A self-confessed A-type, Darlene Buan-Basit went to a major yoga studio in Toronto to find inner peace. Instead, she dislocated her shoulder.
"I had done this yoga instructor's class once or twice and perhaps he thought I could go further," says the 37-year-old chiropractor at Balance Fitness in Toronto. Ms. Buan-Basit was doing a bind, a pose in which one arm wraps around the body to grasp the other arm. "He gave me an adjustment and out went my shoulder."
She was lucky: Her classmate, a chiropractic student, "popped" the joint back in - a technique Ms. Buan-Basit is well acquainted with in her practice. But after a painful recovery and intensive rehabilitation, she's now wary. "The injury could have been serious. I'm quick to say 'I'm fine, thank you,' " when instructors offer to push her deeper into a pose, she says.
The experience, which took place in 2000, hasn't soured Ms. Buan-Basit on yoga; she now teaches it. And she's sold on the strength and flexibility it can build. But it has made her aware of just how dangerous an overzealous student, a person with an undisclosed injury and an inexperienced instructor can be. Yet it's bad karma to talk about it.
The yoga industry, understandably, wants such events to remain on the down-low. It's fiercely protective of what has become an estimated $6-billion (U.S.) business built on selling enlightenment.
Last month, New York yogis and yoginis successfully fought off a state proposal that they submit to regulations that govern vocational training - or face stiff fines. Federal regulators had proposed yoga training schools be certified, routinely inspected and charged licensing fees.
Yoga teachers currently don't have to certify with anyone in Canada - and there is no overseeing body which ensures yoga studios are operated safely.
For the most part, the industry's self-regulation works, say insiders. "Most Canadian yoga schools will register with the American Yoga Alliance so that they have that accreditation," says Christine Reeves, an instructor at Yoga Plus in Toronto. "That means that they have to do a certain number of hours of anatomy, a certain number of hours of philosophy, meditation, asanas [postures]"
"The industry is safe," says Todd Canning, co-owner of the Richmond Hill Moksha Yoga studio. (Moksha Yoga has six locations in the Toronto area.)
But health practitioners are alarmed over the spike in injuries over the past five years. "Definitely, I have noticed an increase in yoga-related injuries," says Alan Horowitz, a Richmond Hill-based physiotherapist. "I see many back and neck injuries from yoga, mostly from hyperflexing or hyperextending," as well as knee and groin injuries from twisting and overstretching.
Yoga poses involve most muscle groups and frequently involve extensive stretching, such as forward and back bends, as well as lunges, crouches and plank poses, in which the body resembles a push-up at its apex. Weight is frequently placed on the knees, wrists and back as students hold and deepen poses.
In "downward-facing dog," the practitioner forms an upside-down V-shape with her body, head down and buttocks stretched upwards, with weight placed on her hands and wrists. "Elbow and wrist tendinitis is common from the downward-dog and upward-dog series as well as in people who try to do handstands without knowing what they are doing," says Dr. Horowitz.
Ms. Buan-Basit singles out chaturanga, one of the positions in the sun-salutation sequence. "If they don't have the stability, they'll just jam their lower backs," she says, adding that she sees four to six yoga injuries a month, some of them very serious.
One of her patients, a fit woman in her early thirties, recently fractured her neck while coming out of a headstand. She's now sporting a cervical collar for eight weeks.
"When the instructor says, 'Take it easy and don't bend too far unless you are a regular,' the cocky person will try to be the best in the class and bend farther than anyone else, which may result in injury," says Dr. Horowitz.
Taba Soble, an instructor at Esther Myers Yoga Studio, says good instructors know when to stop a person from going too far in a pose. "We differentiate assisting from adjusting," says Ms. Soble. "If someone is pushed, you're not working with the body - and injuries do occur."
Shawn Thistle, a chiropractor with Shape Health and Wellness Centres at Davenport and Avenue Road, says many of his clients are people in their 50s and 60s who are just getting into yoga for the first time. "These are people who had desk jobs all their lives, and now they want to stretch themselves into all sorts of positions."
"They think, 'It worked for so-and-so, and it's going to work for me.' "
The differing levels of experience of yoga aficionados leave instructors in the unenviable position of guessing each person's limits. And that's where their degree of training becomes critical.
Yet Toronto's instructor-training programs are wildly different. While some "intensive" fast-track weekend courses promise teacher certification in two days, some programs, like that of long-standing Esther Myers Yoga Studio, require 750 hours for full teacher certification.
Most Toronto studios fall into the 200-hour category.
"Two days of training - that's an introduction, not a program," says Ms. Soble. She says Esther Myers's program focuses on anatomy, teaching instructors about different populations - such as expectant women - and includes volunteer work.
Ms. Buan-Basit agrees. "You have some instructors going to India and spending a year there - and other teachers doing the minimum and not necessarily going beyond the poses."
Even when instructors complete the minimum 200-hour training, many say that is really only a starting point - and that much more education is needed.
Ms. Reeves was already a certified instructor when she enrolled in a U.S.-based prenatal yoga course. After over 100 hours of study in that area, she augmented her study with additional training in birth education, baby-development education and doula training. But she's in a minority. "These days the norm in Canada is a 10-to-15-hour weekend workshop in prenatal yoga and in most cases you don't even have to be a yoga teacher in the first place to take it. It's crazy."
Mr. Canning, who originally trained in Bikram, or hot yoga, in Los Angeles, has seen firsthand how important teacher programs are in ensuring a safe and inspiring environment. After ending up with two excruciatingly painful herniated discs in his spine from an aggressive teacher-training program that was "push, push, push," Mr. Canning built a studio devoted to a practice where instructors focus on listening to the needs of their students. And he mandates that they have a year of training behind them.
"That 'push' attitude - we all moved away from that," says Mr. Canning. "If anything, yoga should heal."