Given that the formerly-taboo topic of injuries from yoga has been cropping up in my personal reading recently, I thought I would write a short list of advice on avoiding personal injury. A lot of yoga situations (teachers in classes, articles in journals, etc) seem to tell us that if we just “listen to our bodies,” then we will know when to push farther and when to ease back. However, the evidence is showing that yogis around the nation are not actually learning where this line might be.¹
First and foremost, let’s keep in mind that “injury-prevention” in yoga can often be in both the physical and “subtle” realms. As you have probably heard many times, yoga is based in a philosophy of non-harming: do not intentionally harm yourself or others. This is often discussed in the context of asanas (or yoga-on-the-mat)—do not harm your body; but let’s also remember that we are not to intentionally harm our souls, either.
1. Check in with your body often. At the beginning of class, spend some moments of full attention on various parts of your body. Notice if anything feels tweaky or uncomfortable. It is also important to do this practice consistently, so that you are aware of the baseline sensations of your body – that way you improve your chances of noticing when something might be wrong. Take a few moments throughout the day, as well, to notice sensations in your body; you don’t have to “fix” anything—it’s just a good way to get more familiar with the way your body naturally feels, as well as maybe start listening if you are denying something to your body.
2. Never, ever, ever be afraid to modify a pose. It is always okay to come completely out of a pose, to use blocks or a blanket, or to modify a pose in any way if you feel any sort of distress in the body.
A common and basic issue I often see in regards to this tip is that child’s pose, or balasana, is almost unanimously offered by teachers in classes as the classic resting pose; however, this pose can actually be very uncomfortable for some people (I’ve found this is particularly true for men). As such, remember to find a pose that is good for you, and it is totally okay if that pose is different than one offered by the teacher.
3. Know signs of physical distress. Pain in the joints, pain in the spine, neck, and lower back, and pain where the muscle meets the bone (for example, in your butt—where the hamstring meets the sit-bone, or where the forearm muscles meet the wrist). Remember, stretches and strength should generally be felt in the middle of the muscles (like the middle of the biceps or quadriceps).
4. Do not stop questioning, learning, and looking for new ideas. For example:
– Ask your teacher questions before and after class—even during class if you want! (Although it’s probably best to flag his/her attention, instead of shouting across the classroom.) Especially if you are in a posture that feels potentially distressing or uncomfortable, consider making a small modification and asking the teacher afterward about why you might have felt that way and if your modification was adequate.
– Look at tips on the internet. I mean, it’s important to recognize that not quite everyone on the internet knows what they’re talking about, but the internet is a great place to get new ideas. My Reads and Resources page is one place to start—these links have my “okay” stamp, i.e., they seem to me to be as trustworthy as anything on the internet can be. Also, on the internet, you can learn from other people’s mistakes (for example, in my video on YouTube, you can totally see what you’re not supposed to do when in plank pose—my hips are definitely too high off the ground!). It’s also important to recognize that even if you are reading/watching something from a completely professional, amazingly credentialed teacher/person/writer, that person is not speaking directly, specifically, or intentionally to you. Everybody and every body is different, so remember that everything you read may not be 100% for you (including this post!).
5. Check different yoga teachers and their credentials; ask them what they think their particular teaching gifts are. I think that, ideally, a strong teacher is one that balances alignment/anatomy knowledge with a strong understanding of students’ personal experiences. A teacher with strong knowledge of alignment and anatomy can be a great asset, especially if you are concerned about the various physical workings of your body. But bear in mind these two caveats. First, recognize that a yoga teacher without a strong alignment/anatomy training background can still be a wonderful teacher—for example, maybe he/she is really good at teaching meditation (but you might consider learning new advanced postures under someone else’s tutelage). And second, recognize that just because a teacher might know a lot about alignment and anatomy does not mean that they will automatically understand your personal experience as a student. For example, just because you can anatomically place your knee over your ankle safely in warrior II, or stand on your forearms for headstand, does not mean that you are actually ready to do so, for whatever reasons.
Attempting to combine both our bodies and our souls in our attention sometimes leads to mixed messages—mainly because we are even less familiar with what our subtle body is telling us than our physical body. Sometimes our bodies will want to come out of or modify a certain posture… but perhaps our ego does not want to let go of that image. If you happen to notice that your body wants you to change something about a pose, please—honor that wish of your body! It is extremely important to recognize physical harm—in fact, we don’t do it often enough.
Ultimately, letting go of a posture in response to the needs of our physical body will also support the needs of our emotional and intellectual bodies—even if it doesn’t feel like it at first. Our ego wants us to do that awesome scorpion pose, and we might confuse that desire with a need stemming from the emotional body to feel more confident or open-minded, for example. But if our physical body is not ready for that pose, then we definitely will not be able to address any needs of the emotional body. Indeed, if our emotional body does need those particular attentions, then we can just as easily find a solution without doing a pose that could potentially harm our physical bodies.
¹ For example, William Broad’s NYTimes pieces on Men’s Yoga Injuries and How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body. I also really appreciate J Brown’s recognition of the delicate balance between medicine/doctors’ insights and our own personal abilities to take care of ourselves, shown, for example, in his piece on Unimposing Yoga.
Photo taken by Maggie at Japanese Tea Garden, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, CA. 2013.