You injured yourself doing yoga — now what?

So, you tried yoga because you thought it would be easy, but now you’re lying on the couch, unable to move your toes. Looks like you’ve injured yourself.

It’s surprising how many people think yoga is “just stretching.” It’s true that a lot of people find their way to the practice because they’ve been hurt in other sports, but I’ve popped a knee or two and cracked my head more than once on my mat. I actually know a guy who broke his nose practicing handstands.

OK, that seems a little extreme. Most yoga injuries actually aren’t immediate sprains or breaks; they develop over many years of over-stretching and misaligning the muscles and bones. The safest way to avoid this? Learn how the poses should be practiced — for your body — and know your limits. Having practiced for 15 years now, I’ve definitely fallen prey to the “must show how high I can lift my leg, but wow does my knee ever kill right now.” Sometimes we get caught up in our ego, wanting to get that Instagram-worthy pose, and we actually end up doing more bad than good. The key is to think containment (contracting, but not clenching, the muscles) rather than deep stretching. You’ll end up with a better workout too!

Here are a few common yoga injuries and how to avoid them:

Pain in the lower back
This is a common area of injury — did you know up to 85 per cent of Canadians will feel some sort of lower back pain in their lifetime? In yoga, this is often caused by people rounding their spines in active forward bends, tucking their tailbone in too far in standing poses (our spines have natural curves that we need to maintain), or standing with our shoulders too far back in an attempt to get good posture, which strains our muscles.

Think lengthening the middle body through the crown of the head; bend your knees slightly if this helps. Keep that length before doing any forward folds or backbends so you don’t crunch down into your back. If you’re doing a pose like paschimottanasana (seated forward bend), consider sitting on a block or blanket to elevate your hips; think stomach to thighs rather than head to shins. You may not go as far, but your spine will thank you for it.

Pain in the shoulders
We always say things like “relax the shoulders,” but according to Julia Cowan, a physiotherapist and self-confessed “professional yoga anatomy nerd”  who teaches functional anatomy at the Modo Yoga teacher trainings, when your arms are parallel to the ground or higher, it is natural for your shoulder blades to lift. Telling people to “melt the shoulders” can actually lead to injury or weakness in the trapezius muscle on your back. The solution? “Let your shoulders be shoulders,” says Julia. Don’t let them rise up all the way to the ears, but don’t force them down your back either.

Pain in the neck

Not a lot of people realize that the neck is an extension of the spine. The cervical spine is delicate, but extremely strong and flexible (confusing, right?) When you backbend, the muscles in your neck should hold it in line with the rest of your spine. Rather than dropping your head all the way back, keep it strong; bring your teeth together, but don’t clench or grind them. We dramatically under use our neck muscles, so be patient with yourself.

Pain in the hips
Hips are definitely an area that I have overstretched. You’ll know you’ve gone too far if you feel pinching in the joint. Avoid unnecessary pain by understanding and accepting the limits of your body. For some people, it has nothing to do with flexibility and everything to do with their skeletal structure.

People often ask me why malasana (low squat) is so easy for me. I joke, it’s because I’m Asian — but in all truthfulness, I do come from a culture where the “Asian squat” — squatting down with the heels on the ground — is common. Our skeletal structure, and more specifically our acetabulum — where the pelvis meets the femur bone — allow for it. Some people feel comfortable in tadasana (mountain pose) with their big toes together, heels apart; others prefer to stand hip-width apart. Both are acceptable.

Pain in the elbows
Elbow pain is common in poses like chaturanga dandasana (low plank) or any other posture where you bend the elbows with weight on your hands. This can often lead to the elbows splaying out to the sides, which tweaks the joint. The key to keeping your elbows safe is to engage the muscles in your arms and keep the elbows bending directly backwards (think like a grasshopper).

We often say “tuck your elbows alongside your ribs,” but if you’re someone who needs a wider stance in the hands, that would actually tweak them inwards — which is also bad. When you come down from plank to low plank, bring your body forward and keep the elbows above the wrists in a 90° shape instead of letting them shift back towards the hips, press into the knuckles of the fingers and engage the muscles in your core and legs to keep the entire body strong.

Pain in the wrists
This can often be caused by putting too much weight in the wrists, particularly in balancing poses, but even in postures like downward facing dog . Spread your fingers wide on the mat (but don’t overdo it or you may lose sensation in your pinky fingers). Distribute the weight throughout your fingers, particularly the index and thumb. Sometimes, particularly in balancing poses, I’ll every so slightly curl the tips of my fingers into the mat to get better grip. You should feel light in your wrists when you do this.

Pain in the knees
Knees. I’ve always had terrible pain in my knees from hyper-extending and over-stretching. The knees are a common place where people start to feel stiff. This is the case in poses like utkatasana (powerful pose). Alleviate injury by pushing down into the big toe mounds, bringing weight into the heels and pushing them apart. If you also engage the quads and hamstrings and think light through the upper body, it will lighten the load on your knees.

Pain in the hamstrings
If you’re tight in the back of the thighs, it could mean you need a good stretch. It could also mean that your hamstrings are weak and over-stretching them will make it worse. How can you tell the difference? Julia suggests bending your knee to bring your heel to your bum. If you’re struggling or shaking, chances are you need to work your hamstrings. Think of engaging the back of the thighs in poses like the warrior series — fire up your legs! Otherwise, if all you need is a stretch, remember to engage the front thighs (practice this by lifting the kneecaps) before bending down. You should feel the stretch in the belly of the muscle (the centre) and you shouldn’t feel any pain.

All in all, if you have an acute injury, take some time to rest and care for yourself. If you feel pinching or pain in a particular pose, modify — yoga should never be painful. Proper alignment is key — if you are forcing your arms higher over your head, past the point of comfort, consider why you’re doing that. Leave your ego at the door. Trust me, no one is checking you out in class.

Move slowly; stop and adjust as many times as you need; use props when necessary. I always go in with two blocks and a strap — that was a big lesson for me: people with more props around their mats aren’t beginners, they’re the veterans who know the importance of modifying. Don’t be shy to reel it in a little. Your Warrior II may not be super long, with the front knee bent to exactly 90°, but if you’re pulling your feet towards each other and igniting the muscles in your legs, core and arms, you better bet your mini Warrior II is doing the same — if not more — work.
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