The practice of yoga relieves pain, improves posture, and heals the mind from stress and anxiety. Because yoga has been proven to be therapeutic, many practice this form of exercise and way of living every single day. As a result, injury can occur due to incorrect form, repetitive activity, and attempting postures not intended for certain body types. Consequentially, repetition with misalignment over a long period of time can cause irreversible damage.
Yoga should heal not hurt, so it is important to be gentle with movement once stepping onto the mat. Injury occurs when pushing or manipulating limbs and joints to go deeper into a posture. The use of blocks and blankets for support is a safer way to transition into postures that could ultimately lead to injury.
Another cause for pain and damage is to rush through a movement when the body is too cold or misaligned. Carelessly throwing the body around in class is recipe for pain, discomfort and permanent damage.
Try to bring body awareness and technique into class in order to maintain a lifelong yoga practice without injury. Either skip yoga postures that do not feel safe or support the body fully with props when they are offered in a group class.
Below are common yoga poses that can hurt the body.
Half Pigeon pose, King Pigeon pose, Double Pigeon pose.
Half pigeon pose and other variations are postures meant to stretch the groin, inner/outer thigh, and release muscles surrounding the hips (i.e., piriformis, gluteus maximus/medius, and tensor fascia latae). Injuries from these postures are known to occur with the hip and knee because the hip is externally rotated placing tons of pressure on the front knee. Many make the mistake of sliding the shin parallel to the front of the mat and flexing the front foot at the same time. This will add much more strain to the knee joint as the femur (thigh bone) and tibia (shin bone) are compressed. Instead, keep the front foot closer to the opposite hip to release the knee joint.
When practitioners move beyond their appropriate range of motion (also known as hyper mobility) this action can cause pain and damage to the hip joints, knee and surrounding muscles. Along with those who are hyper mobile, it is common to see pushing or forcing the knees down in pigeon poses. This can ultimately cause injury to the knees, nearby tendons, ligaments, and bones.
One variance between certain body types is the placement of the hip joints and where they are arranged on the pelvis. The femur bone articulates with the hip at the acetabulum (socket of the hip bone) in different points on each person. This varied degree of placement can alter the range of motion in this posture for everyone.
Half pigeon and double pigeon is often less accessible for men than women, because of the huge difference between the male and female pelvis. A female acetabulum lays anteriorly (front) and medially (middle) and a male acetabulum is more lateral (on the side of the body). Because of this, a woman’s pelvis has more movement and flexibility where a man’s pelvis will have less mobility and flexibility. The location of the hip socket on women, will allow their knees to come closer to the floor then men in double pigeon. Do not force rotation at this hip joint as the knee will compensate for that rotation, which will overstretch the ligaments of the surrounding areas.
Place one or more blankets underneath the thigh from hip to knee to support the femur bone. This will also prop the leg up and prevent a sinking action into the hip for hyper mobile students. The blanket support will strengthen the muscles surrounding the hips and align the femur and tibia properly.
Four Limbed Staff Pose.
Chaturanga Dandasana is a common posture in vinyasa, ashtanga and power yoga classes. When performed properly, this action can be an overall body toner as well as a strength builder in the upper back, shoulders and arms. Because of the aggressive repetition of chaturanga in many classes, injury can occur in the rotator cuff, elbows, and wrists.
Chaturanga Dandasana is a difficult posture to achieve correctly. Generally, with beginning practitioners, the elbows splay outward and the hips sag below the line of the body as there is not enough upper body and core strength to support the posture. (In some cases an instructor will have students drop to their knees.) Another common misalignment is lowering the tips of the shoulders down first which can cause a tear in the rotator cuff and build muscle tone unevenly in the shoulder girdle.
If Chaturanga Dandasana does not feel right, skip it in class or limit the number of times it is performed. If the yogi wants to keep the flow in class, take these steps for a safer practice.
Place blocks shoulder width distance at the top of the mat. Place hands behind the blocks and come to a plank position. Protract the shoulders (scapula moves away from the midline of the body) by pressing the floor away, lower down half way until the front of shoulders meet the blocks. Keep the hips in line with the rest of the body. Maintain all actions at once. This will align shoulders with the elbows creating a 90 degree angle with elbows over wrist. The joints will be stacked accordingly which will help avoid elbow/wrist injury.
Do this same action with knees to the floor and work on tricep pushups to strengthen the triceps, pectorals, and shoulder muscles.
Salamba Sirasana — Headstand
Headstand is a common posture that can be eagerly attempted and rushed through. Some practitioners believe inversions are the master postures of all yoga and want to attempt headstand before they are ready. Injury to the neck and cervical spine can occur from this misunderstanding. The practitioner should have the strength in their arms, shoulders and abdominals in order to properly hold the body up in headstand. If there is not sufficient amount of support in all of these muscles, the weight of the body falls on the neck and tiny cervical vertebrae that are not meant for weight bearing. This is extremely injurious on the body which is why instructors stress not kicking up. Stress or strain on the neck and cervical spine is extremely dangerous. Do not attempt head stand if you are new to the practice and are in a large group classes. One on one attention should be given here as the instructor should assess if inverting is appropriate for your body.
Yoga can relieve pain that has developed from injury or environmental circumstances caused by everyday activity. With proper form, yoga can heal the body from pain, lengthen and stretch stiff muscles, and cultivate a healthy way of living. Be safe and move with intention and ease. Think of the body as a brand new car. A new car is treated with care and safety, protecting it from harmful surroundings. The same goes for the body. Keep movements safe, drive slow and proceed with caution. Bodies are the vehicle for life.
Biel, Andrew. Trail Guide to the Body: A hands on guide to locating muscles, bones and more. 4th edition, Books of Discovery. 1997.
Leal, Kristin. Anatomy of a Yogi, Vol 1. 2014.