Ann Marie Johnston Reduce Yoga Risks Interview

Ann Marie Johnston Reduce Yoga Risks Interview

Yoga's Benefits a Stretch? Injuries Increase By 80% Over Seven Years

Yoga Therapeutics Pro an app for Yoga Professionals has just launched to combat the risk of yoga injuries and educate on the therapeutic benefits of the ancient practice.

Yoga is Australia's fastest-growing fitness activity, with 1 in 10 Australians practicing yoga and 35 million practicing adults in the United States.

As research continues to illustrate the many health benefits of yogic practices, people are rushing out to join local yoga studios and gym classes, but they might want to think again.

"All yoga can be therapeutic, but not all practices are safe for everybody," shares Ann Marie Johnston, founder and CEO of global Yoga Therapy platform YogaMate.

As the popularity of yoga rises, so too do the injuries. With ten per cent of practitioners reporting new musculoskeletal injuries from their yoga practice and twenty one per cent reporting that pre-existing conditions were made worse* the risks are significant.

"Yoga has so many therapeutic and healing benefits, but when nearly 1 in 2 Australians are presenting with a pre-existing chronic health condition** yoga teachers are at risk of causing more harm than good," says Johnston.

To support teachers and practitioners, YogaMate has just released Yoga Therapeutics Pro; an app created expressly for yoga professionals to educate on the cautions as well as benefits of Yoga, ensuring teachers keep students safe.

The app covers 100 of the most common public health concerns, including back pain, arthritis, anxiety, asthma and diabetes. By searching for a specific condition or one of the 350 yogic practices included, it helps yoga professionals quickly discern which practices are cautioned against and which might be therapeutically beneficial to address certain issues.

"International training standards to become a qualified Yoga Teacher are surprisingly low, with only 200 hours required in the US (Yoga Alliance) and 300 in Australia (Yoga Australia). The average new teacher often doesn't have the depth of knowledge to know how to work with individuals that have health concerns."

"When I first started teaching in 2013, I was aware of my own knowledge gap; this is the tool that I would have wanted in hand to ensure I knew what to do when a new student presents with a health concern."

On June 21st, for the International Day of Yoga, YogaMate will also a free app for the public 'Yoga for Better Health', providing gentle and therapeutically beneficial yoga practices as well as connecting people with qualified Yoga Therapists and Specialists.

Currently, Yoga Therapeutics Pro is available globally on both Apple and Android devices and is US $74.99 and will be on sale at 33% off ($79.99 AUS) in celebration of International Yoga Day, June 21st, 2019.

Interview with Ann Marie Johnston

Question: Can you tell us about Yoga Therapeutics Pro?

Ann Marie Johnston: Yoga Therapeutics Pro provides quick access to a depository of knowledge about the cautions / concerns and therapeutic applications for 100+ health challenges or injuries. It was created to help the app user quickly discern which yogic practices to potentially avoid (and which might be beneficial); for yoga teachers, that means there is a greater chance you can keep your students safe in their practice.

There is a section of 350+ yogic practices, covering everything from yogic philosophy, pranayama (breathwork), meditation, mudra (gestures) and, of course, asana, the physical practice of yoga where you can dive deeper into the cautions, benefits & therapeutic applications and modification considerations for over 350 Yogic practices.

Question: What inspired you to create Yoga Therapeutics Pro?

Ann Marie Johnston: As a teacher, it's my responsibility to keep my students safe. But even though I have over 900 hours of training (more than 3x the recommendation here in Australia), there are still times when a student presents with an injury or health concern where I have a small moment of hesitation, thinking to myself, how do I keep them safe in their practice?

I initially created these two tools as a desktop application (on; but I realised that the teacher really needs this knowledge in their hand, at the time of practice. And as we all know, a phone is never far away; so I realised these tools really needed to be accessible via a purpose built app.

Question: How does Yoga Therapeutics Pro help solve the problem of yoga-related injuries?

Ann Marie Johnston: Yogic injuries have risen 80% over the past seven years, a recent Queensland study found. Part of that is because more people are living with chronic health challenges; and when you have chronic health challenges and you go to a generalist yoga class which are often times very fitness focused, you have a greater chance of hurting yourself.

Yoga can be profoundly healing, but there are some practices that are more likely to cause harm, and some practices that simply aren't smart choices for individuals with certain health challenges.

The app acts as a resource, to learn more, in real time. If a student presents with a new health concern or injury before a class; or after the fact as a learning tool to expand on your knowledge. Teachers can search by the health concern itself and see what to avoid, and conversely what might be beneficial; or they can search by the practice itself, i.e., downward dog.

Question: What do yoga-beginners need to be aware of before their first yoga class?

Ann Marie Johnston: Know that there are endless styles and lineages of yoga, and it's so important to find the right fit for you. So if you go to a class the first time and don't like it, don't give up and think yoga isn't for you, it might just be the teacher or style that wasn't the right fit.

When it comes to deciding which class – the choice of teacher, studio and style of yoga will come down to your personality, objectives for the practice and stage of life (i.e., if you are you looking for a more meditative practice, a more exercise focused class, a class that is focused on restoration and relaxation, or if you are going to yoga specifically to address a health concern… these are all very different reasons for going to yoga!).

