Many seasoned practitioners can share their yoga war story. It may be the sickening “rrrrrip!” of a hamstring tear, a shoulder clunking out of place, or maybe a throbbing neck coming out of Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand). Though Yoga is rightly credited with healing mind, body and soul, it isn’t without its risks.
But, with a little knowledge and body awareness, you don’t have to create your own yoga war story.
Hamstring injuries in yoga come in two ways: over time bit by bit or all once, like a bolt of red-hot lighting at the area of the sitz bone.
Watch out for any forward-folding pose and poses that put you in a splits position, such as Hanumanasana (Splits) or Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Forward Fold). Think of it as an exercise in presence and body awareness as you track the connection between your hamstring and sitz bone. Keep at least a little bit of muscular energy running through your thigh (think of lifting your knee cap) as you deepen into the fold. Finally, and most importantly, never go past the point of pain in your pose. While yoga can deepen flexibility, it shouldn’t come at the expense of pain.
Sarvangasana (Shoulderstand) is under scrutiny thanks to a New York Times article that linked the pose to cervical-disk injuries. In some cases, the injuries were so extreme that they impeded the flow of blood to the brain. Salamba Sirsasana (Headstand) is another pose to practice carefully for its risk of spinal compression.
You can always avoid these poses altogether, which may be the best option for new yogis. The next best option is using props. A folded blanket at the line of the shoulders with the head resting on the floor offers the neck more space to keep the vertebrae safe. Finally, never move your neck when fully in any pose that places tension in the neck.
Yoga poses such as Kapotasana (Pigeon Pose) ask the knee to move side-to-side instead of the forward-and-back that it’s designed to do. Such movement can cause pain in the ligament. This is also true of poses that ask for extreme flexion in the knee, such as Virasana (Hero Pose).
As with hamstring safety, the best way to support your knee is by engaging the thigh and keeping a small bend. Engage your feet and all the muscles throughout the length of the leg to support the delicate knee. In seated and supine (lying down) poses, use props such as blocks and blankets to give yourself height and take pressure off the knee.
Knee pain in a pose like Padmasana (Lotus Pose) comes from a very different source – the hips. This is because the pose requires opening in the ball-and-socket connect between the hip and the thigh bone. If you feel knee pain in half or full Lotus, don’t crank your way into the pose by forcing the ankle to cross the bottom thigh. Instead, spend time softening into the hips, thereby increasing external rotation.
See also A Few Words About Padmasana or Look After Your Knees
In yoga styles such as Ashtanga and Vinyasa Flow, you move through a countless number of Adho Mukha Shvanasanas (Downward-Facing Dog). Throw in a couple more weight-bearing poses like Handstand and Chaturanga Dandasanas (Crocodile Pose) and wrists can start to feel sore.
Though pain is felt in the wrists, it actually starts at the forearms. Modern-day life requires a lot of use at the top of the forearm, which underuses the underside, thus weakening it. To counter this, lift energy from the palm of your hand in poses like Adho Mukha Shvanasana and feel that energy radiating all the way up your arm. Also engage other parts of your body, such as shifting your hips back, to reduce the weight your wrists must support.