Suddenly yoga is on the outs. “For many people, a number of commonly taught yoga poses are inherently risky,” according to a new yoga-bashing book excerpted in the New York Times Magazine last month. The book’s author, science writer William Broad, described his own experience where his back went out while engaged in an extended-side-angle pose “hailed as a cure for many diseases” and said that led him to lose his belief that “yoga was a source of healing and never harm.”
Globe writer Beth Teitell wrote that for many of the yoga averse, “who’ve felt guilty or lazy or out of step for avoiding the fitness trend, the report was the best yoga-related news ever.”
While yoga helps improve flexiblity, balance, and muscle strength—as well as calming the mind—it isn’t a must-do fitness activity. Nothing short of walking is.
But does that mean we should shun yoga altogether? After all, any exercise can cause injury and perhaps Broad was ridiculously naiive to think that spinal twists, headstands, and back arches would never harm.
“I’ve actually hurt my shoulder washing the dishes,” said David Magone, a yoga instructor who teaches workshops at Exhale in Boston. But, he added, he’s seen his fair share of yoga injuries in both beginners as well as in experienced practitioners who push their bodies beyond their limits.
Avoiding these five common mistakes can go a long way, Magone said, to preventing yoga injuries.
Mistake #1: Practicing yoga every day. Yoga is a strength-building activity, Magone said, so you need to give your muscles a chance to recuperate and recover from those microtears that occur after every workout. “I recommend doing yoga every other day and supplementing with a cardiovascular workout [running, biking, swimming] on days you don’t do yoga,” said Magone. “Otherwise your muscles will be exhausted and you’re likely to get sloppy and injure yourself.”
For those avid yogis who don’t want to skip a day away from their postures, Magone recommends focusing on three different sets of postures—each working a different set of muscle groups—on consecutive days such as hips on Mondays, back bends on Tuesdays, standing poses on Wednesdays, and then repeating the cycle for the rest of the week.
Mistake #2: Pushing too far too fast. Two weeks ago, I noticed that I can’t comfortably sit cross-legged on the floor to play board games with my kids, so I’ve been doing simple yoga hip stretches several times a week to try to regain some flexibility. While I’m tempted to force my legs into positions where they used to go easily, Magone tells me to go slowly.
“Never push to the point of pain—especially in your joints. lower back, or shoulders. It’s possible to get your flexiblity back, but you need to go slowly and do the stretches three times a week,” he said.
Mistake #3: Not warming up properly. Under a time crunch, you may be tempted to skip some warm-up moves and go directly into a complicated posture, but that’s sure to increase your risk of injury.
“It takes a full 20 minutes to warm your body up to the point where it’s safe to go into those serious poses that require a deeper level of strength, balance, and flexiblity,” said Magone. A yoga class should involve getting your heart rate up with those initial simple poses—often sun salutations that begin from a standing position—that might get you a little sweaty.
(High temperatures in hot Bikram yoga classes will also loosen muscles, but you still need to do warm-up moves, said Magone.)
If you’re practicing yoga postures yourself, march in place, jump rope, or hit the treadmill for several minutes to get your body warmed up and then engage in simple stretches before taking on more complicated postures.
“When your body is warmed up, it increases your flexibility by 20 percent and reduces the likelihood of muscle pulls,” said Magone.
Mistake #4: Not cooling down after workouts. Just like with any workout, a cool-down for about 10 to 15 minutes is vital to help your muscles recover and repair before your next workout. It will also help you avoid dizziness or fainting which can occur if too much blood pools in your legs during standing postures. Yoga classes should be designed to gradually increase to peak intensity before moving you back down to a resting energy level, said Magone. “Avoid instructors who don’t do this,” he added.
Mistake #5: Taking a yoga class to heal an injury. “I don’t recommend a large class,” said Magone, “if you have chronic pain from an injury,” to your knee, back, or hip. Instructors have too many clients to focus on without modifying every posture to suit your injury needs. He recommends going to a physical therapist with specific training in yoga to get rehabilitation postures to help strengthen muscles without further aggravating the injury.