Yoga is like any other activity – for the most part, incredibly safe, fun and enjoyable. However, there are a few key things to keep in mind when you’re practicing yoga. These safety reminders will help you to avoid injury, put less stress on your joints and optimize the health benefits that yoga provides.
(1) Contract your abdominals – You’ll hear this instruction in most yoga classes, typically right before moving into a new posture or out of the current posture. The reason why a slight contraction of the abdominals is so important is mainly to protect our backs. Our back muscles were not designed to hold us upright, but our ab muscles were. However, it’s extremely easy to not use your abdominals, which puts all the strain into your back. Don’t hold them so tight you can’t breathe, just a slight squeeze. As an added bonus, you’ll build core strength more quickly.
(2) Never let your knee extend past your ankle – There are several poses in yoga where this is likely to happen – low lunge, high lunge, warrior series, side angle pose, etc. Most likely you won’t even feel pain or discomfort from this common misalignment, but over time you are damaging your knees. And you don’t want to wait until you feel pain to do a course correction. So when you’re doing yoga with one leg forward and bent, just check that front knee and if necessary, walk that foot more forward. You’ll be glad you followed this guideline when you’re 80 and still have your knees.
(3) Don’t hold your breath. This one isn’t so much of a high priority safety rule as it is just a good overall reminder. If you hold your breath or even breath shallowly during yoga class, not only are you missing a big part of yoga but you’re going to likely not feel so great later. Your teacher will likely give you cues or reminders to breathe throughout class. Even if your inclination is to hold your breath (you’re probably concentrating really hard), don’t do it! Breathe – long, deep, delicious breaths that nourish you.
(4) Be cautious if you’re going upside down – Many yoga classes include inversion poses where you go upside down – Shoulder Stand, Head Stand, etc. If you’re practicing inversion poses, here are a few things to keep in mind: If you have any neck or back issue or injuries at all, check with your doctor first to see if it’s okay for you to do these poses. If in doubt, skip them altogether. You can relax on your back or in Child’s Pose, or ask your teacher for another pose with similar benefits. (There’s a great easy version of Shoulder Stand you can do but you will need a bolster or cushion to do it properly.) Many experts recommend not practicing inversions if you’re menstruating. So ladies, it may be a good idea to skip these poses during your period. Lastly, never ever turn your head when you’re in an inversion pose. Your cervical spine is being compressed, so turning your head in this position could result in a terrible injury. Despite all of this, when done properly inversion yoga poses can be incredibly safe, effective and beneficial. They provide fresh circulation to the brain and facial muscles, reverse varicose veins and they teach us how to respond when life (literally) turns our world upside down.
(5) Protect your wrists. The wrists can be a delicate area of our bodies and because many of us are using a computer all day long for work, this puts even more strain on our wrists, which can often lead to overuse injuries like Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. When doing common yoga poses that put pressure on your wrists like Cat/Cow or Downward Facing Dog, remember to spread out your fingers and evenly distribute the weight throughout your entire hand and wrist. Be sure you’re also not rolling to the outside edge of each wrist, which is a common mistake people make. Despite this caution, poses that put pressure on your wrists are incredibly beneficial – they strengthen the wrists by stimulating your body to produce more bone mass and hence preventing osteoporosis, which is a bone loss disease that starts around the mid 30’s.
(6) Leave your ego at the door – It’s quite often our ego that leads to an injury in yoga class. We see everyone else doing a challenging pose and we want to do it too, even though we may have a pre-existing condition or injury, may not be ready to do this pose or know that it’s way beyond our ability. Instead of showing off in class or just blindly doing everything the teacher guides you to do, instead have a conversation with yourself throughout class: Does that hurt? Does this feel good? Does my body bend that way or am I forcing it? A key giveaway that you’re not ready to do a particular yoga pose is if you are holding your breath, straining in any way or grunting and groaning. Leave your ego at the door when you come to class. Be mindful as you practice and only do what truly serves you.
(7) Listen to your body – Similar to #6, have a sense of curiosity about yourself and be mindful whenever you practice yoga. Don’t do anything that hurts, doesn’t seem right or goes against what your physician has told you. Above all, use common sense.
Practice these tips and your yoga practice will always be safe and enjoyable.