Sadly injuries are a part of life. Even when we are doing activities such as yoga to strengthen and stretch our body, we are putting ourselves at risk. In fact, a study published in 2016 in the Orthopedic Journal of Sports Medicine stated that yoga related injuries are on the rise. And while this data is limited to injuries seen in hospital emergency rooms (and documented as occurring in a yoga class) there’s no doubt that people get hurt in yoga everyday…the big question is HOW are they getting hurt?
In this article we’ll take a look at the common types of injuries seen in yoga classes and then discuss ways to avoid injuries in general.
Types of injuries
Injuries happen in one of two ways:
- You fall during Warrior 3 and break a wrist (this is an acute injury)
- You attend the same vinyasa style class daily and over time your shoulder starts to hurt when doing chaturanga (this is a chronic or overuse injury)
More often than not yoga related injuries are the result of chronic overuse. The most common areas of complaint are:
- Lower Back
These areas of the body are put under high levels of pressure and tension in most yoga classes (especially vinyasa style classes), and many enter classes without the necessary stability and mobility to perform the complex poses without putting pressure into those areas. Thus, over time, improper form happens and injuries creep in.
The goal with any form of movement practice is to decrease the risk of injury through purposeful movement.
If you’re new to yoga, you might find that you leave a class with your lower back hurting (possibly due to lack of core control) or your wrist hurts when doing downward dog (possibly due to lack of proper alignment). And the challenge is knowing how to return the next time without that same feeling of pain and discomfort.
It would be easy to describe all the technical applications for avoiding injuries in each of the above areas, but that would lead to a lengthy discussion on anatomy, biomechanics, and exercise physiology that aren’t fit for this space. Instead, we’ll take a look at how to generally avoid injury in your yoga journey.
Whether you’re an avid yogi, a cyclist who takes yoga to reduce the tension in your muscles, or brand new to the practice, here are five tips for avoiding injury in your yoga practice:
- Listen to your body & let go of ego
- Start where you are…every time
- Learn proper technique
- Train outside the yoga studio
- Take private lessons or go to smaller classes
1. Listen to Your Body & Let Go of Ego
Nothing could be truer than this statement. Only you know how your body feels on any given day, and you need to honor and respect what you bring to the mat each day. This may mean some days you have to pull back because you’re tired and doing another chaturanga flow will put too much pressure into your shoulders.
In order to reduce your risk of injury you need to be willing to not look like the person on the mat next to you (or the person you were yesterday) and allow your body to flow as it needs that day (aka. let go of your ego). Sometimes this means putting yourself in the back corner away from the eyes of others (especially if you’re a competitive person who tries to out do the person next to you). Or it may mean pulling out props or finding different versions of the instructor suggested pose. Do what is right, and who cares what others think.
Remember, you’re always in charge of your body – and if your instructor doesn’t respect and honor you making modifications, it’s time to find a new yoga teacher.
2. Start Where You Are…Every Time
In line with the above suggestion is the philosophy of Vinyasa Krama – or the idea of starting with the simple and building toward the complex.
In every yoga experience you should be given the opportunity to progress to a more advanced layer; there are always ways to decrease the intensity and pull back to allow your body to perform at its current level.
Just as you didn’t learn to ride a bike in a day (and there were probably quite a few crashes in that learning process), you aren’t expected to be a yogi master in your first yoga class.
Always let your instructor know if it’s your first class or if you’re dealing with other injuries/ailments that may not allow you to perform at the top level. Armed with that knowledge your yoga teacher should provide you with options to allow you to start where you are. But remember, don’t let the ego get ahead of you and think that you can do something if it’s your first time in a yoga class (because as much as we all wish were still the high level athletes we once were, sadly that isn’t always the case!).
When you start with the foundations you are also better able to understand the technique required to full perform a complex pose with grace and ease.
And never be afraid to go to a intro, gentle, or beginners level class – these may be the best thing for you.
3. Learn Proper Technique
This is one of the hardest parts of yoga, but also the most critical for reducing your risk of injury.
Without a strong knowledge of how to perform a proper chaturanga you will inevitably put extra load into your shoulders, elbows, and wrists.
Lack of understanding for backbends can cause ‘dumping’ into the lower back (and considering 80% of the American population deals with lower back pain, you want to do everything possible to reduce that risk).
Sadly, too often in yoga classes teachers will say “if xxxx is in your practice go for it”, leaving out the critical elements of explaining how to get into that pose. Or the instructor simply calls out “breath….pose” over and over again, leaving you without the proper knowledge of how to get into that pose.
The best thing you can do to ensure you have proper technique is to find a yoga teacher, who can guide you safely through a practice and teach you where your body should be in each position. There are also many amazing resources online (including yoga journal, yoga international, and alo yoga) that focus on anatomy and alignment for positions.
Do your research and learn how to do the technique before you jump into an intense posture.
4. Train Outside the Yoga Studio
Cross-training is vital for injury prevention in yoga. Yoga is fantastic for improving range of motion and flexibility, but it can also neglect many areas of the body. Additionally, many yoga practices only focus on a few muscles and joints, leaving many vulnerable to injury.
In today’s computer ridden society, we suffer from kyphosis (rounded forward shoulders) caused from tight chest muscles and weak upper back muscles. In yoga we are often doing many postures that only further enhance this position and this posture, thus causing further weakness and tightness.
The best thing a yogi can do is find strength training activities (such as pilates, barre, or other functional movement modalities) that will work to strengthen areas not achieved by only doing yoga.
5. Take Private Lessons or Go to Smaller Classes
Nothing beats private instruction. To really ensure you’re practicing proper form and technique, find a yoga teacher who does private lessons, or attend studios that limit their classes to small numbers. Focused attention on technique will ensure you are not putting extra tension into the areas of the body that are most prone to injury.
Another plus is that you can get a practice that is designed specifically for YOU. When a workout is designed specifically for you’ll find that you’re better able to reduce injuries as you will work to improve the stability and mobility that your body needs.
So while it may seem like a luxury to have private sessions, it may be the best thing you do to improve your practice and keep you injury free.
Here’s to An Injury Free Practice!
Keep these tips in mind as you work towards an injury free yoga practice. And remember, the best thing you can do each time you practice is GET TO KNOW THE TECHNIQUE and LISTEN TO YOUR BODY. When these two things come together you’re sure to be practicing yoga for years to come.