Those new to yoga, as well as those already practicing, often ask the big question: “Can I get hurt practicing yoga?”
The answer? Of course you can get hurt! You can get hurt in any physical activity.
I’ll quote Baron Baptiste, a renowned yoga teacher and founder of his own style of power yoga: to best to take care of your body, “think: knees, low back, and neck.”
Knees can be tricky. Especially if you have had any knee problems, before starting a yoga practice be sure to talk to your doctor about certain ranges of motion that are more likely to cause injury.
Yoga can do wonders for a bad back. Yoga exercise involves a lot of spinal flexing and twisting. This can be healthy for the back, because the discs in your back don’t have their own blood supply, so invigorating the surrounding muscles helps restore and strengthen your back. But if you already have back problems, such as a herniated disc, you have to talk to your doctor first.
Be very careful with your neck, especially as you learn to do any positions that put pressure on the back of your neck. Shoulderstand is a common one! Learn how to do it first by watching and asking questions, then and only then try it yourself. The back of your neck is vulnerable; it is a very complicated network of blood vessels that actually intertwines the bones. You don’t want to put it at risk for the sake of exercise.
We can all injury ourselves sometimes in silly or surprising ways. You can hurt yourself bending over to reach something in the back of a large closet, or stretching up to get something down from the top shelf. Think of yoga the same way. You should always be paying attention to your body. Allowing yourself to feel discomfort, to lose your balance, are good tools; but you should always have a certain measure of control over your movement. In a yoga class a teacher may urge you to find your edge; but feel out this edge carefully, twist or stretch or hold only while it is difficult but doable, not until it is painful.
Even before you look for an instructor, take a little time to determine what style of yoga may be the best fit for you (pick the yoga exercise style that is right for you).
If you are new to yoga, the best safe practice advice is to find a qualified yoga teacher registered with the Yoga Alliance. If you have a friend who has been practicing yoga for at least several months, ask for some recommendations, then go ahead and check out the teachers at Yoga Alliance. Unfortunately, the yoga and fitness industry is plagued with instructor and teacher certificates that can be obtained simply by filling out a form online. So be careful – it’s your health we’re talking about! Be sure to verify your instructor’s credentials through a valid source. Then you can safely begin your practice.
Even if you are a seasoned athlete who has been running or biking, or if you played competitive sports actively in the past, take the first class slow. You will be more comfortable, and more respected, in a class when you are listening and trying hard than if you are trying to force yourself through poses that are new to you. Whether you are moving with intention or falling, or just watching others to get a better grasp on things, you will quickly gain the respect of seasoned practitioners as long as you are focused on the yoga. Remember: you don’t have to be flexible, and yoga is all about trying the right way. Yoga exercise is a journey and any regular practitioner knows that. So focus on your body and being aware of how you feel, and the hot yoga girl or guy next to you will admire your approach.
Yoga is a non-impact sport. Before the more intense positions, there is usually a warm-up that requires balance and deep stretching. Even during this period you have to be careful, be aware, and be attentive to how your body feels. Just because a warm-up is slower does not mean it is easy.
There are many times in yoga class that a teacher will say, as they lead you into a stretch, “surrender into the position.” I don’t like to surrender. (Who does?) And I’d say this is a misnomer anyway. A better way to think about it is to acquiesce, be aware, align your body… and then let your body lead you into the pose. When you think about it this way, the feeling when you settle all the way into a stretch is wonderful – almost a kind of relaxed high. Now, I can’t do the lotus position, I just can’t cross my legs that way (check out this picture). But after I started thinking about settling into a stretch differently, I started to experience moments during class (other than during lotus!) when, while moving into a position, something just felt right. Then afterwards, I realized that I got it! It’s like the first time I walked away from my car after a difficult parallel parking that I’d somehow miraculously accomplished without bumps or scratches on any of the cars involved.
Yoga exercise is for your own health and enjoyment. Focus on listening to your instructor and your body. Yoga fosters concentration and focus, so use those tools to stay safe and injury free. The success you have in yoga will be your own success. Like a runner who works hard every day getting in shape to tackle a big hill – and only upon finding themselves at the top, can they see that they’ve made it – so too will you find yourself working hard in class, only to realize later that your body accomplished more than it’s ever done before, that you nailed it! Keep practicing, keep staying aware, and you will be at the top of whatever hills and challenges in yoga – and life – that you choose to meet.