Yoga is often regarded as a tool for healing and recovery, so people can be surprised when their practice results in an injury. But yoga is also an intensely physical system of movements, and any time you move from one position to the next, you are at some risk of injury. Falls, twists and overloading can all result in strain and injury, and just as much as yoga can help you recover and heal from injury, it can occasion it as well. First we’ll explore how yoga can aid in recovery, and then we’ll look at how deviations from the healing characteristics of yoga can lead to pain and breakdown, and how to avoid it.
These are the qualities of a healing yoga practice that account for its healthy effects:
Yoga helps recovery because when performed properly, yoga poses capitalize on the natural stability and alignment of the skeleton. The strength developed in performing yoga postures is developed slowly using body weight resistance and is complemented by the lengthening of opposing muscles. Yoga relies upon breath to organize movement and when movement is truly animated by breath alignment and thus stability is enhanced. Yoga works in incremental ways as opposed to giant leaps of transformation, so that strength, flexibility and mobility are enhanced in a sustainable and elegant fashion. The movements of yoga take into account the inherent integrity of the body and are meant to be engaged and expressed fully by every part of the body simultaneously, so that the structure of the body, the skeleton and all its joints, are protected by the muscular engagement coordinated by the muscles’ connecting covering, the fascia. Thus the fascia are also incrementally lubricated and made supple along with the underlying musculature. Finally, yoga consciously incorporates rest for the neurological integration of the muscular, connective tissue, cardiovascular and hormonal changes effected during the course of practice. Breath and rest are necessary not only as breaks to evaluate the pace and rigor of a practice, but are integrated into the postures themselves in a way that teaches us to bring both activity and rest to our entire lives.
When any of these principles is compromised, the very same movements that heal put the body at risk for injury. While this may seem counter-intuitive, consider that nothing is good in and of itself. Every object and activity has its purposes, limits and appropriate uses. When used to excess or without discipline or in a lazy manner, even the most benign thing can become injurious. When the body is misaligned, de-stabilized, pressed into position or made to support more than its own weight, when pressure is applied from the outside or the body forced to an expression beyond its current capacity, or when the supporting musculature isn’t properly engaged, the structures the join and support the skeleton are put at risk.
Here are some of the specific injuries being seen more commonly in yoga. Protect yourself from these and other injuries by paying close attention to alignment, working with a qualified teacher, muscularly engaging the entire body in every pose, moving with breath to an edge that’s appropriate for your body in the moment you are practicing, and not allowing your ego to entice you into attempting postures for which you’re not completely prepared. When in doubt, consult your teacher.
Shoulders - Plank/Chaturanga
The rotator cuff is a set of small muscles meant to allow for a great range of motion. When lowering from Plank to Chaturanga, keep the heads of the arm bones fully integrated into the shoulder rather than extended away from the shoulder blades. You can get a sense of this difference by reaching your arms in front of you: notice how you can draw your arm bones all the way back and feel a stopping point, where your chest will be broad and open, or you can reach your arms out and away, but your strength will be reduced and your upper back begin to round. The out and away position is not aligned or stable for bearing your weight in Plank/Chaturanga. Keep the arm bones integrated into the shoulders, with your elbows close to your sides and your upper back unrounded.
Knees - Lunge Positions/Kneeling
In many standing poses, the lunge position is the foundation. When the knee is bent in a weight bearing leg, the knee should be no further forward than the ankle. To jut the knee forward of the ankle places undue forces on the ligaments of the knee. The knee should be centered over the ankle and not bowing inwards. This inwards bow can strain the ligaments that keep the joint together and strong. Use the muscles of the thigh to draw the knee over the ankle, toward the little toe side of the foot.
Wrists - Down Dog/ Arm Balances
In Downward Facing Dog and arm balances, the wrists can become fatigued from imbalanced loading. This is avoidable by pressing the entire hand - palm and fingers - into the surface beneath, thereby distributing the load and not compromising the delicate bone structure of the wrist.
Falls - Balances, Inversions
Falls usually occur from a lack of muscular engagement and attempting too early or without proper support. Most falls are uneventful, and learning how to come out of poses is part of learning how to be in them. However, if you haven’t cleared enough space you may fall on an object that can inflict harm. Additionally, if you haven’t maintained awareness and engagement in your core and limbs evenly, the jolt of a fall can cause strains. Remember to keep your core engaged, belly button to spine at minimum. Remember that the muscles of every limb should be awake and drawn close to the bones.
Necks - Shoulderstand/Headstand
The alignment of your neck is of supreme importance. Your neck and head should never bear the weight of the body; even in head stand, your forearms and elbows form a structure for supporting the weight of the body so it is not fully loading the neck and head. If you have any neck pain, injury, compromise or misalignment seek qualified guidance before any attempt at advanced inversions. While some may be healing under the intelligent guidance of a teacher, there is no reason to risk them if you have any doubt. Downward Facing Dog, Legs Up the Wall and even Bridge are excellent alternatives, all delivering benefits of inversion without the risk.
Keep yourself safe and your yoga effective. Pay attention the basics of alignment, keep your whole body engaged in every pose, move with the breath making incremental progress and never pushing past obstacles. Observe the basic principles and you’ll be practicing yoga with strength, flexibility and vigor for the rest of your life!