve stress and in part to foster his burgeoning curiosity about Buddhism. So when he first visited Yaletown's Prana Yoga and Zen Centre in the mid-1990s, he was after the Zen, not the yoga-until the owner spoke those magic words.

"She said, 'Yoga will really improve your golf game,'" recalls Clark-who has since become a yoga instructor and a Yoga Association of British Columbia board member. "So I said, 'Okay, I'll try yoga,'" he says with a laugh as he sits outside City Yoga's UBC location before teaching a class. "And sure enough, within three months, I won my club championship. During those two days, I just kept hearing her voice saying, 'You are relaxed,' and I just felt very calm. So the flexibility and all of that helped, but what I really got out of yoga was the mental aspect."

Like Clark, thousands of Vancouverites are turning to yoga as a spiritual practice, for mental discipline, or simply for a good workout. In fact, it has become so popular that in some neighbourhoods-Yaletown and Kits in particular-you'd be hard-pressed to walk a block without passing a studio that promises fitness and general well-being. alone lists 90 different locations in the city where you can perfect your sunrise salutations and your downward dogs.

Problem is, most prospective students are going in knowing little to nothing about yoga, let alone how to choose the right instructor. At the same time, because yoga has become a highly lucrative business proposition, instructors who have little experience with the practice are opening their own studios. Now, the incidence of yoga-related injuries is sharply on the rise. According to Clark, that's due in part to yoga's booming popularity (more people, more injuries), but it's also the result of teachers who are coming to yoga through mainstream fitness styles rather than through the more rigorous and time-honoured training traditions.

"You get these teachers who come from an aerobics background, and they often stay at the front of the room. They'll have a class of 10 or 20 or 50 students, all trying to copy them. And they can't tell what an individual should or shouldn't be doing, because they're just doing their thing," says Clark, who has scaled his high-tech job down to two days a week and has turned his focus to teaching yoga to his MDA coworkers as well as at City Yoga and Semperviva. But before he started teaching at MDA, he decided to take a class that was being offered at the company to see what it was like. "I was horrified. This woman was extremely flexible, and she could do things that I'll never be able to do. But she stayed at the front of the class, and she was going from posture to posture, and some of the postures were extremely dangerous for the students. But because she could do them, they were struggling to do them too. I was just cringing. I'm sure she's a great aerobics teacher, and I wouldn't knock her for that. But it was unsafe for her to teach yoga."

Currently in Canada, there is no official certification process that yoga instructors must undergo. In fact, people can take a single weekend-long course and call themselves certified yoga instructors. In hopes of building in some safeguards, the Yoga Association of British Columbia (www.yabc .ca/) is creating a registry of instructors who have at least 200 hours of teacher training, and preferably closer to 500 hours, which the YABC considers an intermediate level. In addition, every registered instructor will have to have completed the association's eight-hour safety-training course, which covers how to do poses safely, as well as contraindications for certain students. (For example, people with high blood pressure shouldn't do inversions, Clark says, and pregnant women shouldn't attempt certain twists.) But the main red flag that people should watch out for, he says, is a teacher who doesn't consider students' limitations.

"There are some instructors that will push you like a sergeant in an army camp. You know, 'Just push through the pain,' and all of that-which 95 percent of yoga instructors would consider horrifying. If you're in pain, your body is telling you that you're hurting it. And to push through the pain means you're creating a mind-body separation. That's not yoga. So if you're a student going to a class, ask yourself, 'Is the teacher really paying attention to my needs, or is he encouraging me to do things that don't feel right for me?'?" Peer pressure, Clark adds, also increases the possibility of injury. "It's not only the teachers. You might have students on either side of you who are super-flexible, so you try it-even if it hurts a bit. Then after a few weeks, you've broken your knees and you need surgery. And that happens."

So how can you protect yourself? According to Clark, you should choose a style of yoga-and there are many-that suits your needs and physical abilities. Look for instructors who have at least 200 hours of teacher training; then try out a variety of classes and choose the one that feels right. If you're a beginner, smaller classes are generally better because you'll get more individualized attention. Choose an instructor who walks around and looks at what his or her students are doing. Also, you should feel comfortable talking with your instructor about any problems or difficulties you're having, and saying "No, thanks" if you don't want him or her to physically adjust your poses. And if you're experiencing pain or feeling that something just isn't right for your body, stop. Yoga comes with myriad benefits, including relaxation, flexibility, cardiovascular fitness, and a healthier approach to life-and a good instructor is the best entranceway into the discipline.

"But in the end, you've just got to try it," says Clark, who believes that yoga instructors should not be formally regulated because there are so many different styles, and no single set of rules and standards could possibly apply to all of the diverse-and predominantly safe-practices. "My big thing is, how does it feel to you? Does it feel like it's helping your body or hurting your body? Because at the end of the day, you're there for your benefit, not for the teacher's. And a good teacher is there for your benefit too."