Tips for Practicing Safe and Smart Yoga
by Diana Zotos
It’s National Yoga Awareness Month! Yoga is everywhere these days, and there’s a good chance that you or someone you know has tried it and loved or hated it, gotten healed by it or suffered an injury as a result of it. The fact is that yoga has become widely accessible. You can get your fix at a studio or gym, from a DVD or laptop, or even your iPhone can teach you yoga. This may be why the topic of yoga injuries is being discussed and debated by yoga teachers, physical therapists, physicians and everyone else in between.
New students should approach yoga as they would a new sport like skiing or tap dancing. Techniques or skills should be acquired through beginner level classes or private lessons. Caution should be used during practice when challenging or new poses are presented. Remember to consult with your physician before starting an exercise regimen.
Here are several tips to help avoid injury during your yoga practice:
1. Listen to your body: Stay connected to the sensations in your body throughout the practice. They will let you know if you are pushing too far. If it doesn’t feel right, DON’T DO IT.
2. Find your own pose: Try to stay present in your practice. Finding your pose means not trying to imitate what other students are doing, but rather using the cues that the teacher gives you in order to settle into something that feels right to you.
3. Use the props: They are there to help you advance your practice, not hinder it. Trust the teacher if she/he suggests that you use them.
4. Respect your physical and mental limits: Find your limit and then push just a little, but by no means should you force a movement or pose.
5. Move with intention: Each movement you make in a yoga class should be purposeful.
6. Share your injury history with the teacher: This way he or she will be able to help you with specific modifications.
7. Go to a class that is at or below your level: This will minimize your chance for injury.
8. Be kind to your neck: Avoid hyper-extending or “craning” your neck during poses like Plank and Up and Down Dog. Only intermediate/advanced students should perform shoulder or headstand poses.
9. Your hips will protect your knees: Your hip strength and flexibility can prevent torque, or twisting, to the knee joint, protecting structures like your meniscus and ligaments. During standing poses like Warrior I, II and Lunge, your outer hip muscles control the position of the knee, specifically keeping it in line with your hip and not rolling it inward. In hip openers like Pigeon, if your hip is not open enough, there can be torque to your knee joint. Flexing your foot (bringing your toes toward your nose) in these poses can help stabilize the knee.
Diana Zotos is a physical therapist and certified yoga instructor with the Hospital for Special Surgery Rehabilitation Department. You can watch Diana’s demonstration of yoga poses on the HSS YouTube channel.