Reduce your chance of getting hurt
The health benefits of a regular yoga practice span the spectrum from physical to mental. Weight loss and lowered blood sugar and cholesterol levels, as well as decreased stress, depression and anxiety—with so much to be gained, why do yoga injuries seem to be on the rise?
The dark side of yoga
Yoga is the 14th most popular physical activity in Australia—and it appears to be moving fast up the ranks. With a reputation for providing a mild, low-impact form of exercise, yoga, in its many incarnations, appeals to a wide range of age groups and fitness levels.
Physiotherapist Lesley Cuddington has seen an increase in recent years in patients seeking treatment for aches, pains, pulls and strains they say were sustained through yoga. While this trend is, in part, tied to the simple fact that more people are jumping on the yoga bandwagon, Cuddington believes there are other factors at work as well.
“The misconception is, because it’s good for you, you can’t get hurt. That’s not necessarily true,” she says. “Any time you move your body in a new way, without much knowledge about what you’re doing, you run the risk of injury.”
Most people, Cuddington says, “drop into their first yoga class with little or no awareness of how their body works, or what it is or isn’t capable of. They don’t realise that you can stretch your body to the point of injury—and that can be a recipe for disaster.”
Pushing the limits
Rhonda Major, a personal trainer and yoga instructor, says the way in which yoga has trended over the past decade or so hasn’t helped the cause, either. “Before yoga really came on the radar, most people who practised did so once or twice a week, in addition to other activities that helped keep their bodies and minds in balance,” she says.
“Now, not only do I see people pushing their limits with a daily practice that doesn’t include days off, there seems to have been a departure from yoga as a largely meditative practice to a vigorous, physical workout that can, at times, be competitive.”
Major and Cuddington agree that, while some injuries may spring up suddenly during a class, most yoga-related issues develop over years of overstretching and misalignment. “If a student doesn’t follow the teacher’s instructions, they may be executing the postures incorrectly or their alignment may be way off—this can go on for years,” Cuddington says.
Major adds, “When the teacher says, ‘Use your core,’ any student who doesn’t know what muscles that refers to—chances are, they won’t execute the posture correctly. For that reason, it’s a good idea for students, especially beginners or anyone who isn’t sure if what they’re doing is right, to seek out smaller classes where the teacher is able to pay more attention to each individual practitioner.”
Scheduling a private lesson every so often can go a long way towards nipping improper technique in the bud. Talking to your teachers before and after class to gain pointers on problematic poses or alert them to any health issues you have can help, too. And leaving your ego out of it—whether your tendency is to compete with the yogi next to you or rush into advanced postures before you’re ready—is key.
At the end of the day, Major says much of the onus is on you, the student, to ensure your practice is healthy and safe. “If you can’t avoid a busy class or afford a private lesson, get to class early so you can snag a spot in front of the mirror and watch how you move,” she suggests.
“Coming to class with a conscious intention to remain aware—aware of the teacher’s instructions, even if you’ve heard them a thousand times before, aware of how you’re performing the postures and aware of your own limits—is the best way to prevent yourself from getting hurt," says Major.
Cuddington recommends a similar approach. “Listening to your body is crucial. If you feel pain at any point during a posture, you’ve gone too far. Yoga shouldn’t hurt.”
Find the right class for you
Searching for a style of yoga to safely suit your needs and abilities? Ask yourself these questions:
What are my goals?
If it’s physical fitness you’re after, Ashtanga, hot yoga and power yoga—to name a few—can all provide a heart-pumping, sweat-inducing, total body workout. If your main mantra is relaxation, a slower paced hatha or yin session may be a better fit. For a serious spiritual lift, try kundalini, which promotes enlightenment through chanting, breath work and special hand gestures called mudras.
How’s my health?
If you’re healing an old injury, suffering from a pre-existing medical condition or pregnant, you should consult with a health care practitioner before doing your first downward dog. Certain types of yoga, such as heated practices, can put students with health issues at risk, while others may simply be too vigorous for older practitioners or those just starting to build up their level of fitness.
How much guidance do I require?
Yoga’s rising popularity means many classes are bursting at the seams. If you’re in good health and can follow instructions well, you may actually benefit from the high energy of a packed class. If you have health concerns or want to focus on doing the postures correctly, choose a smaller session or a private class where the teacher can focus more fully on you.
Pain in the asana
When it comes to injuries, not all yoga postures are created equal. Ask the teacher how to safely modify the following poses—or avoid them altogether.
If you have weak wrists or elbows, be wary of plank and push-up postures that require you to balance your body weight on flat hands or forearms.
Disregard form and alignment and your ribs can take a beating, particularly in postures involving an upper body twist to one side or the other.
Moves that round the spine forwards or back, such as bow or bridge, pose the risk of back pain if not executed properly.
Plough pose, handstands and headstands are among the inversion postures that tend to place extra pressure on the neck.
Knee pain may be amplified in a cross-legged or kneeling position—particularly in classes that hold these postures for an extended period of time.
Tight hamstrings will protest during any pose that triggers a stretch in the leg; the trick is not to push these postures to the point where you feel pain, and if it smarts, back off.
Heal your injuries and support a safe yoga practice with these complementary treatments.
When scar tissue forms in your body after a trauma, it can lead to limited range of motion and, subsequently, pain. The thin needles that an acupuncturist inserts into your body at specific points can, over time, help relax this injury-induced tension and return the tissue back to its original state.
Certain types of therapeutic massage can help to break down scar tissue that’s formed around an injury. Since vigorous or untargeted massage can cause additional damage, be sure to seek treatment from a registered professional.
If you’re having trouble progressing in your yoga practice, a physiotherapist can work with you to break down the postures biomechanically in order to discover where your limitations lie and work safely to overcome them.