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5 Ways to Help Avoid Injury in Your Yoga Practice

I for one refuse to give up a practice that has literally transformed my life from the inside out. So instead I'm giving you five simple ways to approach your yoga practice that will help keep you safe and injury-free.
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We've pretty much accepted that yoga is a powerful life-changing practice that is here to stay. Still, not all yoga practices are created equal. As amazing as the yoga practice is (I should know, I've been practicing and teaching for the past 12 years) it's still a physical practice, and just like any other form of movement you can hurt yourself.

I'm sure we all remember the frightening article "How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body" a few years back in the New York Times talking about the dark side of the yoga practice -- the injuries we are not talking about. The article goes as far as to say that one well know yoga teacher believes that "the vast majority of people should give up yoga all together. It's simply too likely to cause harm."

Despite this article, millions still practice yoga in the U.S. I for one refuse to give up a practice that has literally transformed my life from the inside out. So instead I'm giving you five simple ways to approach your yoga practice that will help keep you safe and injury-free.

1. Breathe Deeply

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Despite the fact that we generally take the breath for granted, it is the most important piece of your yoga practice. When the breath is short and sharp it can activate the fight or flight response in the nervous system making you feel stressed. When you are stressed you are less likely to make responsible choices in your yoga practice. Instead of flowing gracefully through the practice the struggle ensues making you more susceptible to hurting yourself.

Have you ever seen an experienced yoga teacher practice? They make it look effortless and often times quite beautiful. Why? They are deeply connected to their breath. So make sure you breathe deeply. If you can't then you need to take a child's pose or a time out.

2. Stability Over Flexibility

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Photo Credit: Fotolia

If I had a nickel for how many times I've heard someone say, "I'm not flexible enough for yoga," I'd have a lot of nickels. Yoga has the stigma that in order to practice you need to be able to bend yourself into shapes that makes you feel like you're preparing for Cirque Du Soleil, or a very brave sexual adventure. I'm going to let you in on a little secret -- super flexible yogis have it just as hard as those who can't even touch their toes.

When someone is over-flexible they are more prone to dump into their ligaments and joints because most likely they can't feel the stretch unless they do. But here's the thing: Flexibility will only take you so far in your practice. If you don't have the stability and muscular engagement to back it up, you run the risk of doing damage to your body. Maybe not right away but over time all of that instability can lead to injury.

I had a student who was a gymnast when she was younger and then moved on to yoga. In her late 30s she discovered that her pelvis had shifted in her body because the muscles around it were not strong enough. Needless to say it was a humbling experience.

Instead of trying to push into your flexibility, find balance by engaging your muscles. Start from whatever touches the ground and work up. Think about hugging your muscles towards the bone. And always remember that for the bulk of the practice, your abdominals should be engaged.

3. Keep Your Eyes on Your Mat

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Photo Credit: Fotolia

Sometimes I avoid giving a deeper option to a pose because I sense too many students will do it even if they aren't ready. Yes, the ego shows up quite a bit in the yoga practice and can even cause injury. Often I see people attempting postures that they aren't warmed up or skilled enough to attempt. I see people avoiding props and needing to keep up with those around them.

My advice is to keep your eyes on your own mat. Just because flexi Francis can do a full split doesn't mean you need to. Just because muscles Magee can land that arm balance doesn't mean you will. And it's all good. Sure you can try but if you start to enter into a posture and it suddenly stops feeling safe, back off and stay where you are. There's always tomorrow.

4. Practice More Than Once a Week

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The thing about the body is that it's not going to change overnight. Your muscles need time and consistency to open, lengthen and get stronger. Practicing once a week isn't going to facilitate that.

If you are going to commit to a yoga practice, you want to go at least three times a week. While practicing once a week does get you into your body, it simply isn't enough to really create lasting physical change.

5. Be Open to More Than Just Yoga

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I recently heard a yoga teacher share that, despite the fact her healer advised her to engage in weight training to help heal few yoga injuries, it was "never going to happen." It's great to be committed to your yoga practice but you don't want to be closed off to other forms of physical movement.

Just as I believe a regular yoga practice needs to be balanced with therapy or acupuncture or meditation to foster emotional transformation, I also know that sometimes the physical yoga practice is not enough to heal certain injuries or keep the body balanced. There are certain muscles the practice will not reach and sometimes when dealing with an injury you need to strengthen these muscles to balance the ones that are over worked and potentially pulling your body out of alignment.

It could be as simple as doing a few muscle-specific exercises every day for a few months or adding some weight training. Believe me, your yoga practice is not like a jealous boyfriend. If you need to add other modalities it's totally cool.

Want to make sure you stay safe and healthy in your yoga practice? Then be sure to check out my FREE online workshop this week where I will be breaking down 4 of the most misaligned postures in the Vinyasa yoga practice. You can register by clicking here.