Yoga is magical. After you finish a class, you basically float out on a tide of goodwill and feel like you’re riding on the back of a unicorn while sweet baby angels sing into your ear. But beyond the undeniably euphoric effects of yoga, it can be a truly healing experience, both mentally and physically. This aspect of yoga draws many people initially to their mat, so when injuries occur, it can legit feel like a gianty-giant let down. Is it not enough that we endure demanding jobs, horrific traffic, depressing articles in the news (I cannot handle anything related to current events right now), and global warming?! Must we also experience injuries during our cherished outlet known as yoga?! Good news, fellow yogi: injuries are preventable, and I’m about to tell you how. Get that good mojo and keep it!
The topic of yoga injuries is near and dear to my heart, because I’ve gone through a slew of them while doing some intense Ashtanga/Mysore training. I’ve cracked my sternum, busted some ribs, did weird things to my knee, had a severe hamstring attachment injury, dislocated a few random discs in my back (turns out, that is a mucho grande excruciating experience), AND I definitely mangled my rotator cuff a little to a lot. I mean, just a few injuries, ya know? So, when I talk about yoga injuries, I’m never preaching at anyone, because I know injuries happen to anyone. You can be new to yoga, or have an advanced practice. Injuries happen if you don’t watch out for your body.
“But wait!” I hear you shout into the void of confusion, “Isn’t yoga therapeutic and healing?” I’m so glad you asked. Yes. But it’s a physical activity, and anytime the body is involved, injuries can occur. So let’s chat about it, shall we? We shall. Get some tea or kambucha, or to heck with it—get some wine. Let’s dive in and first discuss why injuries happen, followed by the most common.
Why Do Bad Injuries Happen to Good Yogis
1. Frequency: There are two groups of people particularly susceptible to injuries, those who practice a hella lot, and the ones who practice infrequently.
- Yogis who practice a ton are at higher risk for injuries due to repetition. Wear and tear can occur when you’re consistently hitting up a higher energy/intensity flow, especially if it’s a style like Ashtanga where you are doing the same thing all the time.
- On the flip side, those who attend yoga infrequently (once a week or less) are at risk because their bodies never get to adapt and adjust to yoga poses. It’s like introducing the body to yoga every time. Moral of the story: find a balance, and yes you do need to mix up your yoga classes. Sorry, fellow overachiever. This is yoga, not the Olympics.
2. Hands On Assists: Another common way injuries occur is through hands on assists. I’ve been injured quite a lot this way. Hands on assists are the best. When I teach, I’m constantly providing support to my students, because it’s a way of saying, “I see the effort you’re putting in, and I’ve got your back.” It’s also a great way to help students explore more depth or better alignment in their postures, which can help prevent injuries. BUT. And this is a huge but…teachers don’t know how the assist actually feels. We hope to never injure anyone, but it can happen if a student doesn’t speak up and let a teacher know before class about chronic or acute injuries. More importantly, the body changes every day. You might be able to bust out the splits like a BAMF one day, and then the next feel really stiff in ardha hanumanasana (half-splits). Being present means being aware of how you feel. Take what the body gives you with gratitude.
3. Improper alignment: OMG exclamation point!!!!! Correct alignment is essential to prevent injuries and really experience the full benefits of yoga. A good teacher will provide alignment cues throughout class, but self-study is a huge part of yoga. It is one million, trillion percent worth it to take a bit of time to learn correct alignment outside of your yoga class. Look up asanas, watch Youtube videos, or find a yoga channel where you can learn how to take your time and set up the pose. Start with alignment for Sun A, B, trikonasana (triangle) and utthita parsvakonasana (extended side angle), and samasthiti (mountain pose). Nail those, and you’ll unIock a ton of other postures, because the alignment cues apply across the board. I cannot recommend this enough. I repeat: watch some goddamn videos and learn proper alignment. Talk to your teacher after class, and have them explain an asana. Practice intuitively and get in touch with how poses feel. Move in and out of postures with intention, and set up the pose from the ground up. Alignment matters, not because we’re trying to have a perfect practice, but because we want to have an injury free practice. What’s more, proper alignment allows breath to move more freely through the body, and the breath is the practice. Without it, we’re just doing acrobatic stunts.
MOST COMMON INJURIES (AND HOW TO AVOID THEM)
1. Upper and Lower Back: back pain can be a pretty common complaint among yoga practitioners. We do a lot of weird things with our spin. Sometimes that achy feeling is from the muscles, but more often related to the actual spine itself. First of all, most of us have terrible posture from sitting hunched over computers all day, and we rarely move and loosen up our spine outside of a yoga class.
The number one cause of back pain is rounding the spine forward. It puts unnatural strain on your vertebrates, and it’s no bueno. Get in the habit of creating a long, flat back when you fold and when you come up to stand in mountain pose.
Another factor that causes back pain is the opposite of rounding, when we arch the back up in asanas such as upward facing dog or camel pose. While this movement is incredibly beneficial for the spine and shoulders, if done incorrectly, we can compress the SI (sacroiliac) joint, which connects the sacrum and bones of the pelvis. Backbends, whether more subtle like cobra or upward facing dog, or more pronounced like camel or wheel, can dump weight into the lower back. Obviously, this can be pretty painful, because the discs can pinch and grind together.
—>How to avoid back injuries: When bending back, first lift up through the torso, then lean back. Even as you’re leaning back, keep lifting up through your heart to prevent your weight from dumping into the lower spine. In upward facing dog or cobra, engage the core and thighs to protect the lower back.
