Over 30 million people worldwide practice yoga regularly. According to estimates, 14 million of those people include Americans who have been prescribed by a physician or other therapist because of yoga. Although the practice of yoga has earned a good reputation for promoting well-being, practitioners should be aware that a number of commonly taught yoga poses (or asanas, as they are referred to in class) can also be risky if done incorrectly. This calls to attention the importance of an experienced teacher, who is educated in the contraindications of each pose and the ability to communicate that information clearly to the practitioners. At the end of the day, that is as far as a yoga teacher can go to protect their students from injury. So are the therapeutic benefits of yoga worth the risk? (Yes, of course they are!)
Common Injuries and How To Avoid Them
Often already aggravated by overuse of computer work and texting, the wrists are vulnerable small joints. Especially if arm balances and inversions are within your scope of practice, the wrists can be at risk for strain or injury if they are not properly prepared or overused.
A proper warm up and the gradual increment of pressure on the wrists before putting your full body weight on them is important to prevent muscular or structural damage. More specifically, you can help prevent injury by avoiding cupping the palms and turning the fingers inward. Yoga wedges, or a rolled up mat/towel, can help take extra pressure off the wrists and are great props. In addition, placing the knees on the ground to modify poses can help alleviate excessive pressure, as you work toward building strength in the wrists and shoulders.
Lower back pain is the most common complaint in the yoga community, due to rounding through the spine in poses like downward dog, forward folds, or keeping the legs too straight when getting into a pose. Rounding causes the spine to do the opposite of what it’s supposed to. Overstretching the major muscle groups in your back can lead to an unstable vertebra and poor intra abdominal pressure, a recipe for lower back discomfort.
In addition, the sacroiliac joint (SIJ), which contributes to spinal stability and connects the sacrum to the bones of the pelvis, may be aggravated by improper alignment.
The key to preventing lower back strain is slightly bending the knees in forward folds to allow the lower back to decompress. Keeping a micro-bend in the knees throughout the practice as needed is key. Make sure to slow down during twists and go in and out of them mindfully. Engaging the lower abdominals is also important because core strength and stability protect the spine.
One of the main reasons why shoulder injuries are common in yoga is because of the chaturanga- the transition from high to low push up that is often added to classes to make the experience more of a workout. Many students should be should be modifying or skipping chaturangas, but many of those people are looking to get the workout factor from the class.
As a rule of thumb, before the transition you should always keep the four Immaculate Dissection cues in tact: neck long, chin tucked, chest wide, ribs down. Then, shift your weight forward on the toes, bringing the shoulders right over the wrists, and transition to the low push up to a comfortable proximity to the ground, which will vary from person to person.
Tight hips or preexisting injuries can cause knee pain or discomfort around the knee. The common instructions to maintain proper alignment in poses that involve bending the knees are to track the kneecaps over the second middle toe, but that is something that can vary from person to person, depending on their circumstances and goals of their practice.
In many poses you can protect the knees by flexing the foot (like in pigeon pose or figure 4). You can also strengthen the quads and engage them throughout standing postures to avoid hyperextension of the knees. Prolonged hyperextension can lead to injury or chronic pain.
Neck issues often occur as a result of compression, which can lead to issues in the cervical vertebrae. This type of injury is highly intimidating because of the lengthy healing time necessary if they are to happen. Advanced postures like headstand and shoulder stand put a lot of pressure on the neck, especially if done misaligned.
It’s important to only attempt these postures after building the necessary strength to hold them for a few breaths and to go at your own pace, especially if you’re a beginner. It’s also important to warm up and always do a counterpose after advanced postures. A child’s pose after headstand is relieving and fish pose after shoulder stand is important.
A 2012 study conducted in Australia found that 20% of all yoga practitioners claim to have experienced a yoga-related injury at some point throughout their time practicing. Additionally, a 2016 study discussed how yoga-related injuries have nearly doubled from 2001 to 2014. When practicing yoga, it’s important to find a knowledgeable teacher but more importantly, a mindful approach of your own can protect you from injury and pain. Modify your practice as needed, go at your own pace, and take calculated risks when attempting new postures. Take care of your body, and it will take care of you.