Dang, yogi, look at you! You are ON FIRE these days! You’ve been practicing devotedly each day, building strength and refining your most challenging poses. Postures that used to make you drip with sweat now feel effortless. You’ve cemented a sturdy crow pose… followed by a solid headstand… and finally pretzeled yourself into a full lotus! YAS!!!
Feeling utterly invincible, you throw caution to the wind and start diving into super-advanced poses you’d never dreamed of attempting before and BAM – a snarky injury throws you off the rails.
If you practice long enough, you’re likely to hurt yourself at least once, and nothing will throw salt on your yoga game like a painful injury. Having to sit it out for weeks and resist the urge to practice after leaps and bounds of consistent progress can feel absolutely devastating.
Everything worth doing comes with risks, and yoga is no exception. Don’t let this put you off altogether or keep you from making sincere efforts to improve. What you need are some strategies for putting safety first and steering clear of hazardous behavior. Here are 10 tips for avoiding injury during practice, and knowing how to deal if and when it happens.
1) MAKE EACH POSE YOUR OWN.
Ever wish you could take the look of a classmate’s asana and plaster it onto your own body? “Why won’t my leg stretch to the stars like hers?” you wonder. Some yogis, especially the bendiest of the bunch, make the poses that challenge us most look smoother than silk.
We all get a little green with envy at times, but I urge you to resist that inner monster during your time on the mat. Yoga is not a competitive sport. Every body is designed differently, and an asana will never fit you in exactly the same way that it will fit someone else. So, while you may rock an aesthetically enchanting wheel pose, you may not have the bone structure to slide down into a full split in monkey pose like Jack, or the strength to slay an arm balance like Jill.
Strive to improve upon your poses at your own pace. Comparing your progress to that of your neighbor could encourage you to force your body into contortions it’s not yet ready for, which is a surefire path to Ouchville.
3) DON’T DO ANYTHING THAT DOESN’T FEEL GOOD.
We all had that drill sergeant gym teacher who encouraged us to “push through the pain” when an exercise didn’t feel good.
This attitude is just not one I can get down with. Your body is your best friend, not some enemy attempting to limit your greatness! The pain it sends is a message that whatever’s happening to it needs to stop, PRONTO.
I am a major crusader of the anti-push-through-the-pain movement. If a pose feels unpleasant in yoga, I say it’s best to pull it back, come out of it early, or pass on it altogether. We’ve all got a sweet spot for every stretch that lies right on the edge between pleasure and pain, and we linger there to safely increase flexibility. Pushing past this point, however, just ain’t worth that extra inch, babe.
Over-stretching is a main source of injury in yoga. It causes micro tears to connective tissues that will indeed heal, but cause the tissue to become weaker over time. True strength and flexibility must be achieved incrementally in order to be safe and sustainable, so ignore that seventh-grade gym teacher in your head. DON’T push it!
4) COMMUNICATE WITH YOUR TEACHERS.
As an instructor, I love teaching students one-on-one because it’s easier to create a casual vibe and an open dialogue. I would rather pause to answer questions or clarify an explanation than charge through a sequence with no idea whether my students are with me or not.
As students, many of us enter classes with the idea that we should keep quiet at all times to show respect to our teacher and fellow classmates. The thing is, teachers aren’t mind readers, and aren’t likely to know when an explanation they gave didn’t make sense to you.
As long as you’re polite and don’t spout off superfluous interruptions, I think it’s OK to ask questions during a class. If you’re not sure whether your body is correctly aligned, ask your teacher if what you’re doing looks on point. Also, tell them before class about any previous injuries you’ve experienced so that they can help you modify poses or advise you to sit ones out that might be iffy in your situation. And furthermore, if a teacher is making a physical adjustment and causing you pain, or you don’t want to be touched, tell them so with NO SHAME.
While you may feel a bit shy about speaking up, a good instructor will help you avoid injuries and improve their own skills at the same time based on your feedback. Keeping you safe should always take priority.
5) TAKE EVERYTHING SLOWLY UNTIL YOU’RE COMPLETELY CONFIDENT.
If you’re secure in your knowledge, skills, and physical ability, then go on with your bad self and zoom through those sequences like a boss, baby! Until you’ve reached that point though, it pays to play the tortoise rather than the hare while setting safe techniques in stone. Slow and steady wins the race.
Try to channel Usher while building your skills. That sexy R&B king just wanted to take it nice and slow, and so should you! Move through your warm-up like you’re making good foreplay. Sip on that cool-down like a refreshing mojito. Get into and out of poses at the pace of thick dripping honey. There’s no reason not to relish playing it safe.
6) THOU SHALT NOT LOCK THY JOINTS!
