Let’s be real: As therapeutic as yoga can be, it’s not always as effortless as those backbending yogis make it look like on Instagram. While, in yoga, nailing a pose is always a work in progress, it’s also important that you’re not getting into a position completely incorrectly—and for more reasons than just appearance. Practicing yoga poses with improper alignment puts you at greater risk for injury, which makes learning how to do a downward dog properly worth your time.
Many people take crowded yoga classes where teachers don’t always have time to focus on one individual. And many practitioners, specifically those new to yoga, don’t always have the body awareness required to gauge alignment themselves. “If students practice yoga on autopilot, [they may] think they’ve been doing a pose correctly for years, while their form and awareness suffer, reducing the practice’s benefit and increasing their risk of injury,” says Yoga Instructor Nancy Gerstein.
It’s not expected that you’ll perfect a pose during your yoga practice, yet you still want to make sure that you avoid any movements that could cause any pain or injury, especially if you like to practice on your own using something like the Aaptiv app. Here are six common yoga poses that you’re probably doing wrong, plus how you can fix them.
“Foundational errors are usually the cause for frustration in downward dog,” says Gerstein. “This makes it difficult to fully release and lengthen the lower back. The hands have a tendency to turn inward and, as a result, the shoulders slouch.” Look at the hands and make sure that they point straight forward. Squeeze your arms straight and lengthen the back. “Bend the knees toward the floor,” says Gerstein. “With bent knees, tilt your pelvis up and create a lift in your hips.”
Many yogis see three-legged dog as a challenge to see how high they can get their leg in the air. But, this actually creates an entirely different pose, since the hip begins to open up towards the side of the mat rather than stay squared down towards the earth. “To correct this, flex the toes down towards the mat and squeeze the inner thighs together,” says Yoga Instructor Ava Johanna. “Internally rotate the thigh so [that] the pinky toe of the lifted leg is also pointing down, and the hips will naturally align with each other and the mat.”
“This balancing pose is often included in many, all-levels classes and is beautiful for photographing, but there are many instances where I see students placing their lifted foot directly on their knee,” says Johanna. “The knee joint is not meant to have pressure on it from the side, so when we are pressing the sole of the foot into the knee to balance, we risk damaging the joint.” Instead, place the foot on the ankle, calf, or inner thigh for support when doing tree pose.
There’s a common belief that the closer you are to the ground, the deeper into the pose you are going. But, this can cause you to collapse the posture down to the front of the knee, which turns the heart center to the floor rather than forward. “To earn the benefits of triangle, the torso should be lined up with the center of the front knee,” says Gerstein. To avoid this, stop where you feel resistance. “Bending the front knee or moving the pelvis forward is not going to allow you to achieve a healthy triangle, and impairs the integrity of the pose,” she adds. “Instead, honor your boundaries, even if your leading hand is on the top of thigh rather than the ankle.”
Half pigeon is one of those yoga poses where people try to go deeper than their hips will allow. “This takes the stretch out of the outer hip and puts pressure on the knee joint, especially if the student is folding their torso over the front shin,” says Johanna. Instead, set up the pose slowly, walking the palms back to frame the hips. Take your gaze behind you to ensure that the extended leg is shooting straight out from the hip joint, and only fold forward if the hips continue to stay level. Flex the front foot to protect the knee, and avoid leaning too far over, focusing on staying square.
A supine twist is a cooling post that can decompress the spine from any bending or twisting throughout the class. “Often, students will pull their knee towards the ground on the opposite side of the body which emphasizes the twist in the lower back rather than the thoracic spine,” says Johanna. To correct this, avoid pulling down on the knee and let it naturally weigh itself down with gravity. “Make sure [that] both shoulders are firmly pressed into the mat beneath you, which will automatically shift the twist from the low back to the mid-spine,” she says.
Although you may not nail your yoga poses overnight, paying attention to alignment will help you not only improve your practice, but also prevent any injury. If you like to do yoga at home, consider using the Aaptiv app to get instruction on yoga poses while you practice.