A record-breaking 30 million people are now down-dogging throughout the United States, and 14 million of those Americans were told to give yoga a try from their physician or physical therapist. The reason is solely not for the relaxation factor. Regularly practicing yoga has a host of benefits, like lowering stress levels, helping you sleep better, increasing flexibility, strength, and cardiovascular endurance. Unfortunately, the benefits of a yoga practice can be coupled with the risk of injury.
In 2016, a study was published in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine that looked at the yoga-related injuries in the US from 2001 to 2014. During the span of time, 29,590 yoga-related injuries were reported, with most of those incidences happening after 2007.
So what’s happening? Why are more people getting injured? And how can you protect yourself from the common yoga-related injuries?
You’ve come to the right place. Here are the common yoga-related injuries occur and how you can prevent pain during asanas:
Head and shoulder stands have a reputation for inflicting more than just a headache. Neck pain and injury are common, and if you continuously find yourself repeatedly placing your hand on the mat incorrectly, you are compressing the neck and putting undue pressure on the cervical spine. This can result in loss of neck flexion, joint issues, and chronic pain.
Past neck injuries can be exacerbated with backbends, like Upward-Facing Dog, Lotus, Bridge, Cobra, and Camel. Avoid backbends if you are recovering from a neck injury. As you gain more range of motion in the cervical spine, work with a registered yoga therapist and use props to help you build strength before attempting a full twist or back bend.
Many people come into a yoga class with one question: “What can I do to loosen up my tight hips?” Yoga instructors are happy to offer poses to open up the hips, but anatomically, the tightness in hips can be caused from wear and tear, as well as tightness from a sedentary lifestyle. Even if you have lived an active lifestyle, the cartilaginous sections of the joint will wear away with time.
When you go into a yoga class and start using the maximum range of motion of the hips, pushing yourself to the extreme, you can irritate the already compromised joint. This can create painful inflammation that could transform into arthritis.
So, ask yourself, do you really need to go that deep? Every Trikonasana (Triangle), Crescent Lunge, and Uttanasana (Forward Fold) doesn’t have to put pressure on your hips—and you shouldn’t be forcing yourself to “go deeper.” One way to work the body without maximizing the stretch is to contract antagonist muscles. For example, in Forward Fold, you should contract the quadriceps (cued as “lifting the knees”) to help deepen the sensation in your hamstrings.
And remember: Always bend the knees!
Does the thought of plank, side plank, handstand, crow, and downward facing dog make your wrists ache? The wrist is a tiny joint that is constantly being used, especially by those who have desk work or text often. Since yoga has a tendency to incorporate asanas that utilize the wrist, the pressure can start to inflame the wrist joint, leading to sprains, tendinitis, and carpel tunnel.
Always think about the alignment of the wrist, arm, and shoulder. You should warm up your wrists, too, before exerting force on them. When in postures like plank, push through the palm and fingertips.
Other things to prevent wrist injury include:
- Keeping your palms flat on the mat. Do not “cup” the floor.
- Don’t let the fingers turn inward.
- Place your knees on the floor to modify while building strength in the wrists and shoulders.
- Don’t flare the shoulders out. Keep them tucked into the spine.
Shoulder & Elbow Injuries
What’s the most common correction in a yoga class? Right, “relax the shoulders.” When the shoulders creep up towards the ears, the muscles that support the neck, shoulders, and neck are hindered from working. This means you’re compressing the shoulders, losing out on stability, and could tear your shoulder girdle or rotator cuff. Some yogis have even dislocated the shoulder joint by shrugging and then trying to over-stretch.
Elbow pain is caused by flaring the elbows out to the side in postures like chaturanga. There’s a reason why your instructor tells you to squeeze your elbows into your sides. If you don’t do this, the pressure will move through the elbow and to the wrists.
Lower Back Injuries
The most cited yoga injury is the low back. The reason is the rounding of the spine in asana like downward dog or keeping the knees straight or pushed back. Rounding, in particular, will flex the spine awkwardly, putting pressure on the discs and low back muscles. Forcing elongation by not bending the knees can irritate the low back and hips. Additionally, this can injure the sacroiliac (SI) joint, which supports the spine and connects the sacrum to the pelvis.
Remember to soften the knees and use the contraction of the upper thigh to help stabilize your body while working through postures like Warrior III and Half Moon.
If you have a tendency to round the spine, bending the knees is even more important. Slow down, breath, and focus on keeping the back straight rather than aiming for reaching the floor. Also, engage the core muscles as you exhale. This helps support the low back muscles.
When you feel discomfort or pain in the knees during yoga class, it is most often a side effect of tight hips or preexisting problems. If your knees are already weak or having been previously affected by tears, you need to be careful. A 2012 study found that yoga can lead to meniscus tears—which is the reason your instructor will remind you to never let the knee go beyond the toes in lunges. Furthermore, you should never allow the knee to cave inward or just outward for the same reason. When the knees move inward, you are putting pressure on the low back and hips. Outward exerts force on the ACL of the knee.
Again, that micro-bend in the knees is essential, as is keeping the knees in line with toes. Whichever direction the toes point, so too should the knees.
Hamstrings get hurt when you fold forward without using the abdominals and quadriceps for stability. For the hamstrings, less is always more. Stop pushing through the hips in lunges, because that will lead to pulled muscles, sprains and strains. Keep the knees slightly bent in poses involving forward folds. Focus on alignment, control, and slow movements.
Get On With The Om
Now that you know how to avoid yoga-related injuries, you can deepen your practice without pushing yourself to the brink of injury. Be careful and listen to your body. Yoga is meant to teach us that our body can do amazing things, but sometimes the simplest of postures are the most helpful.
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