There are many reasons why someone might start practising yoga. Sometimes this reason is due to injury.
They are recommended to try yoga by their doctor, use yoga asana as part of their rehab, or are looking for a form of movement that is less impactful and more nourishing.
Yoga asana certainly can help with certain injuries – in the right context and with great care. It also can help prevent future injuries, helping us build mobility and strength as well as create a stronger ability to interocept and listen to the body before we get to the point of pushing it to injury.
People don’t often think of yoga causing injuries. However, there are many extremely common yoga injuries. And as more people incorporate yoga asana into their lives I can imagine this rising.
Common yoga injuries can include everything from overstretching the hips and the hamstrings to putting too much pressure on wrists, shoulders, necks and knees.
Here I have listed 5 ways we can avoid injuring ourselves in our asana practice, so we can carry on practising happily and healthily throughout our lives.
1. Leave your ego at the door.
This is my first tip, and also my most important and essential tip. If you do nothing else, then this tip will 100% prevent so many yoga injuries. It is also probably the hardest tip to follow.
Before we get into it, I want to clarify, the ‘ego’ is not an inherently bad thing. The ego is something we all have and need to operate in society. However sometimes the ego can get our way, and in this case, it can push us into doing things we are not ready or equipped for. The ego is the queen of comparison, and seeing others in a room who are able to do something makes us want to do that thing too. Even if we end up hurting ourselves in the process.
Yoga is a journey to the self. It is a journey of deep connection, and this requires stripping away the ego or being able to at least see and feel beyond it. Yet so often when we enter a gym or studio setting, the ego will not dissipate. In fact, it will be screaming louder than ever, if we don’t keep it in check. This applies often to beginner practitioners, but can also apply to advanced practitioners who may want to push themselves even further because they think they ’should’ be able to do something by now.
This tip is hard, but I encourage you to leave your ego at the door and enter your yoga practice humbly, with no expectation, and with an open mind. I encourage you to enter with a respect for your body and your own limitations, rather than a desire to push. When we approach our practice from a place of humbleness and free from the ego, we are less likely to push ourselves, less likely to compare ourselves, and more likely to listen to our bodies. Crucially, we are more likely to actually ENJOY our practice, because we are in the moment instead of looking around and trying to do what everyone else is doing. And isn’t that what we all actually want and need from our practice?
2. Bring in other elements of yoga
Despite what is promoted in the west, yoga is not JUST asana. It’s not just movement. And there’s a lot more to it than that. And bringing the other essential elements into your practice will help prevent injury. But why?
No, it’s not because you’ll spend less time moving around.
Two key yogic practices are pranayama – breathing techniques, and meditation. Both of these tools can help immensely when it comes to both injury management AND injury prevention.
Pranayama brings awareness and focus to our breath. Our breath is essential – it is our life force. Our prana. And discussing breath and pranayama is worthy of a whole post in of itself. When we start to incorporate breathing practices, we start to breath better in our asana practice as well. This helps us slow down and brings focus, which allows us to better feel into the body, and develop our interoception – which is essentially our ability to perceive what is going on within the body.
Meditation similarly helps us tune in with the subtle energies in our body and quiet the mind (as well as the booming voice of the ego) which helps us to learn what feels good and what doesn’t, and helps us to avoid pushing ourselves.
Pranayama and Meditation also helps manage existing injuries. We can manage pain and also stress levels, helping us with our healing.
As well as these practical tools, other elements of yoga such as the yamas and niyamas provide moral codes of conduct for us to live our lives by. I won’t go into all of these, but these include principles such as non-violence (ahimsa) and honesty (satya). When we apply these to our bodies and injury management, we can clearly see that these principles encourage fostering a more respectful and honest relationship with ourselves. By living our lives more in line with yogic principles both on AND off the mat, we can live more in harmony with our bodies, thus helping to prevent injuries which occur through pushing ourselves.
3. Work on your strength
One of the most common ways we injure ourselves in yoga asana is by repeatedly doing a movement that requires a lot of strength without the pre-existing strength and integrity to back it up (hello Chaturanga and shoulder injuries) OR from stretching out muscles too much, without the strength in and around these muscles to balance out all these stretching.
