In recent years, yoga news and journalism has focused extensively on whether or not yoga can lead to physical injuries. This passionate conversation about the safety of yoga has led to yoga blog sites that are now flooded with articles containing information on how to align and protect your body during an asana practice and how to prevent yoga injuries. While there are no promises in yoga or life, there are additional steps—beyond posture modifications—that you can take to help ensure a safe yoga practice.
How to Practice Yoga Safely
Whether you’re a newcomer to yoga, have a health condition, or have been practicing for decades, it’s important to establish—and maintain—a good foundation, pay attention to your body, warm up properly, avoid red flags, and modify with props. For beginners and those working with physical limitations, figuring out where to start can be the hardest step. If you don’t know the lingo, it can be challenging to figure out what studio, class, and teacher will be the best fit. You may not find the perfect yoga class or the perfect yoga studio the first time, maybe not even the first several times. That’s okay—be patient with yourself as you get familiar with the yoga poses and the terminology. As you pay attention and deepen your practice, you’ll start to notice what feels good and what doesn’t.
Safety Tips When New to Yoga or With a Health Condition
- Talk to your doctor or physical therapist. If you have a health condition or if you’re pregnant, discuss starting any new exercise program with your doctor or physical therapist. Some hospitals and health clinics offer classes too, so turn to them for recommendations.
- Educate yourself. Visit the Yoga for Beginners and Yoga Therapy pages and learn which poses are contraindicated for your situation and what poses could be beneficial to you.
- Start slow. It’s okay to slow down and stick with the basics. Look for gentle, level one, beginner or back care classes. You may also be able to find classes tailored to your specific needs, such as yoga for osteoporosis, depression, hip pain, lower back pain, joint pain, etc. Avoid hot yoga classes and other types of yoga classes that use the words warm or vigorous in their descriptions.
- Talk to your yoga teacher. Tell your teacher(s) if you have an injury or health condition. Speak to them before class, and remind them from time to time about any injuries that may be ongoing. That said…
- Don’t rely on your yoga instructor to take care of you. Even the most fantastic teachers who have studied extensively and offer you modifications during class might not always remember. It’s up to you to listen to your body and do what’s best for you. (See “educate yourself,” above.)
- Modify with props. Props can help you learn proper alignment, develop strength and awareness, and experience asanas more deeply.
- Don’t compare yourself to the person on the yoga mat next to you or to your teacher. Also, don’t compare yourself to yourself in past practices, or yourself to your expectations of yourself. Remember that each moment is completely new, and how your body felt yesterday may be completely different to how your body feels today.
- Don’t rush. Where you are is perfect. Pushing yourself into harder poses, classes, or styles before you are truly ready is an ego-driven recipe for disaster. Always be mindful and pay attention to what your body needs. With that…
- Remember, the pose is not the goal. If you don’t get there in this lifetime, it doesn’t matter.
- Listen to your body and avoid red flags. If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. If you experience any type of discomfort, safely exit the pose.
- Breathe. Breathing helps calm the body and mind. There are a variety of breathing styles, but simply breathing in and out through the nose can make a big shift in your experience.
Safety Tips for Those Who Have an Established Yoga Practice
- Don’t skip the basics. Review the above beginner safety tips and make sure your ego does not allow you to skip these because you consider yourself “advanced.”
- Practice with a beginner’s mind. Take a beginner’s class if you haven’t in a while, or take a class in a different style than you usually do.
- Remain open to learning new ways of practicing poses, even if you’ve been practicing for a while. (See “practice with a beginner’s mind” above.)
- Listen to the instructor’s words but pay attention to your body and what you need. Do what they say, not what you think they mean. If it works for you, stick with it. If it doesn’t, change it.
- Re-evaluate your foundation. Have you been taking shortcuts, getting sloppy, lazy, or anxious to move on to “challenging” poses? Do you find yourself following your ego and pushing too hard—even though you “know better?” Focus on your foundation and building strength from there.
What to Do if You Get Hurt
Sometimes all good ideas and intentions will fail, and people get hurt. You can learn a lot about yourself and your teacher in these circumstances. If you feel like you’ve hurt yourself, tell your instructor right away. You won’t hurt their feelings, and even if they don’t know how to help or what happened, it is good feedback for them and will help them improve their teaching. Examining your actions and thoughts just before the moment you were hurt may offer some clues as to where you may be weak, or how involved your ego was. After an injury, it is recommended to take a break from yoga to allow your body to heal and to slowly ease your way back into the practice.
How do you keep yourself safe during yoga? If you’ve been hurt, what did you learn from the experience?