As a long-time yoga practitioner and instructor, I have seen and experienced a lot of injuries over the years.
Anecdotally speaking, the vast majority of these injuries-including my own-probably could have been avoided.
As I shared in a previous post, my now chronic shoulder injury could have been avoided had I not kept pushing myself beyond my limits. While the same could be said for all injuries, part of the battle is knowing what your limits are in the moment and not in retrospect.
It’s all too easy to go past those limits especially in a hot yoga or Bikram class when the heat may allow you go deeper than usual. Also, it’s easy to push past limits in a practice when the endorphins are being released, all feels right with your mind and body, and you think you can do the maximum when in fact you cannot.
So, in order to prevent injuries, here are some tips to avoid three of the most common injuries that I have seen over the years:
1. Hamstring injuries
Just about everyone seems to have tight hamstrings. Tight hamstrings appear to be a side effect of modern living. Avid runners and walkers tend to have them as to do those who sit or drive for long periods of time. Also, some people just have naturally tight hamstrings.
Hamstrings can change from hour to hour. (For example, mine tend to be tighter in the morning than in the afternoon.) Just because you can could get your heels to the ground yesterday in downward facing dog or press your palms all the way to floor with straight legs doesn’t mean you will be able to today.
The easiest way to prevent an injured hamstring is to bend the knees. As an instructor, I always encourage my students to bend their knees and never force their heels to the ground before they are ready. Forcing them to the ground will not result in a better down dog; rather, it will only result in pain that may last for several months.
Hamstrings will lengthen over time—just be patient.
2. Shoulder injuries
As I mentioned, this is one that I know all too much about. In my experience, one of the biggest culprit of shoulder injuries is incorrect alignment in headstand and shoulder stand poses. Having tight shoulders greatly increases the risk of shoulder injuries.
Much like tight hamstrings, tight shoulders can be a result of modern living. (Think of how much time most of spend hunched over in a car or in front of computers. All that hunching can do a number on the shoulders.)
Just like you should never force your heels to the ground before you are ready, you should never force the shoulders to open before they are able to do so.
Tight shoulders are often weak, so strengthening them in a poses like bridge or dolphin is a great idea. If I have a brand new student with very tight shoulders, I suggest they skip the shoulder stands and headstands until they open up and strengthen the shoulders. (Legs-up-the-wall is a great inversion that is usually safe for most and takes pressure off the shoulders.)
Speaking of shoulder stands, I am a big fan of using props like blankets especially if they are going to be held for any length of time. Iynegar-based teachers excel at this, but any decent yoga instructor will be able to show you how to use them correctly.
3. Back injuries
While some people associate back injuries with one of those things that just comes with growing older, most back injuries have an underlying cause. (Also, it isn’t just older people who suffer from this malady. I’ve had students barely out of their teens who have had back injuries.)
One of the most common causes is weak back muscles. Usually, it isn’t just the back muscles that are weak, but the entire core. Many hear the word “core” and immediately think of the superficial abdominal muscles, namely the rectus abdominus which is responsible for that “6-pack ab” effect, but the core involves far more than that.
In fact, the deeper core muscles-the ones that cannot be seen-are the ones that most people should focus on when it comes to the health of their back. (It can be helpful to think of the core as a sort of internal corset in order to get a better idea of how it works.)
My favorite yoga pose to strengthen the core is boat pose, but even the humble bridge pose can do wonders when it comes to strengthening those deeper muscles. Plus, if you have tight shoulders as well you can kill two birds with one stone. (By the way, placing a block between the knees and squeezing it is a great way to make sure that those core muscles are really engaged.)
Most yoga injuries just don’t happen but are the result of underlying causes. The three I listed are some of the most common injuries I have encountered and some of the most preventable, too.
Remember that yoga when done correctly should prevent injuries rather than cause them. However, in order to do so it is imperative that you listen to your body and work within its limits rather than try to go past them. Doing so will not only prevent injury but, paradoxically, may actually result in one day going deeper than you ever thought possible.
At the very least, keeping yourself healthy will make your yoga journey a lot easier.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise