If you practice long enough, you’re likely to hurt yourself at least once, and nothing will throw salt on your yoga game like a painful injury. Having to sit it out for weeks and resist the urge to practice after leaps and bounds of consistent progress can feel absolutely devastating.
Here are 10 tips for avoiding injury during practice, and knowing how to deal if and when it happens.
Try to arrive early to class, and take time to center yourself. Begin by establishing breath awareness. Find your rhythm, linking the breath to simple movements like the Pawanmuktasana series. Start with gentle stretches—stretching too deeply too soon triggers your muscles’ protective reflexes and sets the stage for strains and pulls.
- Make Each Pose Your Own.
Ever wish you could take the look of a classmate’s asana and plaster it onto your own body? “Why won’t my leg stretch to the stars like hers?” you wonder. Some yogis, especially the bendiest of the bunch, make the poses that challenge us most look smoother than silk.
We all get a little green with envy at times, but I urge you to resist that inner monster during your time on the mat. Yoga is not a competitive sport. Everybody is designed differently, and an asana will never fit you in exactly the same way that it will fit someone else. So, while you may rock an aesthetically enchanting wheel pose, you may not have the bone structure to slide down into a full split in monkey poses like Jack or the strength to slay an arm balance like Jill.
Get to know the teacher and be sure to share any pre-existing issues that might require modifications in certain poses. If you don’t know how to modify or use props, ask. And if a pose just isn’t working, don’t be embarrassed to simply… not do it. Instead, focus on the poses that provide benefit and release.
- Make Props And Modifications Work For You.
For years every stubborn fiber of my being fought against props and modifications as if employing them during practice was somehow akin to cheating or taking the easy way out. This attitude is nothing more than a silly trick of the ego. Props and modifications are there to make yoga fit our one-of-a-kind physical structure, which aids correct alignment and therefore safer stretching.
You wouldn’t buy an outfit that was small to the point of causing discomfort, would you? Unless you’re a fan of the baking-bread-in-your-clothes look, I’m guessing the answer is no.
- Thou Shalt Not Lock Thy Joints!
Look at all those beautiful photos of yogis with arms and legs as straight as arrows. If you’re completely stable in your pose, it feels great to stretch with such fierceness. During movement, however, it’s best to keep your joints slightly bent to avoid hurting yourself.
For example, in many classes, we’re offered the option of hopping back into plank before lowering into chaturanga, rather than stepping back on the mat. This is all gravy as long as the elbows are bent while hopping. Jumping back with straight arms can jar those joints and leave you wincing. Yeowch.
People often lock their joints because keeping a slight bend requires more muscle power. If you fall prey to this tendency, it’s better to go bendy! You’ll build more sustainable muscle strength while staying safe simultaneously.
- If You Do Experience Any Injury, Put Your Practice On Hold Until It Has Healed.
You’re at home with a strained back, craving to go back to class and give it a good stretch. In barges that middle school gym teacher inside your head. “WALK IT OFF, WIMP!” he screeches. “YOGA GLORY WAITS FOR NO ONE!!” But don’t believe his sneaky lies. Yoga is a faithful lady and she will always wait for you.
It’s very tempting after an injury to hop right back to class as soon as you’re physically able. You want to jump back on that horse and keep riding, and I feel you! But continuing to practice on an injury will only exacerbate the problem.
Stop everything and rest until you’re sure that you’ve fully healed. Don’t go to class. Don’t practice at home. Don’t get a massage. Don’t stretch or mess with the injured area. Most of the time, these actions will only cause more inflammation around the injured area and prolong the problem. So: LEAVE IT ALONE! Make the most of this opportunity to practice patience and acceptance by switching to chill mode, and don’t hesitate to see a doctor if you don’t start to feel an improvement within the next few days. Your body will thank you later!
By now, you probably recognize a common theme of self-awareness underlying each item in the list above. While it’s important to choose the right teacher and class, ultimately you are responsible for your journey. Practicing Swadharma in asana is a familiar concept Swa means “one’s own,” and dharma is often translated as “duty” or “path.” In other words, be true to yourself.