Your teacher's job is to keep you safe and teach a class that's appropriate for each individual's skill level. But as a student, you bear a share of the responsibility, too.
We all know that yoga brings us peace of mind and relief from a host of physical and stress-related complaints. But the truth is, it can also injure us. According to a 2007 U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission report, 5,500 yoga-related injuries warranted a doctor’s visit or a trip to the emergency room. While the growing number of relatively inexperienced yoga teachers may be part of the problem, as a student you bear a share of the responsibility, too. Your teacher’s job is to keep you safe and teach a class that’s appropriate for each individual’s skill level. But your job is to choose a class that allows you to listen to what your body needs and to work within its limitations.
Shoulders, wrists, hamstrings, lower back, knees, and sacral iliac joints bear the brunt of most yoga injuries, according to Elizabeth Larkam, a yoga and Pilates instructor in the San Francisco Bay Area. Here are some suggestions for staying injury-free.
If your shoulders round forward and you can’t straighten your arms when you lift them overhead, you have tight chest muscles (pectorals) and weak upper back muscles (rhomboids)—and a vinyasa practice of yoga push-ups and arm balances will irritate the shoulder tendons.
To strengthen the rhomboids, lie facedown on the mat with your arms by your sides. Lift your upper torso and arms, stretching your arms and shoulders toward your feet. To open the pectorals, lie on your back over a rolled mat, positioned perpendicular to your spine at the lower ribs, with your arms at your sides. Lift your arms up and over your head, as far as they’ll go without pain.
Aggressive forward bending can irritate hamstrings and so can doing the splits before you’re ready. Yoga teachers often tell their students to hug the leg muscles to the bone, which in English means to use your quadriceps (the muscles at the fronts of your thighs) to avoid injuring your hamstrings.
If you have a pulled hamstring muscle, don’t do any forward bends unless you really bend your knees. In fact, give that hamstring a rest; ice it and elevate your leg several times a day.
Any practice that focuses on deep twists or straight-legged forward bending can, according to Larkam, put too much stress on the sacral iliac joints (those two bony protrusions at the top of your sacrum) and can even tear the annular fibers that protect the lower back. Asymmetrical poses like parivritta trikonasana (revolved triangle pose) can also aggravate lower back and SI pain.
Increase the space between the vertebrae by elongating your spine and the sides of your waist before folding forward, and bend your knees until you learn your limitations, so you stretch your back gently. In twisting poses, engage the core and initiate the twist from there, releasing your pelvis completely. Never go beyond your comfort level and always stop if anything starts to hurt.
Yoga should never hurt.
Don’t take a class or do a pose that’s too hard for you.
Ask your teacher to help you modify poses to fit your limitations.
Never allow a teacher to push you deeper into a pose. If you feel your body resist an adjustment, ask your teacher to stop.
Don’t ever assume anyone knows your body better than you do. Yoga should never hurt.