[Photo by Lauren Nelson] One of the trademark poses in yoga…
The practice of yoga is certainly known for its innumerable physical and mental benefits, but when practiced without respecting one’s own limits it can incur into injury. The good news is that yoga-related injuries are minor and infrequent. Still, I will highlight the most common ones and give you some guidelines as to how to prevent them.
The lower portion of the spine tends to be a sensitive area since most humans spend most of their day sitting down. Maintaining the spine in a flexed position over long periods of time weakens the back. When carried over to the yoga mat this weakness can become aggravated by poses that hyper-flex or hyperextend the spine.
To safeguard your back, first of all, don’t bounce while in a yoga pose. Those sudden movements can easily cause a muscle spasm that could last up to a few days. Also, try to always keep your knees slightly bent, especially when you fold forward over straight legs. This tiny action will simultaneously prevent overloading your low back and protect your knees from hyperextension.
In terms of back-bending, be sure to prepare your upper thoracic spine with a sequence that gradually opens the heart area. Some of my favorite preparatory postures include lunge-twists and cobra pose variations. When in a backbend, you want to avoid any pinching or discomfort in your lumbar region. If this happens, come out of the pose and ask your teacher for help.
Over-stretched hamstrings are a common yoga-related injury; I’ve experienced it a few times myself. If you’ve pulled one of your hamstrings you will notice a sharp pain in the back of your thigh (near your sit bone) when you walk, sit and bend forward. A pulled hamstring is not a serious injury but it is annoying since it affects your flexibility. Suddenly you can’t bend forward as deeply as you could before.
If you have a hamstring injury, it is important that you don’t quit your yoga practice all together, as prolonged periods of rest may aggravate the situation. To fully recover, you’ll need to learn how to modify your practice for the duration of your convalescence, about 3 months. The usual recommendation is to bend the knees in all forward folds and to back off slightly when you notice any pain or disomfort in the injured area.
If you can’t comfortably sit in lotus pose why not try one of it’s easier variations? Knee injuries are incredibly disabling and must be avoided at all costs. Whenever you feel discomfort in your knees during your practice, seek out a more comfortable position.
The study of anatomy proves that we tend to force the knee joint (in yoga) when our hips are not open enough. To avoid damaging your ligaments, you need to work patiently and steadily towards opening your hips. David Kiel, author and blogger at www.yoganatomy.com, has produced some very useful videos on how to prepare the hips for padmasana, (lotus pose). I have attached the links here and here.
I read somewhere that most yoga injuries have to do with one’s ego, as in that tendency to push forward into a pose no matter what the consequences. I’ve fallen into that trap of a few times myself and can guarantee that it leads nowhere. The general rule of thumb for cultivating a safe practice is to listen to the body and the breath at all times. Especially the breath! It will always give you away when you’re tying to force things.