Yoga is super safe, but there's one area where people get injured more than anywhere else.
Yoga is now one of the most popular forms of exercise—and for good reason. Not only can it help you get fit, improve flexibility, and build strength, but there are also hidden health benefits, like revving your immune system and fighting migraines. It's pretty amazing that you can get all of this from just one form of exercise, right? And that's not even mentioning the mental health benefits.
As yoga has become more popular, though, the rate of yoga injuries has also risen, according to a new study in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine. That's not because yoga isn't safe, but simply because a larger number of people are getting their flow on. The study looked at trends in yoga injuries between 2000 and 2014 and found that while, yes, yoga is mostly safe, people should definitely be careful—especially those who are elderly, or who have previous injuries or back problems. In fact, 46 percent of yoga injuries were to the back/trunk area of the body.
So how can you avoid these kinds of injuries? We asked experts to find out which poses are most commonly done incorrectly, and how to avoid injury when you're doing them.
"This is the number-one pose that can strain your back," says Alexis Novak, an LA-based private and group yoga instructor. "We have very delicate muscles that surround our shoulder girdle," she says. "The purpose for these muscles is to lift the arm, help with breathing, and lift objects—they're not strong enough to hold your entire body up on their own." So how can you take some of the strain off? Recruit other muscle groups into the work you're doing. "Use your glutes—they're your biggest and strongest muscle," says Novak.
"These can be tricky for the back if done improperly," says Michael Gervais, Senior Manager of Group Fitness Talent and a yoga instructor at Equinox. "There's a saying that 'the belly is the back and the back is the belly,' meaning that if you have a weak core, your back will suffer and vice versa," says Gervais. The best way to fix it? "Usually, this means strengthening the core muscles to prevent back injury. Engaging your core, especially when coming in and out of a forward fold, will reduce the pressure on your vertebrae."
"The cervical spine (your neck) has the capability to hold up your head, plus a little bit more weight," says Novak. "It's not designed to hold your entire body weight." There's not much you can do in terms of headstand form to avoid this, but make sure you don't attempt this pose too soon after taking up yoga, and be sure to keep your core and glutes engaged.
Also known as bhujangasana, this smaller backbend can be more comfortable if the core is engaged, says Gervais. "It prevents kinking out and supports a softer angle for the spine. Be sure you do poses to strengthen the core, like planks and low boat pose, and keep your core engaged especially when coming in and out of all poses. Find an instructor who's willing to break down the poses for correct form, and never try to work through pain if something doesn't feel right. After all, yoga is all about working with your body, not against it, right?
"This pose is beautiful but very severe on the spine," notes Novak. "Your spine is built to keep you erect, with a little mobility for movements like running or dancing," she says. "Holding it static in an opposing shape with only the support of your extremities is really dangerous." In fact, "many people have slipped discs in their thoracic or lumbar spine from this pose." Ouch! As with the other poses mentioned here, keeping your core engaged can help take stress off of your spine.
Novak notes that overall, "If it doesn't feel right, it probably isn't. Your body has intuition and response receptors to protect you." When in doubt, use props! They're available in every studio for a reason. "Blocks bring the ground to you, rather than you straining to get to the ground." Strength training is also important: "Injury can be a result of weak muscles," she says. So even if you think yoga is better than hitting the gym, give lifting a shot a couple of times per week. (Feeling inspired? Check out this fat-burning yoga workout!)