There has been a lot of talk n the yogaverse in the past year or so about yoga injuries. I think all this is good. You can certainly injure yourself practicing yoga. But then, yoga is also a modality and a practice that we look to for healing, often to help with healing injuries we’ve acquired elsewhere in our lives. And yoga is wonderful for that–for healing and nourishing us physically and emotionally.
There is a lot of detailed information on this subject–preventing injury in yoga–and I found it difficult to synthesize into a few items to strive for or to keep in mind in my practice and teaching. This is not, by any stretch, an exhaustive analysis of yoga injury prevention and all the emotional dimensions thereof, but there are two themes I return to over and over in my own thinking and my teaching.
Intentional Movement–No Rushing
This is where yoga overlaps with dance for me. The difference between a dancer’s movement and the somehow-less-dancey movement of those of us who try to replicate the dance, is all about intentional movement and moving from the core. In our yoga practice, we can do this by cultivating strength and awareness in our bellies and using that power center to move our bodies between postures, and to hold us up. Also, to practice moving with intention, slow. down. Use your muscles to draw your limbs up and down. As a teacher, I practice using words like “draw” or “lift,” rather than “sweep.” For me, “sweep” isn’t a muscle-driven action, it’s a marginally more graceful flinging or tossing. It is not a focus on the act of moving, and when we fling our limbs, or worse, our body weight, around our mat, I believe we risk injury.
So don’t hurry through your practice. Take your time. If you don’t have much time, set a timer and commit to being present in your body and on your mat for a few poses, rather that rushing through more poses faster and compromising your presence, intention, and muscle control.
This intentional movement practice has the added benefits of keeping our attention on our movement and our breath, building the mind-body connection we seek through yoga, and keeping our worldly cares and worries out. If we rush through our practice without paying much attention to our movement, we can spend the whole time keeping our minds out of our bodies and on our worries. Honestly, if you really need to get some exercise and space out while you do it, go for a walk. Or hop on an elliptical or a treadmill. Repetitive aerobic exercise is great for pondering. Yoga just isn’t the place for it.
Gentleness and Standing Up For Yourself
I believe that yoga practice should be a no pain-no pain endeavor. I emphatically denounce theories of yoga that hold that there is enlightenment or some sort of yogic goal to be reached by pushing through discomfort or pain.
I tell my students in class to aim for about 70% of the maximum physical effort they could expend in the poses, and to back off from any painful sensations. If you want to work harder, work on tuning in more with yourself. Can you feel more length in your spine? Can you find a bit of tension somewhere and release it? Work on cultivating ease and presence. There is nothing to gain by stretching the crap out of your hamstrings in an effort to touch your toes. Your toes don’t care.
Rather than pushing through discomfort, I encourage students to find the beginnings of discomfort–the feeling that they’re working around the edge of their comfort zone, and hang out there. Sit in the discomfort. Don’t try to change it, just observe it and allow it to be what it is. This is how we tune into our bodies and learn about ourselves. This is the yoga.
Be gentle with your body, and if someone suggests to you that you should push through to get deeper into the pose, my advice is to stand up for yourself by being where you are, not where anyone else suggests you ought to be. It’s your body. You know it best.
For More Information and Further Yoga Nerdery
I love this post of J Brown’s about the mind-body connection and yoga.
Jenni Rawlings is an expert on yoga alignment and wrote this great post on using the deep core–the transverse abdominus–in yoga.
Matthew Remski is an expert on yoga and ayurveda, and wrote a series of detailed, very well-researched and insightful posts that talk a lot about injury in yoga, What Are We Actually Doing In Asana?, which I’ve followed with great interest, and learned much from.