Is your Instagram feed full of yogis and yoginis twisting and contorting their bodies into pretzels? Does your head spin trying to figure out just how exactly the yogi on your phone got their leg to do that? Do they even have joints?
It can be easy to come to the conclusion that Yoga is an extreme range of motion sport. Since the pop culture rise of Yoga started gaining momentum in 2001, yoga injuries too, have been on the rise. A study entitled Yoga-Related Injuries in the United States From 2001 to 2014, found that there were 29,590 yoga-related injuries seen in hospital emergency departments from 2001 to 2014. Overall, yoga injuries became almost twice as common in 2014 as in 2001. Since then, yoga online and influencer yogis have become more common. This is great when we look at the message of yoga spreading, however, it also can lead to individuals engaging in a practice that is not safe for their bodies.
There are definitely yogis in the practice today that come from a dance or gymnastics background and therefore have an inherent flexibility that allows them to easily get into certain shapes or poses. Through practice and time, flexibility will increase in every one who regularly practices yoga, however, each body contains a unique joint structure and composition, so looking to a particular pose as a holy grail of achievement can lead to not only injury, but a lot of frustration among practitioners.
It’s time now for our community to take a hard look at our practice and begin to take personal responsibility for preventing injuries on the mat. Here is how to protect yourself and check yourself when it comes to your yoga practice.
Pay Attention to Your Body
This seems intuitive, but often isn’t. Many of us walk around on a daily basis with chronic pain that we have gotten used to living with, or we breathe in a way that is suboptimal for our bodies. However, the best tool you have in preventing injury is simply listening to your own body. “Work through the pain” is a statement that has no place in a yoga practice. Here are questions to consider when practicing yoga:
Does the pose cause pain?
If so, the best course is to refrain from that pose. You can instead ask your instructor for props or options to get the benefits without partaking in that pose. If the pain is due to a recent injury, then give your body the space it needs to heal fully before coming back to the pose. The beautiful thing about yoga is that there are so many different modalities available: Hatha, Yin, Vinyasa and more. Just because you may not be able to power through a class heavy on Chaturangas, does not mean you have to stop the practice all together. Rather, take some time to research other practices available to you.
Does the pose leave you short of breath?
This is one we see in our classes all the time. A student is fully capable of doing a pose but they stretch and extend themselves so far into it that they can no longer fully breathe. If you find this happening to you, simply ease up 10-20%. A great example of this is a simple Reverse Warrior. Most students can easily get into this pose but over exaggerate the fold in the torso, overextending and reaching their top hand too far over and down towards the back leg. Instead, find a little length in your upper body by reaching your top hand up and notice how much more the breath can expand. To reap the full benefits of yoga, your breath should be full and steady, able to flow in and out of your nose.
Is your practice building mobility?
Mobility is your body’s ability to move around with ease, support your activities and as we grow older, mobility is what helps us keep our independence to continue living the life we choose. Yoga can often focus on flexibility, which is definitely something that increases our health, but it is only half of the mobility equation. The other half is strength. You don’t need to lift weights in order to gain strength. A dynamic yoga practice will help you achieve both. If your practice emphasizes the splits, focus also on holding a strong Warrior 2 pose. Wheel and other deep backbends can be complemented with a high plank. Being strong is just as important as being “bendy”.
Choose your classes and teacher intentionally
In the Western world we tend to choose a class based on the time of day rather than paying attention to what is on the schedule. It may require a little shopping around but consider the skill level, teacher and class size when choosing a yoga class.
Find a class that is suitable for your level. Most studios have an introductory or beginners level class. These classes allow you to begin the practice of listening to your body and becoming familiar with the language and style of Yoga.
If you have been practicing for awhile then pay close attention to the progression of a class. For any class or style of yoga, movement and poses start simple and move to the complex. Some classes have what is called a “peak pose” which is a pose that requires the most amount of warm-up in the body to safely execute the pose during class. Some examples of peak poses include Crow, Dancer or Wheel. However if the instructors goal for class or the peak pose involves getting your knees to your ear or your hamstrings behind your shoulders, be wary of inviting injury into your practice.
Pay attention to how the teacher speaks to students. Is their feedback general and non specific or is adaptive to the group of students in their class? Does the teacher make a point to correct form and posture or to assist students? All of these clues can give you insight as to how much attention the instructor is paying to the posture, alignment and safety of their students.
A note on assists: Some studios & schools refrain from hands on assists and some embrace it fully. Both can be beneficial practices depending on the individual. A hands on assist can elevate your practice and many times feel super “yummy” on your body. An assist can allow you to stretch just a little deeper than you could on your own, while providing extra support. Additionally, assist can also be used by your instructor to help avoid injury and guide your body back to alignment. Whether or not to invite assistance from your teacher is a decision each yogi needs to make on their own.
Final point to consider when choosing a class, notice the class size. A smaller class allows the teacher to focus individually, helping students find their balance and center, correcting and even inviting new challenges based on the skill level of the class. The smaller the class size the more room a teacher has to assist you personally.
Check your Ego
Our Egos are loud, obtrusive and convincing. Therefore one of the best questions to ask yourself when trying to get into a certain pose is WHY?
Why are you wanting to achieve this pose? Here is a hint…”do it for the ‘gram” isn’t a good enough reason.
Poses can challenge and give us opportunity to grow, but growth will not come at the point of injury. In fact the opposite occurs. If we are injured, we are now forced to rest and potentially even hindered in our physical practice. If you are wanting to achieve a certain pose, consider what is drawing you to it? What practices could you focus on to work up to the pose, or that would provide a similar benefit? Who are you trying to make proud?
At the end of the day, the journey is your own and the intention you place behind it can be much more beneficial than an individual pose that you achieved. Check out this interview with Ni Made Murni, 500h Registered Yoga Teacher on preventing injury and how she approaches her personal yoga practice.
This article may sound full of alarm bells, but don’t be discouraged. We hope that your takeaway here is that the insta-worthy pose is not the goal, nor purpose of practicing yoga. Health, connecting to your body, stress relief, connection, community, mobility and so much more can all be achieved through a practice filled with simple poses. Even just a few Sun Salutations each morning will have lasting effects on your physical and mental health.
While yoga is a practice often done in a group and many of us have a teacher that we follow, We believe that ultimately the responsibility of maintaining a safe practice, free from injury, is our own individual responsibility. Yoga can be healing and powerful and often requires us to show up mindfully. The difference between 30minutes on the treadmill & 30 minutes on your yoga mat? Mindfulness. So let’s all as yogis, step up and take ownership of our bodies and our practice.
Practice mindfully dear friends.
Prepared by Rachel Jacquelyn
Rachel is a Colorado based yoga teacher & content writer. Avid hiker, workshop junkie and always up to share a charcuterie board and wine, Rachel values learning and connection. She is an empowering teacher bringing a background in exercise science and calming presence to her classes.Connect with Rachel on Instagram @racheljacquelyn