Modern yoga, especially people’s perception of yoga from things like Instagram, has a real emphasis on FLEXIBILITY (even though I do think this is thankfully changing as more and more people are becoming interested in functional fitness), so people go into yoga thinking that they need to stretch all the time, so that they have more flexibility in their muscles and can then do all the insta-worthy, super-bendy postures they see like hanumanasana (the splits).
People often think they have tight muscles, so these tight muscles need stretching. Actually we tend to have WEAK muscles, which are also tight. We have weak hamstrings, hip flexors, and glutes, from sitting down much of the day and living relatively inactive lifestyles. When we then go into our yoga practice and repeatedly stretch these already weak muscles, we are compromising the muscle integrity and leading to injuries.
I have done this personally many times with my hip. I have extremely tight hips, especially in my left hip flexor. I was repeatedly stretching this out, hoping for some release. Instead, I kept hurting the hip, and would have an aching hip for days at a time after stretching.
It took me a long while to realise what was happening. It took me until learning more about anatomy, common injuries and also common patterns within our current society to realise that I actually had weak hips, as well as other weak muscles around this which were adding to my comprised hips, such as tight glutes, hamstrings, and a tight core. This was affecting my hip strength but also my entire posture. I started to work on strengthening my hips and glutes, and utilising ACTIVE stretching more than passive stretching. I started to come to my practice from a place of mobility over flexibility. If I had carried on unaware, I would have continued to damage my hip – possibly beyond repair.
It takes time to really learn what’s going on within our bodies, however, I urge you to work on strengthening your body and focusing on mobility. You can do this within your practice, but it is also really helpful to incorporate other forms of movement which will help build strength and will compliment your practice beautifully. This is a sure-fire way to help reduce your chance of injury.
4. Communicate with your teacher
Tell your teacher at the beginning of the class about any injuries – new or old, any concerns you have, or any patterns of weakness. Tell them about any postures or movements which are uncomfortable for you, the level of assists you are comfortable with (if any), and your current levels of activity and any rehabilitation you are doing for existing injuries.
It's important your teacher is aware of what is going on, but also they will be able to offer you support and advice on what to do and what not to do in your practice. They can also offer alternatives when teaching asana that may be a limit to you. If you tell your teacher you have no injuries when in fact you do, and are also giving consent to assists without informing them of injuries, at best you are not getting the best support you deserve in a class. At worse you could end up injuring yourself further in the class by trying a posture you should be avoiding or receiving an assist that hurts you.
5. Your injuries are lessons
Even though it’s important to take steps to prevent injuries, ultimately we all get injuries at some point – especially if we live active lifestyles. This may be through yoga asana but it may be through other activities we do regularly.
Each injury we do end up with is an opportunity to learn more and to delve deeper. In the last year, I’ve had so many injuries from the minor (pains in my hip flexor or SI joint) to the major (a broken bone). Each injury has given me the opportunity to learn more about my body and my own limitations. This learning then pushes me to seek out more knowledge. If I end up with pains or aches or weird postural habits, I am inclined to research what may be causing this and what I can do to rectify it.
It’s not only lessons on this very physical and practical plane that we can learn though. Injuries can also teach us really important life lessons. Lessons like patience, kindness, compassion, the importance of slowing down and developing inner awareness. From our downfalls, we can find growth and transformation in the process of healing. Injuries can be a source of frustration, but when we change our mindset to view our injuries as lessons, we can become grateful in the spaces which once held us back.
The above is not a definitive list and does not go into specific injuries, however hopefully gives you a good insight of what we can do to prevent yoga Injuries, and also how important and essential MINDSET is in what we do. Mindset can make the difference between whether we push our bodies or respect our boundaries. Whether we ask for help or suffer alone. And whether, when we do sustain injuries, we grow from the experience or we just grow in frustration.
Have you ever suffered an injury due to your yoga practice? And are there any tips you would add to the above list?