Yoga is often touted as an activity that increases strength, flexibility, balance and calm — and while all of those can be true, it’s not an oasis of injury-free bliss. “There’s a perception that yoga is what you do to get over injuries and physical issues, not a place where those injuries might happen in the first place,” says Dr. Dennis Cardone, associate professor of orthopedic surgery at NYU Langone Medical Center. “That might lead people to develop a false sense of security, especially in more advanced practices.”
If practiced correctly, yoga offers significant advantages, but being aware of its challenges helps prevent problems. Fortunately, there are three solid strategies that can keep you safe while you practice, no matter your level:
1. FIND THE RIGHT TEACHER
According to Yoga Alliance, which provides yoga teacher certifications, there are more than 52,000 yoga teachers in the United States and the profession grows by about 14,000 new teachers every year. That means it’s easier than ever to shop around and find one who teaches in a way that suits you.
“Choosing the right instructor is key,” says Cardone. “Yoga classes are not one-size-fits-all, and the teacher makes a huge difference when it comes to injury prevention.” For example, seek teachers who can address your injuries properly, conduct a class at the speed you want or offer private sessions so you feel like you’re getting the most individualized attention.
He suggests taking several different kinds of classes, and looking for teachers who adjust students gently, continually scan the class for improper form and alter poses for multiple levels of ability.
2. DO YOUR RESEARCH
Just as there are different types of teachers, there are numerous yoga styles. Power yoga is true to its name, with poses that focus on strength and speed, while restorative yoga is just as restful as the title. But what about Ashtanga, yoga sculpt, PiYo, Iyengar and Bikram? Every yoga style has its own unique qualities that are good to know in advance.
For example, Bikram yoga is a hot yoga practice, done in a room heated to between 95–108 degrees. PiYo is a combination of Pilates and yoga, while yoga sculpt uses hand weights in many poses.
“When you go in without knowing what to expect, that increases your risk for injury,” says Cardone. For instance, if you have wrist or shoulder issues, yoga sculpt could exacerbate those problems instead of alleviating them. Similarly, jumping into a hot yoga class without preparatory hydration could leave you feeling dizzy or nauseated midway through, and affect your balance.
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3. IF A POSE HURTS, DON’T DO IT
Although it sounds easy enough to pull back from pain when it occurs, coming out of a pose while others are still doing it can be challenging for many yoga students, says yoga teacher Simon Park of Liquid Flow Yoga, which leads workshops around the world.
“You see the person next to you holding a pose for longer, or doing a pose in a certain way, and you might think that’s what you’re supposed to be doing,” he says. “That might spark a feeling of competition or just hesitation about taking a rest for yourself.”
That can lead to overstretching and strain, he says. The most common injuries Park sees are related to the “too much syndrome” of practicing too aggressively — rotator cuff problems, shoulder tightness and especially hamstring attachment pain.
“Students might think that more is better, like doing a deeper stretch or going past the point of challenge, but the opposite is true,” he says. “Yoga isn’t about pushing yourself as hard as you can. It’s about feeling what’s happening in your body, and finding a sense of smoothness there.”
In general, yoga can be a considerably beneficial practice, either as an addition to your workout or on its own. Studies have linked yoga to stress reduction, improved flexibility and optimized athletic performance, among other effects. But like any sport, it’s important to find the right guides, progress slowly and listen to your body.
GEAR UP FOR YOUR NEXT YOGA SESSION