real safety is anti-fragility

If you’ve taken a yoga class over the past decade, you’ve probably heard some of the following cues:

  • “Never let your knee travel further than your ankle– you want to protect your knee.”
  • Brace your abdominals to protect your back.”
  • “Never roll up to stand from a forward fold, or you’ll cause damage to your spine.”
  • Don’t place your foot on your knee in Tree Pose or you’ll dislocate your knee.”
  • “Don’t let your head drop forward– we don’t want to reinforce ‘text neck’ posture!”

While all of these directions are well-intentioned (if not necessarily accurate), each of them has one element in common: they include a warning of potential danger or injury. This type of language is called nocebic; it creates anxiety, a negative expectation or fear in the mind that is often more detrimental than the potential danger.

Words matter. If we are told that something is dangerous or painful, our incredibly powerful mind is more likely to experience fear or pain. One fascinating example of this is demonstrated in a 2000 study, which followed the experience of patients being injected with radiographic dye. The results showed that the the more frequently doctors used words like ‘sting,’ ‘burn,’ ‘hurt,’ ‘bad’ and ‘pain’, the more discomfort was felt by patients.

It’s also important to understand what really is a potentially dangerous movement. Yoga teachers and even personal trainers do not necessarily have a strong foundation in anatomy, physiology or kinesiology. I have spent the better part of the last 5 years educating myself on topics that my initial teacher trainings just couldn’t cover during the time allotted. Much of my earlier teaching career was spent simply repeating cues (such as the ones listed at the beginning of this article) because I had heard someone else say them.

Our bodies are made to move. While there may be movements that aren’t right for someone’s body at a certain moment in time (they may need more strength or mobility, for example), I don’t think there are movements that are, as Jenni Rawlings says in this well-written blog, “inherently bad.”

In fact, we can create greater overall strength and range of motion by practicing movement in all kinds of ways, rather than sticking to a prescribed pattern. For example, if you slip and fall in your shower, how likely are you to fall into the perfect plank shape, which you’ve practiced so many times? Not very. If instead, we’ve learned to move and load (add weight to) our body in many different positions, we’re less likely to injure ourselves when we land in an awkward way.

As far as the cues that I listed at the beginning of this article? I don’t think they’re necessary for most people. For example, is it really problematic if a knee travels forward of the ankle in a lunge or Warrior pose? Every time we walk down stairs, the knee has to travel forward of the ankle, and for most of us, that’s not a problem!

Are there times, as coaches or teachers, where we need to guide someone out of a potentially dangerous movement? Absolutely, but I find it’s pretty easy to do this without fear-mongering. For example, we might just say, “Hey Bob, it looks like that’s feeling a little unsteady. What happens if you move your foot over here? Does that feel more supportive?” This keeps the power in Bob’s hands and lets him experience 1) his own ability to find strength and support and 2) a physical sense of safety in his own body.

Part of being safe is learning that we are strong, resilient, and that we can trust our body. For many folks, just showing up for a session or a class is scary enough. If they are in a non-normative body, have a history of trauma, have experienced an injury, or have an x-ray or MRI that demonstrates something isn’t “normal,” they may already feel that their body is a little bit untrustworthy, or even fragile.

As teachers and coaches, we can be of greater service by teaching progressively, from simpler poses to more complex, giving the body and nervous system time to adapt. Rather than giving rigid, nocebic rules about alignment or movement, we can encourage students to explore how movement feels in the body and what feels strong or supportive. Remember that words have power, and avoid telling people how anything “should” feel, especially if it reinforces a sense of fragilization. Instead, invite them to be curious about the experience. If something feels painful, uncomfortable or unsafe, that’s something to pay attention to. Learning to recognize and follow these self-guided cues creates a greater sense of self-trust that can lead to greater strength and resilience in the long-term. This is real safety, which comes from a felt sense of inner strength and adaptability– not externally-imposed rules and guidelines.

4 thoughts on “real safety is anti-fragility

  1. Laura, excellent post. There are yoga and pilates’ poses that I have tried and do not do anymore. Back and knee pains occur. So, we need to listen to our bodies.

  2. Excellent article and I agree with all points. I have had folks I know share their fear after a well-meaning doctor gave them a prognosis, or ideas of what is happening and used nocebic language. They were certain all was doomed. So sad. Same in teaching, it took me time to change what I said and, like you, lots of study time with numerous resources to relearn. Thank you, I look forward to these educational and thoughtful articles.

    1. Yes– I wish all doctors had more training on nocebic language, or could offer a better understanding of pain science to their patients. Thankfully it seems like there is more awareness around this now than there used to be! Thanks, Jann!

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