7 Yoga Mistakes That Increase Your Risk of Injury
People practice yoga for reasons ranging from stress management to physical conditioning to spiritual connection. But all three goals can be sidelined by an injury sustained on the mat. Even among physically fit practitioners, shoulders, hips, lower backs, and knees are all vulnerable if yoga isn’t practiced with consistent and mindful care and attention—and it's more common than you'd think. A national survey published in the International Journal of Yoga says that 60 percent of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga practitioners reported an injury that persisted for a month or more.
But injury isn’t an inevitable part of yoga practice. Avoiding these seven common yoga mistakes can help keep you strong and healthy, both on and off the mat.
MISTAKE: YOU THINK HARDER POSES ARE BETTER POSES
Instagram feeds that feature friends performing stunning, complex yoga poses on beaches or mountaintops are inspiring, but they can reinforce the view that “harder” is “better” in yoga, says Jennifer Hudak, a registered yoga teacher in Rochester, New York. “Sometimes it's a competitive thing, but sometimes it's that people think that there's something magical about the poses, and if they can only wedge themselves into lotus, they'll be a ‘real’ yogi.” Remember, she says, that the best pose is the one your body enjoys and can safely practice: “Not all poses work for all bodies. It’s never about the pose, it’s about how you feel.”
MISTAKE: YOU PRIVILEGE FLEXIBILITY OVER STRENGTH
Yoga is not only—or even primarily—about getting a good stretch. Hudak sees too many students whose bodies are lithe, but who lack the strength necessary to maintain proper alignment in poses, putting them at risk for injury. Instead of “chasing the stretch” by diving or flopping over into overextended, imbalanced forward bends, for example, people who have very open hamstrings should focus on poses that strengthen their glutes, hamstrings, and hips. Then, says Hudak, in poses that stretch the hamstrings, students can engage their muscles while slowly coming into their bends.
MISTAKE: YOU’RE FORGETTING TO BREATHE
Ideally, breathwork is a constant in yoga practice, not a distinct activity done at the beginning and end of class. Breathing fully and mindfully while doing physical poses does more than relax the mind; it reduces the stimulating impact of the nervous system on the muscles.
“We often arrive on our mats in a ‘fight or flight’ response, which manifests itself through shallow breathing and tight muscles,” says Abbey Heilmann, a yoga teacher based in North Carolina. Deep breathing, especially if you make your exhales longer than your inhales, oxygenates your blood and triggers a relaxation response that helps muscles move smoothly, and with far lower risk of injury.
MISTAKE: YOU PUSH THROUGH PAIN
“No pain, no gain” may be the four most harmful words ever spoken in yoga (or life, for that matter!). Too many of us incorrectly believe that pushing through pain makes us stronger and more flexible. Heilmann often cites the yogic concept of ahimsa, a Sanskrit word meaning non-violence, when she sees her students clenching their jaws or holding their breath in pain. “If we create suffering for ourselves, we are practicing violence,” she says. So if a pose feels overly challenging in your body, Heilmann urges students to speak up—ask for a prop, a modification, or an alternative way to connect with the pose without pain.
MISTAKE: YOU DON’T USE ENOUGH PROPS
“For some reason, students tend to view props as a sign of weakness,” says Heilmann. But coming into poses with the support of belts, bolsters, blocks, or blankets is actually a tried-and-true way to help your body find alignment, strength, and, as you develop in your practice, a deeper experience of each pose. In her classes, Heilmann demonstrates poses using props as a way of encouraging students to ditch their view that props are mere crutches. Supported with props, her students’ bodies are protected from injury, and they are able to get more out of their practice.
MISTAKE: YOU’RE TOO GOAL-ORIENTED
Being in a pose is, naturally, a high priority in yoga practice. But, says Gail Konop, a yoga teacher and the founder of the people’s yoga collective in Madison, Wisconsin, students often rush the process of coming into the pose, putting themselves at risk of injury to their joints and muscles. Turning your attention inward—there are no mirrors in Konop’s studio for this reason—will help cultivate the patience and attention required to work toward a pose that is appropriate and beneficial for your body. “Advancing in yoga is like grass growing,” she says, “You can’t force it.”
MISTAKE: YOU’RE DISTRACTED
Distraction is a scourge of modern society—the constant swirl of “did I forget to…” and “am I good enough…” and “what if…” thoughts tug at your attention even on the mat. If your mind is not in sync with your body, you are more prone to injury because you're too distracted to notice your body’s cues and signals. “Poses are just tricks to get us out of our ruminating heads,” says Konop. She advises cultivating non-judgmental awareness of your distractions, gently bringing yourself back to your breath and your body whenever you notice your mind wandering.