Look at all those beautiful photos of yogis with arms and legs as straight as arrows. If you’re completely stable in your pose, it feels great to stretch with such fierceness. During movement, however, it’s best to keep your joints slightly bent to avoid hurting yourself.
For example, in many classes we’re offered the option of hopping back into plank before lowering into chaturanga, rather than stepping back on the mat. This is all gravy as long as the elbows are bent while hopping. Jumping back with straight arms can jar those joints and leave you wincing. Yeowch.
People often lock their joints because keeping a slight bend requires more muscle power. If you fall prey to this tendency, it’s better to go bendy! You’ll build more sustainable muscle strength while staying safe simultaneously.
7) MAKE PROPS AND MODIFICATIONS WORK FOR YOU.
For years every stubborn fiber of my being fought against props and modifications, as if employing them during practice was somehow akin to cheating or taking the easy way out. This attitude is nothing more than a silly trick of the ego. Props and modifications are there to make yoga fit our one-of-a-kind physical structure, which aids correct alignment and therefore safer stretching.
You wouldn’t buy an outfit that was small to the point of causing discomfort, would you? Unless you’re a fan of the baking-bread-in-your-clothes look, I’m guessing the answer is no.
Likewise, why would you limit your yoga comfort by shunning props and modifications when you could relish that extra freedom?
Take triangle pose, for instance. You may crave to drop the supporting hand all the way to the ground after you’ve shifted the torso forward, but this is not the best idea for those with tight hamstrings or short arms, as it can lead to overstretching and inhibit your ability to open the chest. To reap the full benefits of this beautiful posture, place that supporting hand on a block. From there you can safely extend your limbs and feel that prana flow!
8) LEARN ANATOMY 101.
Learning about anatomy sounds pretty boring, right? Wrong, amigo! Actually, finding out what’s happening inside that incredible body of yours can raise your yoga game by infinity-billion notches.
I now view all the practice I did before the anatomy portion of yoga teacher training as a sort of unintentional ‘winging it.’ I simply did not understand how my bone structure, muscles, tendons, fascia, connective tissues, and other systems worked together. Now that I have that awareness, I can feel these interconnected elements electrified with stimulation during each pose.
Anatomy and safety go hand in hand in yoga. During handstands and headstands, for instance, engaging your core muscles is essential for supporting the back and lower body. Without a basic understanding of this dynamic, you could place focus (and therefore stress) solely on the upper body, leaving you in a wobbly and perilous condition. So, study up!
9) STAY MINDFUL IN EACH MOMENT.
After we’ve done a pose or sequence countless times, it’s natural for the brain to shift into autopilot. Letting go in this way certainly is tempting. There’s nothing quite like freeing your mind in the buzz of a whirlwind practice. However, those times of distraction also make us more susceptible to mistakes that result in injury.
Heed The Power of Now and pay attention to what you’re doing during poses and transitions! Don’t let your mind drift off on a cloud by thinking about the past or future. This will provide you with stability and help you avoid careless and painful slip ups.
10) IF YOU DO EXPERIENCE AN INJURY, PUT YOUR PRACTICE ON HOLD UNTIL IT HAS HEALED.
You’re at home with a strained back, craving to go back to class and give it a good stretch. In barges that middle school gym teacher inside your head. “WALK IT OFF, WIMP!” he screeches. “YOGA GLORY WAITS FOR NO ONE!!” But don’t believe his sneaky lies. Yoga is a faithful lady and she will always wait for you.
It’s very tempting after an injury to hop right back to class as soon as you’re physically able. You want to jump back on that horse and keep riding, and I feel you! But continuing to practice on an injury will only exacerbate the problem.
Stop everything and rest until you’re sure that you’ve fully healed. Don’t go to class. Don’t practice at home. Don’t get a massage. Don’t stretch or mess with the injured area. Most of the time, these actions will only cause more inflammation around the injured area and prolong the problem. So: LEAVE IT ALONE! Make the most of this opportunity to practice patience and acceptance by switching to chill mode, and don’t hesitate to see a doctor if you don’t start to feel an improvement within the next few days. Your body will thank you later!
SO THERE YOU HAVE IT!
Those are my tips for keeping injuries from biting you in the asana. May your practice progress remain strong and stable!
Have any wisdom to share regarding yoga injuries? Spread your knowledge in the comments!
About our Author
Peggy Holsclaw is a freelance writer, editor, proofreader, voice actor, and certificate-wielding instructor of yoga and English as a Foreign Language (EFL). She strives to live a shamelessly awesome life and help others do the same. If you come to Osaka you’re likely to find Peggy at a café clickety-clacking away on her laptop, or on a dance floor somewhere cutting shapes in front of the stage. She thinks the world would be a better place if everyone meditated. Including you. So go forth, dive deep, and find your Zen.