Ouch! You’re going to the mat to help your body, but if not practiced properly, then yoga can harm you more than it can help you.
The Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine found that yoga injuries are on the rise as of 2016. Common injuries include the wrists, shoulders, elbows, and hands from upper skeletal load-bearing positions, as well as the hips and lower back. Take the following tips to stay safe and protected during your practice.
Know which positions will cause strain, and approach with care.
Poses that require you to press into the earth, such as Downward-Facing Dog, need attention and care to make sure you are holding your weight properly in order to protect your wrists, elbows, and shoulders.
When your hands and feet are in the ground, think of the energy flowing through all five fingers and toes, and all parts of the palm and soles into the earth to keep you fully anchored.
In Shoulderstand, Headstand or any inversions, move with deliberation, and make sure your shoulders and neck are supported with enough muscle to prevent bone strain. Practice gentle shoulder and back strengtheners such as push-ups (modified to the knees if needed) or light weight lifting to support your upper skeletal structure. It’s recommended to practice at least a year before attempting these more advanced poses.
Hip openers and backbends can also place stress on the spine if the hips are tight or the stomach and pelvic muscles are lopsided or weak. Practice preventative stomach strengtheners for spine support and root locks to make sure your pelvic floor is strong.
When moving into hip openers, make sure your pelvic floor is engaged, and your knees are over your toes if standing. Poses to be mindful in include any inversions, backbends, and wide hip stances such as warrior poses.
Know the pose.
I spent years practicing Downward-Facing Dog before one day my teacher came over and— tweak!—suddenly I was in Downward-Facing Dog for the first time. If you’re working on your own, take time to look up the yoga poses you’re practicing to know which muscles should be engaged, so you are properly experiencing the pose and minimizing injury. Research beYogi's yoga pose library for detailed descriptions of major asanas, and anatomy library for the bodily specifics of each pose.
Work within your limits.
If you feel intense pain, then move back from the pose—your body is giving you a clear warning signal. If you’ve had injuries in the past, take this as a message from your past self to your present self what to know where to be gentle.
This also means work within your age. After 65, your bone density decreases and hips can become less flexible. Watch out for impact with standing to floor-based vinyasas or sequences, and approach hip openings, such as warrior poses, with your knees in line with your toes and patience.
In the most difficult poses, holding your breath to help the strain is actually counterintuitive (though believe me, I’ve tried). Breathing in the most difficult moments, and sending the breath to the parts of your body that are struggling will help you move through a pose with grace. When I find tension or pain in my practice, I imagine my breath as a white light that travels to that place to ease that part of my body into being.
Be properly warmed up.
You aren’t a crow, so don’t fly before you can walk. Make sure you’re only taking on postures such as headstands, inversions, and other challenging postures after warming up with other practices for at least twenty minutes and moving through a dedicated sequence.
Move for your body, not for the image.
Instagram is full of glossy pictures of fit bodies in twisted poses (how did her foot get up there? Is he an action figure?) and I’ve definitely tried to make myself into that person before. But achieving the perfect picture is not the spirit of yoga.
You’re on your mat to build a relationship with your body. Don’t push yourself for a picture or to be a mirror of your teacher (who practices yoga constantly for their job). Feel what your body needs and generously give back to it.
Work with small, individualized classes.
In a smaller class, you can have more individualized attention from the teacher to help with any needed adjustments in a position. They’ll be your eyes to make sure you are undertaking challenging positions with proper posture.
You can also communicate to the teacher any injuries or weak points you have and ask them to offer instruction when needed, or introduce modifications to postures. You can also communicate to your teacher before class that you may need to step off to the side, or breathe on your mat in Child’s pose or Corpse pose rather than jumping into challenging postures.
Remember that yoga is the connection between the mind and the body.
The body is an extension of your mind, and so if you’re encountering resistance, then perhaps you need to look in your mind to see where the resistance lies. You may have an emotional release that needs to take place before you can go to the next level in your practice.
Hips, for example, are a common place where deep emotional trauma is stored and tight hips can cause pain and injuries in the lower back and spine. If you’re finding it difficult to stay open in a position, then breathe and feel in your mind what your body is telling you. When you surrender to the body, you allow stored emotions to move through your nervous system and out of the body.
Find a yoga style that works for your body.
Vinyasa isn’t the only style! There are many different types of yoga, each developed with a different philosophy of the body. Find a style that works for your body and mind where you are now, whether it’s the strength of vinyasa, the dynamic ashtanga, the deliberate Hatha, the gentle Yin, or any others.
I was practicing Ashtanga yoga before realizing my hips were much more closed than I had thought, even after years of practicing yoga. The continual hamstring stretching in Ashtanga was lengthening parts of my body that were already flexible, not the places I actually needed (and was avoiding) to open. I started Yin yoga instead, a practice focused on gentle, prop-supported movement, which helped me begin repairing my relationship with my body, and developing my hip flexibility while acknowledging the emotions stored inside.
Practice for current and future yourself.
Remember above all else that how you act on the mat is building a relationship with your body and mind. Move with intention, knowledge, and care, and your body will tell you when to stop and how to adjust for your best possible practice.