by Aaron Styles

One of the principles of yoga is “Ahimsa” which means non-harmfulness. To practice ahimsa means living in a way that will do no physical or emotional harm to any living being – including ourselves. Following the path of ahimsa, many schools and styles of yoga focus strongly on injury prevention in the physical asana (posture) practice. Educating yoga practitioners about injury prevention and safe alignment are indeed a great way to help them maintain a long and active practice.

But is there such a thing as TOO MUCH focus on injury prevention? Are injury prevention articles and warnings presenting too many restrictions? Are people starting to become afraid of certain postures or styles of yoga because of what they have heard? I’m starting to think so.

I realize the importance of alignment and educating students on how to stay safe – however we need to remember to focus on the benefits that yoga provides and not just the possibility of injury. In the rest of the article I will discuss some of the key points I find beneficial when looking at injury prevention and how to approach it. I won’t be going into detail regarding my thoughts on specific postures or transitions. We will save that for another article.

Please know that I have extensive training in anatomy with a focus on injury prevention. I’ve trained with some highly educated instructors including Jennifer Yarro of Frog Lotus Yoga, Jennilee Toner of Hot Warrior Yoga, and Tiffany Cruikshank of Yoga Medicine. I am also a licensed massage therapist in the state of New York. Do these credentials make me an all knowing god? HA! I wish! My goal is to simply share my knowledge with others. Please take in what seems relevant to you and leave behind what doesn’t click. I understand that you may not agree with everything I have to say and I am a-okay with that.

          Injury from yoga is far less common than you’d think. According to a study from the Department of Health Education and Behavior at the University of Florida, only 1% of individuals practicing yoga reported any form of injury that halted their practice. Remember that as a yoga instructor you are doing far more good than bad. The benefits of practicing yoga of any kind far outnumber the drawbacks. A moderate amount of force to our joints and muscles is healthy.  Continue to focus on all of the benefits that yoga has to offer. Don’t let the all the injury prevention talk scare you away.

I’ve experienced first hand how yoga can injury the body but I have also experienced how a therapeutic approach to yoga can also heal. It’s all about how you view it. Don’t approach your yoga practice with ego. Pushing yourself too quickly, too fast, and too hard will likely lead you towards injury. Look at your yoga practice as something to nurture and know that it will mature with time.

          We all have our own anatomical uniqueness. Certain alignment positions in a pose may work well for one person and terribly for another. We all have different postural tendencies and muscular imbalances. Instructors can not cater to everyone in a group setting. Remember that not everyone will look the same in each posture. As an instructor focus on building a basic foundation for your students and allow them to make adjustments as they feel best for their body.

I’ve heard of many studios banning certain postures such as single leg pigeon and headstand due to the fact that it might cause injury. Hiking through a forest might cause an injury. Are we going to stop telling people to go on hikes? Focus on safe alignment and do the best you can to keep yourself and your students safe. If someone enjoys a certain yoga posture, why should we not allow them to teach or practice it? As a practitioner you will learn more about your unique anatomical structure as you practice. You will learn what feels good, what feels bad, what felt good at the time but felt terrible the next day, and so on. Use this information to modify your future practices.

          “If it doesn’t feel good, don’t do it!”. We’ve all heard this said by an instructor at some point. And do I agree with it? For the most part, yes. Pain can lead to injury. Pain is the number one indicator aiding in injury prevention. However – I don’t think our investigation should stop there. Why doesn’t it feel good? What’s causing the pain? These are questions we need to ask ourselves. Pain and discomfort can be caused by a number of things. Now it’s time to figure out the source of the pain. It could be a muscular imbalance, improper or inadequate firing of a muscle, skeletal restrictions, skeletal misalignments, underlying pathologies, etc. Work with someone knowledgeable who can help you determine where the discomfort is coming from. Don’t just ignore it – use it as a tool to gain more knowledge.

          Change is good. Just as we create habits in our daily lives, we also create habits on our mat. Try on different styles of yoga. If you do vinyasa yoga five times a week maybe it’s time to sneak a restorative or yin class into your schedule. Your body will appreciate the change. Certain styles of yoga move the body in different ways. These contrasting styles will all impact the joints and muscles differently.

One of the more common yoga injuries is the wearing down and tearing of a joint due to repetitive motion. This repetitive motion decreases or irritates the cartilage and impacts the joints ability to move freely without pain. Improper alignment may influence the severity but isn’t always the culprit. Be mindful of how often you repeat certain postures and always focus on body awareness. If the alignment of your 20th chaturanga in a class isn’t as precise as the first one, it’s probably a good time to start skipping or modifying your vinyasas.

We all have postures that we absolutely LOVE doing. It could be because the posture simply feels good or we can hold it for a long period of time without pain. Be mindful of over practicing certain postures or always focusing on the same stretch. For example, maybe you love hip opening postures that focus on external rotation such as single legged pigeon and you’ve gained a significant amount of range of motion in that direction. You’ve now stretched the muscles of the hip that do internal rotation – have you also stretched the muscles of the hip that do external rotation? It’s important to check that you’re creating a balance of strength and flexibility between two opposing muscle groups.

          Cross-train. Cross-train. Cross-train. We often think of yoga as a great cross-training regiment for running, lifting, swimming, and other sports or physical activity. What about cross-training for yoga? It needs to happen more often. Add other methods of physical training into your weekly schedule. I’ve found that my yoga practice has greatly improved since I started weightlifting and gymnastics. Remember that strength is just as important as flexibility. A combination of both in the right places brings the body into a state of harmony.

In vinyasa yoga we do a lot more “pressing” than “pulling”. We are pressing into the mat during common postures such as plank, Warrior 1 or 2, and downward facing dog. Weight lifting with a focus on exercises that involve pulling can be an amazing addition to your current routine. Do you need to lift like an olympic champion? Absolutely not. Find a balance that works for you.

About Aaron
Aaron Styles is a yoga instructor and educator living in Albany, NY. He enjoys sharing his passion of yoga with others. He views yoga as a means to reach one's greatest potential. His brand, Styles Yoga, offers high quality yoga education programs and blissful destination yoga retreats.
Yoga & Injury Prevention: How much is enough?