If you’ve ever searched #yoga on Instagram or any other social media outlet, you’re likely to have seen fit looking women and men contorting their bodies into all kinds of wild shapes, standing on their heads, and doing all of this while at the same time appearing totally at peace. Like any professional, a good yogi can make their chosen practice look easy. But if you’re a beginner, these poses can seem extremely intimidating. You want to go to yoga class, but maybe you don’t want to be the only one in the class who can’t do a pose, and certainly you don’t want to get hurt! Aside from the obvious — carefully choosing a credible studio, an educated instructor, and the appropriate props — what else can you do to avoid injuries in your yoga practice? We’ve got some answers! Keep reading to find out.
Comparison is the thief of joy. In a perfect world, we would all practice yoga with our eyes closed. We wouldn’t scroll through Instagram, comparing our bodies to someone else’s best shot of the week. We wouldn’t compare our beginning to someone else’s middle (we say “middle” because there is no end to a yoga practice). When we compare ourselves to others, we’re seeking validation. We all do it, and in fact, it’s natural! I have found myself looking around the room to see if I’m the most flexible practitioner in class. But what am I looking for beyond that? For someone to notice and validate that I’m “good at yoga”? It’s so silly and pointless. It’s a conscious decision you must make to let go of the ego, and to just practice for yourself — because it makes you healthier, calmer, and overall, just feel better.
Yoga is the connection between the mind, body, and soul. Unless you find a way to read minds, you’ll never really be able to see if someone is “good at yoga”. Unlike most activities we have here in the west, yoga is not a sport. It’s not a competition. It’s a practice! You practice, I practice, we all practice to get better at going deep. Reflecting inward. When you reflect inward and listen to your body, it’s much easier to avoid injury. You’re no longer trying to do what your instructor or classmates are doing, but rather what your body identifies as its personal limit.
Know your personal limits
Your personal limit is that point in a stretch when you hear your muscles say “I can’t go further, I’m going to hang out right here”, or your mind whispers “I feel unsafe being inverted like this, let’s come down.” Your personal limit is that point where you feel a stretch, but no pain, tweaking, or in the worst case scenario, tearing. If you ever feel pain in a pose, just slowly back out of it. Pain is not supposed to be a part of yoga, so if you feel it, something needs to change.
Sometimes our personal limits are mental, other times they are physical. A well-trained instructor will help guide you past your personal limits in a safe way, but it’s important for you to know where those limits are first. They are the sum of all of your body and its experiences, stretches, classes, and practices up to that point. They are unique to you, and have nothing to do with the other people in the class. To avoid injury in a yoga class, know your personal limits. If a teacher tries to put you into a pose that is painful (aka beyond your personal limit) then back out, and ask for a modification. If you’re not comfortable asking for help during class, ask after. Do a modified version of that pose or find child’s pose until the class has moved on from that painful posture.
Get the instruction you need
Growing up, I was a competitive cheerleader. In order to progress in the sport, I needed to learn how to do a backflip. I took private lessons to sharpen my skills outside of the scheduled team practice. On two separate occasions I jumped up to do a backflip and panicked mid-flip. I landed on my head and had to spend a few days resting my back at home. In traditional western style, I kept pushing my limits, pushing past my fear in order to prove my worth and contribution to my team. Years later, I felt that I had to avoid headstands, shoulder stands, and plow pose, which lasted for the first three years of my yoga practice. They brought back memories of landing on my head — that completely unnatural bend in your lower back when your feet flop overhead — crunching everything together against the unforgiving ground. I didn’t have enough instruction to feel comfortable attempting any of those poses. I hated being on my head; thus, my personal limit was “set”.
That is, until I went to Bali for Acro Yoga training. One of the the other course participants saw the terrified expression on my face when I was asked to do a headstand. She took an entire afternoon breaking down the mechanics of safe headstands and explained that when you do it right, you’re actually not on your head at all. If your yoga instructor doesn’t make you feel safe getting into a pose, it’s okay not to do it. If they have the knowledge to safely guide you into a pose, you should feel comfortable and supported enough to breathe past your limits without injury.
Repeat, repeat, repeat
You progress in yoga by repeating postures over and over. As you repeat, you’ll notice it getting easier and your personal limit will move a bit further away. When you repeat a posture instead of trying to push through pain or severe discomfort, you are conditioning your body for longevity. Yoga is not the NFL. You practice yoga so that you can maintain strength and flexibility throughout your entire life. If you go into the NFL, you know that with every passing year, your body (and mind) are more and more at risk. When you go into a yoga practice with the intention of continuing yoga into your 70s and 80s, you’ll be more gentle, take fewer risks, and listen to your body with more frequency.
Hydrate! Drink water. Lots of water. A well-hydrated body is less likely to experience injuries. This goes for everyone, but especially if you are practicing in a hot place — a hot yoga studio, or if you practice yoga here in Costa Rica for example!
The asana practice, like any physical movement, can cause injuries. If you’re not mindful, slipping off a curb while walking down the street can also cause injuries. Injuries that come out of a yoga practice might be your body’s way of showing you there is an imbalance, misalignment, or a lesson you need to learn. Injuries can be great teachers, they force us to slow down and get back to the basics of a posture and of our human condition.
We need to remember why we stepped on our mat in the first place. The aim of the asana practice is to create an open and supple body through repetition and focused breathing. Not by forcing it. The point isn’t to master every posture, but to notice the fruits of the process. We can attain openness with basic poses when they are done correctly and with proper intention.
Enjoy your practice!
Written by Katie Jones