CAN YOGA CAUSE INJURY?
Commonly, yoga is considered a rather gentle practice as it is a non-competitive “low-impact” activity which involves no (or only very little) jumping, running, or bumping into fellow participants. Thus, the risk of injury while practicing yoga seems to be very low, which is one of the reasons why yoga is often recommended by healthcare professionals when recovering from or to prevent injury.
BUT… is yoga really an injury-free practice? NO!
As in any other activity, if you don’t perform the exercises properly, or if you do more than your body can tolerate, your yoga practice can be harmful. And this is not limited to falling to the ground from fancy arm balances!
Here are 3 of the MOST COMMON ISSUES:
1. Restricted mobility in hips/pelvis/lower back in forward bends
Due to prolonged hours sitting in chairs or car seats, many people have shortened thigh muscles and hip flexors. Which at first sight seems to make forward bends easier, rather causes the opposite. Tight hamstrings and/or shortened psoas muscles (which is one of the hip flexors which is also attached to the spine) make the pelvis tilt backwards (posterior tilt)!
Now, if you are not able to tilt the top of the pelvis forward towards the front of the thighs (anterior tilt), you will tend to compensate by rounding the back. This results in enormous pressure on the discs in the lower back ( > risk of bulging discs), compression in the chest ( > limited lung and heart function) and compression in the back of the neck as students try to reach their feet and hunch the shoulders ( > neck/shoulder pain and tension headaches).
2. Backbends without core activation
Yoga backbends have already gained a negative reputation in the medical world, although – performed properly – they come with numerous benefits, such as opening the chest, reversing hunched shoulders and stretching the shortened hip flexors.
For a long time, I did not like backbends as they always left me with a sore lower back, until I figured out what I did wrong. The biggest mistake was to not activate the abdominal muscles as I thought I had to soften the tummy in order to arch the back. Doing this, I made my lower spine collapse, which put a lot of pressure on my SI joint (sacro-iliac joint, where the spine is attached to the pelvis). Sharp pain in the lower back and limited hip mobility after coming out of the pose was the result.
Tightening the abs by drawing the belly button towards the spine reduces the arching of the lower spine and encourages the lifting of the breast bone, which helps arching more in the upper back so that we come to a more even curve.
To further stabilise the SI joint, you should also try to keep the knees in line with the hip joints – thighs parallel. Then, the hip flexors are activated, which not only takes some of the effort away from the abs but also helps to pull the pelvis and the lower spine into a better, more natural position.
3. Poor alignment of the knees
Our knees are very big, strong joints, but they have a limited range of movement. Basically, we can straighten the leg and bend the knee so that the foot comes towards the bottom, but rotation or side bends are not part of the program. The fact that the knee tolerates a little bit of both to stabilise our body in walking or running can lead to less than ideal alignment in poses like warrior 1 and 2, chair pose, goddess or other asanas where we bend the knees while bearing weight.
If the knee is not aligned with hip and toes (in general, follow the mid line of the second toe) the eccentric forces cause shearing in the joint. The muscles and tendons around the joint then have to pull the bones in place – an action which they are not made for to that extend - which can lead to painful muscle tension, inflammation, or even a tear. Furthermore, due to the shearing forces and the uneven pressure in the joint the cartilage may be damaged over time.
Sounds familiar? No need to stop yoga! I can’t provide exact numbers, but I believe that yoga is still at the safer end of the scale.
The key to staying injury-free is to move mindfully and respect your body. Be sensitive to early signs such as discomfort or pain and be especially careful when you have acute issues or old injuries.
When practising a pose, make sure that you understand its purpose and learn how to move into and out of the pose safely. Never do anything that doesn’t feel right or causes pain. Try modifications or use props if appropriate or ask your teacher for alternative moves. Just because everyone else in class is doing it doesn’t mean it’s the best option for your own body.
What about you? Do you struggle with a pose and are not sure what’s wrong, or have you even injured yourself while practising yoga?
Feel free to get in touch if you have any questions regarding your yoga practice!
BONUS: Get a free cheat sheet with practice ideas to avoid injury!