Yoga is supposed to be a comforting practice. A feel-good practice. It’s no football or gymnastics, sport activities that are known for bearing a high risk of injuries.
It’s easy however, to push yourself too hard in your yoga asana practice, which is one of the biggest risks of injury for yogis. This and old injuries.
A famous saying goes: If you feel the pose, you’re doing the pose. So there is no need to go to the extreme to harness the benefits of a posture. Still, we do it. We want to see progress and we want to see it quickly.
Every body is different.
Next time we cast an eye on our fellow students in the yoga room, curious if their nose touches their knee, let’s remind ourselves that we are all built differently. Some bodies build up muscle fast, others can put their foot behind their head on a first try. So take it easy!
Still, there are some physical risks in a yoga practice that yogis should know about.
We’ve listed three especially delicate body parts that are prone to injuries, and explain how you can avoid hurting yourself and enjoy this powerful ancient tradition up to old age.
The spine is one of our most important body parts. It stabilizes the skeleton which keeps us in an upright position, protects our spiral cord, and is responsible for the entire mobility of our upper body.
I think it’s fair to say that the spine is this one part of our body that is always involved in an asana practice. Either as a posture directly involves a twist, flexion or extension of the spine, or because the spine is connected to another body part that’s under stress in the posture. So extra caution is called for.
The spine consists of 33 vertebrae with the cervical and lumbar spine being the sections most susceptible to injuries.
Neck – Cervical spine
Due to the small size of the seven cervical vertebrae this upper part of our spine is very sensitive and needs to be protected.
Too much weight or pressure can compress the neck, causing serious injuries of the vertebrae.
Inversions need to be approached with special caution. In Bridge, Shoulderstand and especially in Plow Pose, the weight often sits on the neck, especially when you are new to these pose. The weight is supposed to be on the shoulders and arms, so make sure your arms and shoulders are firmly pressing into the mat to lift weight off your neck. You’ll feel the difference right away.
You can also use a prop to support your pose: Place a rolled up towel or thin cushion underneath your neck, which will help taking away some pressure from the vertebrae.
In these inverted poses it is also crucial to keep your head still. Keep your head facing forward at all times. Your teacher can make a double salto right next to you – You don’t turn your head!
Another pose that needs to be approached with care is the Headstand. Practice preparatory postures like Dolphin and – as a next step – Headstand with bent knees first, to build up strength in shoulders and arms, and to improve balance, before going into the full pose.
Lower Back – Lumbar spine
The lumbar spine, or lower back, has the least structural support of the spine and is therefore very susceptible to injuries. Discs here get easily compressed, for example when forward bending. Injuries at the sciatica nerve can be very painful, radiate through the whole body and heal only slowly.
Many yoga asanas include forward folding. Bending forward with a rounded back puts increased pressure on our discs in the lower back, and can even cause a dislocation of a disc. A straight back in forward folds is therefore important to protect the lower back.
As it’s common in vigorous yoga styles like Ashtanga, we tend to intensify the bend by grabbing our toes and pulling ourselves deeper into the standing forward fold. While it’s ok to deepen the stretch, it needs to be done with a straight back at all times. Bend your knees if that makes it easier for your back to stay straight. Don’t compromise the pose.
In Seated Forward Folds flex your feet. Our toes are directly connected to our spine. Flexed feet and engaged legs help to stabilize the lumbar spine.
There are exceptions in which a rounded spine is ok, as we also want to practice the flexion of the spine. In a restorative practice or posture, when all muscles are relaxed, we can surrender and let go in a forward fold, however without any pulling and pushing. Just hanging.
Also, it’s important to know that we never twist from the lower back. This part of our spine is not made for rotation, but for flexion and extension. Twists are happening in the thoracic spine (Upper Back).
The following advice is important for safe backbending, which is part of Upward Facing Dog, Camel Pose, Wheel, to name just a few postures. Wheel is an advanced pose which should only done by experienced practitioners and after a thorough warm-up.
The Golden Rule for Backbends: Engage Your Core.
Your core is supporting your entire body. If the core is weak, the back muscles have to work harder.
The abdominal muscles are directly connect to the lumbar spine, so they support the spine directly. You can increase stability of the lower back by
- pulling the belly button to the spine in backbends to engage your core muscles.
- always keeping your back engaged in active back bends, and don’t just ‘hang’ in the pose.
2.Strain or Popping Hamstrings
Overstretching hamstrings often happens gradually. To be precise, we slightly tear our hamstrings a little bit every time we stretch them. These small wounds however heal in the next 48 hours. When overstretched, a tear in the tendons can occur, where hamstrings are connected to the sitting bones. Risks are usually highest in all variations of a forward fold or in stretches where our weight is making the stretch especially deep, like in hanuman.
When practicing Bikram Yoga (Hot Yoga), or when you’re lucky to practice yoga in a hot country – stay extra cautious, as the ligaments and muscles soften through the heat, and are more flexible than usually. You might feel super flexible and proud to do binds you were not able to do back home, but you’re also at risk to overstretch your hamstrings.
A few things to consider when stretching your hamstrings:
- Bend your knees slightly to ease the stretch.
- Don’t pull yourself down in a forward fold by holding your toes, but relax and just let gravity do its work.
- Seek sensation, not pain.
- Stop the stretch immediately when you feel pain underneath your sitting bones.
Our wrists are anatomically very complex. They consist of small bones and joints, and are therefore prone to injury. In a yoga practice, the wrists can be under a lot of strain and pressure. Most people complain about wrist pain during arm-balancing poses, like Crow, Crane, Flying Pidgeon. But also in seemingly simple poses like Plank Pose and Downward Facing Dog, a big part of our body weight is placed on the wrists and can cause irritation.
A thorough warm up and a correct position of hands and fingers are the way to go for painless yoga practice.
For the warm up
- make a fist and rotate your wrists 10 times in both directions.
- Come into tabletop, make sure shoulders are right over your wrists.
- Rotate your hands so your fingers pointing to the front, then to outward, then inwards, and finally towards your body. In all positions, gently shift your body weight forwards and backwards.
- You can also turn your palms upwards for a stronger wrist stretch. Shift your weight forward only gradually as the stretch can be quite intense.
- When done, give your hands a good shake.
Equally important is the proper hand and finger position during your yoga practice.
When supporting weight with your hands, as in Downward Facing Dog,
- spread your fingers as wide as you can
- press your finger pads firmly into the mat.
- The strongest pressure should come from the index finger and thumb for wrist stabilization.
- Make claws with your fingers, by slightly lifting the palms off the mat.
Theoretically the index finger is supposed to point straight forward, however depending on how your wrist is built, turning your hands slightly outwards towards the edges of the mat, can be more comfortable for you. Our bodies are all built differently, so it’s ok and even encouraged to do the modifications that keep you safe and painfree.
Stay mindful and focused and listen to your body
Being mindful and focused in our practice also keeps us safe. If you feel a pose is not right for your body, or just doesn’t feel right for you on a certain day – don’t do it, or enjoy one of the modifications.
Make use of your yoga teacher and ask for bespoke instructions and recommendations if you are unsure.
And remember, a pose needs to feel good. Not to look good.
Kosta Miachin is the creator of VIKASA Yoga method – a unique, challenging and effective approach to yoga. He is also the founder of VIKASA Yoga Academy. You can find him online: http://www.vikasayoga.com