Yoga can be an incredibly nurturing and healing practice, but overdoing it or moving through postures with improper alignment can cause severe injury. That’s why it’s important to take precautions when practicing.

People with chronic pain should pay extra close attention to the signals their bodies send. While yoga may provide relief from pain and stress, chronic pain sufferers have unique physical restraints that may vary based upon the condition they’re experiencing.

Don’t let that scare you away, though. By following a set of precautions, it’s possible to reduce the risk of yoga injuries and enjoy the practice’s many health benefits, including increased strength, flexibility, diminished stress, and a greater sense of peace.

Here are a few things to keep in mind to avoid yoga injuries during practice.

Take a class with a qualified instructor

Watching yoga videos and practicing at home is a wonderful way to deepen your practice and make it easy to fit yoga in your schedule every day. However, because proper alignment is so important, it’s a good idea to take classes with qualified instructors when you’re first starting and any other time you wish to stop bad habits from forming.

Although many yoga videos include instruction on form, a live instructor will help you know for certain that you’re properly executing the poses. If you’re intimated, thinking that everyone in the class will be more advanced than you, don’t worry. Just focus on yourself and your own breathing knowing that no one is judging you. Use the live class as a practice in focusing on your breath and alignment, tuning into yourself and tuning out distraction.

Teachers can also help you find the best modifications to stay healthy and avoid yoga injuries during practice. Be sure to let the teacher know any areas of pain you’re experiencing so he or she can offer alternatives to specific poses, or mention those that are contraindicated.

Listen to your body

Yoga shouldn’t hurt. If it does, back off. Sometimes a pose may feel uncomfortable, but you should never feel sharp or shooting pain, especially in the knee or any joints.

It’s all to easy to push the body too hard in an effort to sink deeper into a pose, or through comparing yourself to another, more advanced practitioner. Some well-intentioned teachers also approach yoga aggressively, encouraging you to go further even if you know you’re at your limit. Always listen to your body when it comes to sensation, and not the teacher.

A saying in yoga is, “find your edge.” The edge is the place where you can still breathe deeply and fully, but feel a stretch. Keep in mind that in some strengthening poses, you may wobble or shake. This is completely normal. It’s pain that you want to look out for and avoid.

Keep the spine straight

Poses involving twists and forward folds are frequently done improperly with a bent spine, especially for people with tight hamstrings. Keeping a straight back is important in twists because a hunched spine could lead to compression in the vertebrae when the overall goal is expansion.

Forward folds are another area where people tend to strain the lumbar spine in an effort to sink more deeply into the pose than they’re ready for. Tight hamstrings and pelvic abnormalities can be impediments to folding deeply, but never sacrifice your spine in an effort to stretch further. These areas will open up with continued practice.

One issue that commonly affects forward folds is an anterior pelvic tilt. This happens when the pelvis tilts forward instead of having a vertical alignment. Anterior pelvic tilts are common in people who sit a lot.

If you’re sitting in a forward fold and feel like the spine is tipping backwards instead of forward, you may have this structural abnormality. Pressing forward with the spine will only put too much pressure on the lower back and could lead to injury.

To alleviate this issue, try putting a pillow or block underneath the sit bones to elevate the pelvis and make it easier to fold forward. Another option is to skip seated forward folds and instead lay on the back. Wrap a yoga strap or towel over a foot and, keeping one leg on the ground, lift the other leg to 90 degrees while holding the strap and enjoying a gentle, reclined stretch.

With standing forward folds, try bending the knees to take pressure off the hamstrings and lower back. These modifications allow you to enjoy the benefits of the poses without risking yoga injury.

Easy on the knees

When in poses like Warrior 1 and 2, which resemble lunges, keep your knee over your ankle. This helps to reduce stress in the knee and ensures the structural integrity of the leg.

The knee is a sensitive joint that does a lot. Avoid yoga injuries with the knee by paying attention to any weird sensations. Other yoga poses involve sitting on the ankles with the legs folded underneath, or even sitting in hero pose, on the floor, between the legs, with the knees bent and the feet tucked next to the hip bones.

These postures are healthy unless you have knee issues. If you do, feel free to sit on a pillow or block, or skip the pose all together. Never do anything that doesn’t feel right in your body.

Avoid locking the joints

In many basic poses, such as downward dog, the tendency is to want to lock the elbows and knees. Locking the joints places great pressure in them and can lead to injury later on. Leave a slight bend in the joints and work on firing up the muscles that support them to create a strong support system and avoid yoga injuries.

Go easy without expectation

Muscles have varying levels of strength and flexibility throughout the day and from day to day. Muscles are typically tighter in the morning and loosen up as the day goes on, but some days involve more tightness than others.

Know that the body changes from day to day, and try not to push yourself into a pose even if it may have come easily the day or week before. Give the body time to warm up, stretching only as far as feels good, and then sink deeper into the postures as the muscles loosen.

What are your tips for avoiding yoga injuries?

Image by Eli Christman via Flickr

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