We’re about a month and a half into 2013, and I’m already hearing grumblings about aches and pains from the new students at the studio where I’ve been practicing. Some discomfort after yoga is perfectly normal, and it may even be a sign that you’re getting stronger and more open. But some of those pain sensations could be the early signs of injury. Yoga injuries tend to be the result of repetitive stress, though, as opposed to blunt trauma, so their symptoms can be difficult to distinguish from the benign aching that comes after a strong workout. If you take some precautions, however, it is possible to maintain a safe and injury-free yoga practice.
Today, I’m going to discuss a few of the most common yoga injuries, and suggest some ways to avoid them. This discussion will be a broad overview, presented in a basic, mostly non-technical manner. In the future, I may go into more detail regarding specific injuries, but the purpose of this post is simply to flag some of the typical ways in which yogis hurt themselves, with the hope that something I say here may spare others some unnecessary misery.
Before I begin, I should note that I am not professionally trained in physical therapy, sports medicine, or anything of the sort. I have learned some things, however, in the school of hard knocks — i.e., I’ve suffered a lot of yoga injuries, some of them quite severe. So take my remarks for what they’re worth, which is a decade of experience from one yogi who has banged up his body through yoga. Trust me, X-rays are no fun. Visits to the orthopedist are no fun. MRIs are definitely no fun.
So, without further ado, here are five of the most common injuries in yoga:
- WRISTS. Almost everyone who takes up yoga experiences wrist pain at some point. In certain styles of yoga, we spend a lot of time on our hands in poses like Down Dog, High Plank, Low Plank, as well as more advanced poses like Crow and handstand. When a person is weak in their forearms, shoulders, upper back, etc. (which is the case with most newer yogis), or if they don’t properly engage the relevant muscles in these poses, they tend to dump all their weight into their wrists, as well as the heel of the hand. The wrist joint is simply not built to withstand this type of pressure. The best solution is to build strength, and to learn how to engage supporting muscles instead of collapsing into your wrists. If wrist pain persists, though, you might consider any number of yoga tools designed to address this problem. One popular item is WAGS (Wrist Assured Gloves). My personal favorite is a wrist support glove used by gymnasts, The Tiger Paw.
- SHOULDERS. Your shoulders bear a lot of weight in yoga, especially in those styles of yoga based in or related to the Ashtanga tradition. Whether you’re jumping back into Chaturanga Dandasana in your Sun Salutations, or just holding a long Down Dog, your shoulders can bear the brunt of this impact and pressure if you’re not careful. Again, this is largely the result of weakness and/or a failure to properly engage supporting muscles. For instance, in Downward Facing Dog, you can easily go slack in your forearms, legs, and core, and just sink into your shoulders. Not good! Instead, see if you can train yourself to make Down Dog a full-body pose. This doesn’t mean tensing up all your muscles. But it does mean engaging your thighs, activating your core, forearms, triceps, etc., so that your shoulders aren’t doing all the work.
- NECK. Neck injuries result most often from one of two mistakes in yoga. First, any pose that applies intense pressure on the neck can tweak it. In these postures, if you go slack in the rest of your body and allow your neck to function as a kickstand, you’re probably in for a world of pain. You might not feel it right away, but eventually your neck is going to hurt. So what’s the solution? Once again, it’s all about engaging supporting muscles, allowing them to share the workload, instead of taking all the weight into your neck. For instance, in traditional headstand, you need to press down through your wrists and forearms. Your back, arms, and shoulders should be also engaged. If you get lazy and just allow the weight of your body to crash down into your neck… well, I hope you know a good chiropractor. The second most common cause of neck pain is probably backbends. I screw up my neck like this a lot. Because I don’t have very deep backbends, I tend to push too hard into my neck in a desperate (but futile) attempt to go deeper. Cranking your neck does not result in a deeper backbend; it results in neck pain! The solution? Try to keep your neck more in line with your spine, and be patient with the evolution of your backbend.
- KNEES. I have tweaked my knee, usually the inner knee, quite a few times in yoga. This is usually the result of either going too deep in a pose before I’m sufficiently warmed up. Or it’s the result of a funky transition between two poses that probably should not be linked in a flow. In both cases, an inexperienced teacher can lead you down the path towards injury, and you have to know when to back off or just not do what the teacher says. Generally speaking, if a transition requires you to twist your knee in such a manner that the torque on your knee makes it feel like it’s going to give out, don’t do it! Also — and I know I’m starting to sound like a broken record here — you need to always be mindful of engaging your supporting muscles around the knee, instead of locking it or, even worse, hyper-extending it.
- BACK. Thankfully, I haven’t had too many back problems in yoga. If anything, yoga helps to relieve any back pain I may have from doing other things, like sitting at a desk for many hours, driving a lot, or running or biking excessively. However, it is definitely possible to screw up your back in yoga. A common cause of this is pushing too hard into backbends. Sometimes, this will result in your shoulders or neck getting hurt. But other times, especially if your chest and upper back are not open, you will compress your lower back in backbends in an effort to go deeper. I do this a lot, and I have definitely pushed too hard and felt it the next day in my lower back. The solution? Engage your legs and core in backbends, and be patient, focusing on opening your chest and upper back, instead of crunching the middle and lower back.
With a few basic precautions, it is possible to approach yoga in a safer and more sustainable manner. The best bet for maintaining an injury-free yoga practice is to study with an experienced teacher who knows a lot about yoga anatomy. It also helps, I’ve found, to practice with a teacher who has suffered at least one serious injury in the past. Not surprisingly, teachers like this tend to be more aware of the potential for injury in yoga, and they tend to be more vigilant about emphasizing safety in their classes.
Most importantly, though, a smart yoga student will take personal responsibility for his/her own body. This means paying attention to what causes pain, and learning to distinguish between different types of pain. It also requires an appreciation for the fact that yoga is hard, and that you might not be strong enough (yet) to do some poses. Yoga asanas do not generally involve passive “stretching,” and the sooner you realize this, the sooner you’ll be able to practice with the physical and mental strength that’s required for a safe practice.