Wrists: here’s a little known fact to many new-to-yoga peeps: weight never goes onto the wrists. NEVER. Ok, a little bit does, but most of your weight should go into your palms and pads of your fingertips. Pouring your weight or supporting your body directly onto your wrists causes compression, and eventually you’ll injure yourself.
—> How to avoid wrist injuries: in a pose where you’re supporting yourself with hands on the mat (be it cat/cow, downward facing down, crow, handstand, etc) spread the fingers. Suction cup the palms down and press into the mat with palm/fingers. You’ll find better stabilization and stay injury free. You can also warm up the wrists before class starts. And always remember to modify if you need to by bringing your knee(s) to the mat in asanas like chaturanga, plank, and side plank.
Hamstrings: injuring the hammies can be pretty common in yoga, because 99.8999% of all yogis want to achieve the deepest forward folds they possibly can. We too often equate depth with a good practice, when the marker of a solid practice is connecting with breath while exploring shapes that work best for your body.
It doesn’t take much to injure the area where the hamstrings attach to the sitting bones. Chances are, at some point after a yoga class you’ve felt some soreness right below your buttocks. This isn’t muscle soreness from working out, but actually tension and strain from pulling on the the top of the hamstring. Once this area is injured, it can take what feels like a millennium to recover. And by millennium, I mean it can take at least 4 months or more to fully heal.
—>How to avoid hamstring injuries: Stretch before class, and ease the body into your stretches. A few minutes of hamstring stretches can do wonders. EASE THE EFF INTO FOLDS and never, ever, eeeeever push yourself to go super deep in a forward fold. Bend your knees if you need to, and if you don’t need to, then engage the quads. This will help lengthen and protect the hamstrings.
Another thing that really helps is to focus less on depth and more on finding a long, flat back and slowly working to bring chest to thigh, chin to shin. This helps the hamstrings open up and elongate (but it still will take time and consistency to find depth).
Always move into in asana slowly and with intention, particularly any pose that involves folding forward. Remember, the body changes every day. You might be able to find a crazy deep fold today, and tomorrow maybe feel a little tighter. And that is 1000% ok. It’s part of the process of bringing awareness to the body and taking what it gives us with gratitude.
4. Rotator cuff: Downward dog and bind can often be a big culprit of rotator cuff injuries.
—>How to avoid injuries: Be mindful of sagging through the shoulders during downward facing dog. Some people are really flexible through the shoulder joints, and it can feel natural and even good to sink through the shoulders as they bring their chest towards the ground. Over time and repetition, this can cause unnatural wear and tear through the rotator cuff and the muscles beneath the scapula. To fix this, dome up the back slightly, firming up through the shoulder girdles. Shift your gaze towards thighs or belly as you rotate your biceps away from your face to find external rotation through the shoulder joint, which will help alleviate strain.
Binds can be a bit more complicated, and there’s a ton of anatomy to explain. To keep it short and sweet, the glenohumeral connects the scapula and humerus bone, and it’s a ball and socket joint. This simply mean it has more rotation abilities. I could write an entire dissertation about how to use this joint in yoga, but I will refrain, because #wordcount. And also it’s a tad complicated. When coming into a bind, move the shoulder forward, wrap your arm in the bind, then plug your shoulder down into the socket. Avoid overstraining/over-stretching the capacity of your shoulder joint. Use a towel or strap when you need to—there is no shame in your game when you use props.
5. Knees: oh bless our knees. We put them through so much. Knee injuries happen in yoga usually for two reasons: poor form and/or tight hips and IT band.
How to avoid knee injuries: in any asana that requires a bent knee (like janu sirsasana, marichyasana, any variation of lotus pose), make sure to close the knee joint by thoroughly bending the knee and bringing calf against thigh. Flex your foot any time you’re moving in or out of an asana that requires a bent knee, and keep it flexed.
In warrior I and II, keep the knee stacked over ankle and in line with the middle toes. Most people have a tendencies to collapse weight inward towards the big toe, which puts unnatural strain on the knee joint.
Finally, work on opening the hips and finding flexibility through the IT band. Malasana (yogi squat) and Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (pigeon pose) can work wonders on the hips and IT band, but the key is you need to hold these postures for a longer time to really open up the body. Hold for at least 10 breaths, and work up from there. Ideally, if you can hang out in these postures for about three to five minutes, and you’ll see amazing results. That might sound like a long time, but if you throw on some chill music and focus on your breath, it becomes a really sweet time of meditation and intentional rest.
The last tip is an essential one: take a resting posture when you’re feeling fatigued or lose pace with your breath. Muscle fatigue can lead to sloppy alignment which—you guessed it—can cause injuries. Child’s pose is not a copout. It’s an opportunity to reconnect with the breath and find stillness in the mind, which is the most advanced and difficult form of yoga. Use resting poses to reset, and then get back into your flow.
The body is incredibly designed. It allows us to do amazing things, takes us on fabulous adventures, shelters and protects our vital organs, and it’s the home to our sacred soul. We often place intense demands on our bodies, and we aren’t usually truly aware or connected with how our bodies are feeling until we get injured or sick.
As you move through your yoga practice, begin truly bringing awareness to how your body feels and moves. Flow with intention, and slow down transitions in and out of poses. Not only will you have a safer practice, but a more meditative and fulfilling one as well. Yoga is healing and restorative, especially when we shift our focus away from finding the most intense version of a posture and instead explore alignment that works best for our individual bodies.