Please also know that yoga is not just asana (the physical movement). Though most yoga classes in Australia are physical based classes, there are also yoga class that are entirely focused on your breath, meditation or the philosophy of yoga.

Before your first class, make sure to arrive early and advise your teacher before the class starts if you have an injury or health concern and make sure to let them know that you've never practiced yoga before. The teacher should ask you before the class starts – but often times they don't, so be sure to let them know. Even better, the teacher or the studio should ask you to fill out a client information form where you can document your health concerns, but this is often overlooked.

Question: How can we minimize our risk of yoga injuries?

Ann Marie Johnston: Beyond ensuring we are practicing at the right level, in the right style for our body, and ensuring the teacher knows of any injuries or concerns, there are many things we can personally do to help minimise the risk of injury.

The best way we can minimise our injuries is to remember what yoga actually is. The word yoga means 'union or to yolk'. It is the union of body, mind, breath and spirit. To stay safe in our practice, we must stay mindful in our practice.

In the physical practice, we need to listen to our body, know our limits and not allow the teacher, our ego or 'competition' drive us to push beyond our limit.

Yoga is meant to be an intensely personal practice and when we mindlessly follow along with an instructor without paying attention to what we are doing or how our body is responding in that moment, we are more likely to injure ourselves.

Never force or 'push past the pain'. Rather, we are looking for a place between effort and ease in our practice.

A great rule of thumb is, if you can't remain steady and even in your breath as you transition in and out and hold a pose, then you've pushed beyond your limit and you need to back off. The more we can stay mindful with the movements and what is happening with our bodies the safer we will be.

Question: How can we tailor a yoga session to our health concern?

Ann Marie Johnston: Yoga Therapeutics Pro is great for providing ideas of which practices to potentially consider and knowing which practices not to take on, to help keep you safe; however, to have the very best result, I recommend you work together with a yoga therapist to create a practice specific to your needs.

Yoga therapists are yoga professionals trained to work together (in a therapeutic relationship) with their clients. Through conversations and an assessment of your individual needs, they will help identify practices that empower and support you to manage your health using the principles and practices of Yoga. It's extremely powerful to realize that many aspects of your health and well-being are fully within your control.

You can find yoga therapists through Yoga Therapy Associations like the IAYT, AAYT and Yoga Australia; or you can find them at & in our new app, Yoga for Better Health (launching mid June 2019).

Question: What originally inspired you to begin yoga?

Ann Marie Johnston: I went skydiving eleven years ago, and as we ascended in the plane, my friend who was joining me began panicking. She sat down, closed her eyes and began practicing a strange breathing technique, and managed to calm herself down pretty quickly. I was intrigued, and after asking her a ton of questions, I signed up for the same breath-centred practice that she had taken. During that course, I learned some profound breath practices and a meditation that helped me shift a lifetime of depression. It wasn't for many months before I began any 'physical' (asana) based yoga.

Because this was my approach to Yoga, the physical aspect, which I love, was never the crowning glory of yoga. For me, it's all about the breath and meditation. That's my practice, and that's part of my message; helping the world to see that if you can breathe, you can practice yoga. Whether you're in a bed, a wheelchair or you're a marathon runner, 8 or 80, you can do yoga. It has nothing to do with flexibility or even physically moving your body. If you can breathe, you can practice yoga!

Question: What do you enjoy most about practicing yoga?

Ann Marie Johnston: Everything about my life is Yoga. So I don't really 'practice' yoga. I live yogically. Yoga has philosophical underpinnings; how you interact with the world and how you treat yourself; and then there are the breath, physical and meditative practice. So for me, I enjoy it all. It has totally reshaped my life. Everything is yoga.

Beyond the philosophical lens of yoga that now shapes my life, I love the knowledge that the breath is the key to everything. Control of the breath can shift your thoughts, your emotions, your energy levels. And my morning meditation practice is the single most important thing I can do for myself (and my family) each day.

Don't get me wrong, I do love how my body feels when I move it through a physical yoga practice; but it's the icing on the cake.

Question: Do you have a morning routine; can you share that with us?

Ann Marie Johnston: Happy to! For me, my morning practice is a non-negotiable – but as you'll note, it's mainly meditation and breath focused.

I try to wake up between 5:45 and 6:00 without an alarm (though I set an alarm just in case). Before I roll out of bed, I roll my wrists and ankles to bring full range of motion into those joints and say a small thank you for the opportunity to start another day, then I head straight to my mat. I usually start with a couple minutes in extended child's pose and some mindful breathing and then I may move into a gentle cat/cow breath focused practice and perhaps some seated side stretches and seated spinal twists. All of these are to help warm up my spine and prepare me to sit in meditation, which is the main focus of my practice.

I sit in half-lotus, straighten my spine, hold my hands in chin mudra (thumb to pointer finger) and start my meditation. I usually meditate for ~20-30 mins. Afterwards, I journal (presently I'm working my way through the yoga sutras, a key authoritative text in yoga) and by then, my kids are usually stirring and my day is off. If I'm granted a little extra time, I like might do a little more physical yoga, such as a few rounds of sun salutation with the rising sun; but I make sure to always get in my meditation. For me, that's the key!

Interview by Brooke Hunter