Some yoga poses can be a real pain in the asana…
Trust me, I know. One little move in the wrong direction, and you go from downward-facing dog to face-planting on your mat. Happens to the best of us.
So in an effort to avoid public humiliation, not to mention some potentially serious injuries, I thought it would be appropriate to call in a few yoga experts to help us better understand the most common yoga injuries and how to prevent them.
Summers notes that any yoga pose in which you bend the neck backwards into an extension can produce pain and injury if not performed carefully. “Bhujangasana (cobra), one of my favorite poses, is an example,” she said. “Some yoga styles throw the head back to an extreme. That’s not wise. A gentle look up to the ceiling is good — looking at the wall behind you is not so good.”
Summers says that most neck injuries in yoga occur from the practice of sirsasana (headstand) and sarvangasana (shoulder stand). “Great care to protect the neck should be taken with these poses, particularly as we age,” she said. Summers recommends making sure your body weight is properly distributed between the arms and shoulders, with little weight placed on the neck while in headstand, adding that it’s important to push the arms down and lift the shoulder blades for maximum support.
In order to prevent neck injuries while practicing the shoulder stand, Summers suggests using a blanket or folding your yoga mat under the shoulders, noting that the extra inch can make a big difference in the amount of force placed on the neck.
“To avoid these common yoga injuries, practice with slower movements and pay attention to pain signals from your body,” Summer said. “While there may be some minor discomfort, yoga shouldn’t hurt.”
Sonja Appel, founding director of Sushumna Yoga School & Studios, agrees that in order to properly practice yoga without injuries, we must carefully listen to our bodies, moods and intuition.
“In Western society we are taught to be ambitious, and attempting to do more is seen as normal,” she says. “Sitting and simply relaxing into paschimottanasana (seated forward bend) can be frustrating if we do not reach our toes right away, as we are taught to try our best and strive for perfection. Therefore, it is hard for us to see that it is precisely by surrendering to our body’s needs that we are able to grow and flower in our practice.”
Check out Appel’s top five injuries caused by being too ambitious in yoga.
1. Knee injuries
“Most knee injuries come from hip-opening asanas like baddha konasana (cobbler’s pose or butterfly) or upavista konasana (wide-legged seated angle pose). When our body is not yet flexible enough, we tend to make up for this inflexibility by forcefully pressing our knees further to the sides or trying too hard in the latter to get our torsos to the ground and putting pressure on the muscles around the knees by having them rotate outwards. Anatomically, our knees are not built for side movement, so pushing too hard results in injury.”
Appel notes that if you have a knee injury, other yoga postures such as standing forward bend and tree pose can actually help support the knee joints and strengthen the leg muscles and hamstrings.
2. Lower-back injuries
“Our lower back is another part of our body that can get injured easily. If we go too fast and bend forward or backward too strongly, do not warm up enough or fail to support ourselves, we can easily hurt our lower back. Whenever you lie on your back, always press the lower back into the floor so that you don’t hurt it when raising your legs. Don’t push so hard in your bending exercises; go only as far as your body can or wants.”
3. Neck and shoulder injuries
“If you ever feel tense in your neck and shoulders after a yoga class, you know you have been too ambitious. These areas easily tense up with overexertion if we are not able to relax and surrender. Some inverted postures like the headstand and shoulder stand are known to put pressure on our shoulders and neck. Listen to your body. If you feel sore or your strength dwindles, make sure to do different, easier variations.”
Appel suggests this variation of shoulder stand to avoid injuries:
Place your hands equidistantly apart on the floor, about a meter away from the wall, facing in the opposite direction, and walk your legs and feet up the wall. This will relieve some of the pressure on your neck and shoulders as you have the legs supported.
4. Pinched nerves
“This is another injury that comes from being too strong and forceful in your movement. It may occur in inverted poses but it will mainly happen when twisting too strongly in a pose that you are not ready for, such as seated twist pose, as well as triangle pose, if we have a tendency to not align ourselves properly. We think the main focus is to get our hand down to the floor, putting too much weight on the front leg. There is a lot of potential then to pinch a nerve when not moving correctly.”
5. Circulatory collapse
“Most of the time we think of yoga as relaxing, but there are several asanas that have a strong effect on the circulatory system, such as the headstand, shoulder stand, handstand, wheel or back bend. This is noticeable when you start breathing more heavily, are out of breath or stop breathing or the room is too hot (i.e., hot yoga). If you have a tendency to suffer from high blood pressure, heart disease or have cardiovascular problems, then these asanas should be avoided, as they may be too much for your body to cope with.”
In conclusion, Appel advises to always “go slow, listen to your body, work at understanding what is right for you in that moment, never compete with someone else and be aware of what asanas can be done safely or modify them.” Only then, she says, “is it possible to experience the true fruits of yoga.”