With all the buzz about yoga's benefits, it was just a matter of time before people starting talking about its potential pitfalls as well. Time Magazine and The New York Times have reported that doctors are seeing more yoga-related injuries than ever. While this is probably a function of the increasing popularity of yoga, there are some precautions you can take to make sure you do not sustain any injuries that will prevent you from enjoying your practice for years to come.
1. Find a Qualified Teacher
Until recently, yoga teachers were taught over years of intensive study with a yoga guru. While this is a wonderful model, it is no longer realistic for every teacher to be trained this way. In order to standardize qualifications in the United States, the Yoga Alliance has set guidelines for 200-hour and 500-hour yoga teacher training programs. Make sure the teachers you take classes with have obtained at least this minimum amount of training. This will greatly reduce the chance that you will be injured because a teacher is pushing you to do something you are not ready for, or has given you a bad adjustment. If the idea of being adjusted makes you uncomfortable, be sure to tell any teacher and they will undoubtedly respect your wishes.
2. Have Realistic Expectations
Unless you are a dancer or a gymnast, you will not be able to put your leg behind your head after a few yoga classes, even if you are a fantastic athlete in amazing shape.
You may never be able to put your leg behind your head, especially if you are only doing yoga occasionally. Advanced yoga poses require strength, flexibility, balance, and often, many years of practice.
3. Do Not CompeteOne of yoga's most useful tenets is an emphasis on getting to know your own body and making decisions that are right for that body. Many yoga injuries come from attempting to do poses that your body is not ready for because you see someone else in the class doing them. Even if your teacher encourages you to try something, cultivate the wisdom to know when to stop. So many times I have heard teachers instructing advanced variations on poses say things like, "do not go any further unless your heel is down, your hip is on the floor, your shoulder is under your knee, etc.," only to look around the room and see many students progressing to the next variation when they have not mastered the previous one. This is how injuries happen.
4. Do Not Compete With YourselfExtend the spirit of noncompetition to yourself. Every day, every practice is different. Listen to your body first and foremost. While it's fun to try difficult poses, it is not worth the risk of injury if you are not feeling up to it on a given day. Take the long view.
5. Choose Alignment-Oriented Practices
One of the best ways to avoid injury is to pick a style of yoga that emphasizes alignment, especially if you are already nursing an old injury or have a problem area. Some styles of yoga, particularly fast-paced ones, have a tendency to gloss over alignment. Having good alignment is the key to avoiding injury. Iyengar yoga is most alignment-focused. If you want a flowing vinyasa style that is also very alignment-oriented, try Anusara. Viniyoga is also a good choice, for its emphasis on building an individualized practice.