Ahimsa, an important tenet of yoga philosophy, means the avoidance of violence. This includes violence towards others and violence towards oneself as well. The best way to protect your self while practicing yoga is to practice ahimsa. I am often asked the question “What is good pain vs bad pain”. In my opinion the word pain=violence. Therefore, I teach my students that pain is not what we are striving for and if something hurts modify the posture or lose it
Anyone can work on a pose if it is broken down and modified. I consider pain different from the sensation of discomfort experienced while stretching tight muscles or the effort and possible discomfort involved in holding a pose for a long period of time. Asanas (yoga postures) should always be steady and comfortable. If we use our breath and practice with mindfulness and correct alignment the body will naturally open and blossom. If we push, pull, and practice with force we will create more tension and contraction in our bodies and most likely sustain injuries.
People who begin practicing yoga to heal injuries may have no idea that yoga carries risks. Common injuries range from torn cartilage in the knees to joint problems and sprained necks. Most yoga injuries occur when students are over-zealous and push themselves or are pushed by their teachers to “achieve” a certain pose.
We need to be very aware not only of our own egos and intentions but those of our instructors as well. There are some schools of yoga where the instructors are taught to be tough, using boot camp style language and techniques and even their entire body weight to force a student into a pose! I will never pinpoint or criticize any style of yoga. However, based on personal experience, I believe that this harsh approach may work for a 10-year-old Gumby boy or girl but for anyone over 10 beware! I still have back pain and scar tissue from being lifted off the floor into the air by my hands and feet like a human Jack-O -Lantern while practicing bow pose. The teacher in question is a highly regarded instructor (no names mentioned of coarse). Harsh adjustments can be especially dangerous for very flexible people who can be pushed deeply into a pose without realizing that they are being injured.
The best advice to protect yourself from yoga injuries is to get to know your body. Listen to it and have respect and compassion for every little muscle and joint in your body. Become aware of your strengths and weaknesses and study with a teacher who you know and trust over a period of time. If you are a beginner and it is possible, try and take a couple of private classes with your teacher before joining their group class. This way the teacher will get to know your body and specific needs, which are difficult to discern in a crowded yoga class. Take into account and be aware of your pre-existing ailments, limitations and fitness level. Tell your yoga instructor before class about any pre-existing conditions. A good instructor will always ask new students at the beginning of class if anyone has an injury.
Many people become yoga instructors without sufficient training and/or experience. Find an instructor who has extensive teaching experience and is very alignment conscious. Do not be intimidated by a teacher. Do not let them push you into a pose or adjust you aggressively!
Postures practiced without proper alignment, technique, modification and usage of crucial props (such as blankets for shoulder stands) can cause serious damage. The most common yoga related injuries are hamstring strains, especially at the point where they attach to the sitting bones, which can occur when pushing or pulling too hard in a forward bend. Be sure to keep your feet flexed and your legs rooting deeply into the earth as you bend forward. Keep your upper body long and relaxed and use your breath to take you deeper. Never use your upper body strength to pull you into a forward bend (or pop goes the hamstring!).
To protect the knees never force them into Padmasana ( Lotus Pose ) Make sure when bending at the knee in standing poses (such as the warrior poses ) that the knee is in direct alignment with the ankle pointing towards the second or third toe. The most common pose to cause injury is the shoulder stand. Beginners can start with their legs up the wall or without blankets under the hips in Viparita Karani. Even more experienced practitioners would be wise to use one, two or even three blankets under the upper body to protect the delicate vertebrae of the neck.
I did not write this blog to discourage anyone from practicing yoga, only to inform and hopefully protect those with an on going practice and those who would like to begin a practice. Yoga is still one of the fastest growing forms of exercise and its benefits far outweigh the risks. It is a form of exercise that is generating fewer and less costly insurance claims than other types of exercise. And at the end of the day, as yoga is a physical practice it is not possible to prevent all injuries. However, I believe that it is ultimately the responsibility of the yoga instructor to protect their students even from themselves.