There’s no faster way to take the peace and love out of yoga than with an injury.
With recent research showing that one in 10 yogis experience musculoskeletal pain from the poses, you clearly have to be careful how you contort yourself.
So we asked yoga teacher Dustin Brown and physiotherapist Holly Brasher for their tips on getting zen without the niggles.
As awesome as that Lululemon-clad chick in the front row looks perched on her forearms like it ain’t no thing, try to remember that it is a thing — a thing that is likely to hurt like hell if you haven’t got the strength or flexibility to get yourself there.
“Yoga instructors give beginner exercises through to advanced for a reason – don’t try and compete with the person next to you,” says Brasher, who is the national chair of the Australian Physiotherapy Association’s Sports Group.
“Focus on proper technique and stick to the easier options if that’s what you need to start off with. When you start to feel a stretch, maybe stop there – don’t go to pain.”
Brown admits that he spent his early days of yoga comparing himself to other people but realised the only thing it scored him was an unenjoyable class.
“I would often find myself in backbends that were truly uncomfortable, making me feel nauseous,” says Brown, who owns Warrior One Yoga in Melbourne.
“If you’re copying what others are doing and not really listening to what the teacher is asking you to do with your body, you might find yourself in a place that’s not nice or even potentially dangerous for you.”
Safe sun salutes
Many yoga classes begin with a series of sun salutations, which involve forward bending, plank, chaturanga (tricep push-up), upward dog and downward dog.
It can seem like a simple way to warm up the body but Brown says it’s there that the majority of injuries occur.
“People get injured in their wrists and shoulders,” he points out.
“Ask your teacher to fine-tune and adjust you to find out if you are lining up correctly. That will save you so much pain and help you get strong quick so you can progress even faster.”
Watch your back
Your back is the most vulnerable body part to yoga injury, according to both Brown and Brasher.
“Back bending or spinal extensions, when not done properly, can cause you to compress your spine,” Brown explains.
And what works for someone else, might not work for you.
“For some people, we might say, ‘Yep you need to do a lot of cobras because that will improve your back’, but for other people that would be the absolute worst thing to do if they have pre-existing injuries,” Brasher warns.
Work on your own weaknesses
Yoga’s claim to fame is its ability to build both strength and flexibility, but a lot of people will need to tailor their practice for their specific body type.
Super flexible people often won’t benefit from stretching further and would be better off working on their strength to get better control of their body, while strong, stiff body types may benefit from stretching to loosen up their tight muscles.
“If you are hyper-mobile and you have an injury caused by your extreme range of motion, you might be better to do some strength work to control the range of motion rather than stretch further,” Brasher says.
The splits is a great example of a pose that can go very differently for different people.
“Someone who is really tight will have a knee bent and be working hard, breathing deep – it’s intense,” Brown explains.
“The next person is in full splits with legs completely straight and the only way to go deeper is to have their knees bowing the opposite way. But instead of working on being more flexible, they will want to lift up and out of the pose using muscular engagement so they are creating stability instead of more mobility.”
Watch your breath
The easiest way to tell if a pose isn’t working for you is how you are breathing.
“If your breath suddenly becomes sharp or jagged and you can only take little sips of air, then you should back off to a point where your breath is smooth and easy,” Brown says.
“If you keep yourself in a range where you can maintain a smooth breath, your nervous system stays relaxed.”
Get a professional’s perspective
Research shows that the best way to avoid a yoga injury is to let your yoga teacher know if you’ve done yoga before and talk through any recent injuries.
Brasher says it’s also worth getting a health professional’s tick of approval before taking to the mat.
“They should be able to give you some really sound advice on what you can and can’t do and what sort of movements or poses to avoid,” she says.