Although yoga is considered to be a relatively safe form of exercise, injuries do occur—usually when students are too ambitious or yoga instructors fail to give proper modifications. Many times, students try to force their bodies into positions they are not ready for, or they are inattentive and don’t listen to the messages their bodies (and instructors) give them. It’s a good idea to have a fundamental awareness of the more common injuries associated with yoga practice and what to do to minimize risk.
Muscle strains occur when the muscle tissue stretches or tears. A pulled hamstring is a common muscle strain seen in yoga class. In order to avoid muscle strains, it is very important to take the time to warm up the primary muscles to be used in the pose. Warming up increases blood circulation to the muscles, lubricates joints and prepares the body to move more deeply into yoga poses.
Tendonitis and bursitis are common overuse injuries. Poses such as downward-facing dog and plank can place a lot of stress on bursae (small sacs located between moving structures such as bones, muscles, skin and tendons) in the shoulders, elbows and wrists. Be sure to build up proper and adequate strength before holding poses for long periods of time.
Ligaments and Cartilage: Students who hyperextend their knees or elbows place additional stress on stabilizing ligaments and tendons, potentially causing inflammation of joint structures. Hyperextension of the knees is a common mistake in straight-leg poses such as mountain pose or seated forward bends, whereas elbow hyperextension frequently occurs in upward-facing dog, plank pose with straight arms and downward-facing dog. It is important to develop an awareness of this for yourselves as not all instructors will correct this each and every time. Yoga instructors or students who press down too aggressively in downward-facing dog risk tearing shoulder cartilage. It is important to build adequate flexibility in the shoulders in order to prevent the tearing of cartilage.
Spinal Disks: Yoga injuries such as herniated intervertebral disks, fractures and degenerative disk disease are some of the more serious yoga injuries. Plow, shoulder stand and seated or standing forward bends concentrate compression forces on the spine, which can lead to injury. Undertrained or overzealous yoga instructors who try to push students too deeply into these postures may endanger their participants’ safety. It is not only inflexible students who are at risk. Hyperflexible students can also get injured, because their looser ligaments make their joints more unstable.
At the end of the day, let your body be your teacher. Come out of poses that are triggering negative responses from your body. In my classes I always tell my students that tingling and light-headedness are unacceptable sensations and that they should come out of the pose immediately. The poses would then need to be adjusted using props. Yoga is for everyone and with the guidance of a properly trained teacher and being aware of your own body’s responses, risk of injury is significantly reduced!