By now, you’ve heard all about the benefits of yoga: A regular yoga practice can lead to better sleep, lower stress levels, reduced blood pressure, and increased flexibility and strength. But, if you’re not careful, yoga can also cause injury, particularly to your wrists, lower back, shoulders, elbows, knees, hamstrings, and neck. In fact, a 2016 study discovered that yoga-related injuries have nearly doubled from 2001 to 2014. Our experts dive into the six most common yoga injuries. Here is how you can avoid them to get the most out of your time on the mat.
“The wrist is such a small joint, and is often already aggravated by overuse of computer work and texting,” says Melissa Okabe, a yoga teacher based in Los Angeles. “Many yoga poses include practitioners being on their wrists. In the beginning, it’s not something our body is used to. Poses such as downward facing dog, plank, side plank, chaturanga, handstand, crow, and other arm balances, if done incorrectly, can aggravate wrist pain. Instead, think about really taking the time to focus on your hand and wrist alignment, even in the basic poses.”
Yoga Instructor Jenay Rose recommends warming up properly and slowly adding pressure, before putting your full body weight on your wrists. She also suggests keeping weight spread evenly through your hands, especially between the knuckles of the palm and the thumb. Otherwise, says Aaptiv trainer Ceasar F. Barajas, you can strain your wrists.
Here’s how you can further prevent injury, according to Okabe:
- Avoid cupping your palms and turning the fingers inward.
- Don’t take shoulders too far forward past your wrists.
- Use a yoga wedge, a rolled up mat, or a towel to take extra pressure off your wrists.
- Place your knees on the ground to modify poses, as you build strength in wrists and shoulders.
“Lower back pain is the most frequently cited yoga injury, due to rounding through the spine in poses like forward folds and downward dog, or keeping the legs too straight when going into a pose,” explains Betty Bonanno, yoga teacher and creator of YogiWear. “Rounding causes the spine to flex the opposite way it’s supposed to, which can lead to disc problems and lower back muscular problems.”
Barajas says over-stretching the major muscle groups in your back, or forcing muscles into elongation, is a recipe for injury and irritation. Additionally, it can hurt your SI (sacroiliac) joint, which connects the sacrum and bones of the pelvis, as well as supports the spine. Jai Sugrim, an NYC-based yoga teacher with more than 20 years of experience, says he sees this all the time with yogis.
Find balance and stability
“The key to preventing this injury is to spread the toes out and push the bone under the big toe joint away from the body. This draws all of the muscles of the legs towards the bones, [taking] the pressure away from the SI joint,” says Sugrim. “This toning of the leg, while it is in motion, develops inner strength, balance, and stability. Balance and stability translate to safety.”
Before folding your body in any way, Bonanno says to imagine that you’re lengthening the spine “up and away from the hips.” She also recommends “engaging the abs for a stable core.”
Other tips from Rose to keep your lower back healthy during yoga:
- Bend your knees in forward folds to allow your low back to decompress.
- Keep a micro-bend in your knees throughout your entire practice, if necessary.
- Slow down during twists, and go in and out of them very slowly with deep breaths.
- Engage your low belly, as core strength contributes to a strong, safe back.
Shoulders or Elbows
“The most common yoga injuries I’ve encountered are repetitive strain or stress injuries (RSIs), which are injuries to the musculoskeletal system or nervous system from repeated or forceful motions or exertion,” shares Rebecca Weible, founder of Yo Yoga! “RSIs are often developed over time from repeatedly doing a pose incorrectly, spending long amounts of time in a pose, or simply overdoing a certain pose or series of poses. I see it in people’s shoulders and elbows from [repeatedly] practicing chaturanga incorrectly or simply doing too many vinyasas over the course of years of practice.”
Weible points out the fact that many yoga classes these days use chaturangas to make the experience “more of a workout.” She wishes more students would modify or skip them, especially if they’re already feeling fatigued. That’s when alignment deteriorates and injury usually happens.
Sugrim also points out that many open level yoga classes incorporate several chaturangas. “The repetitive stress overloads the shoulder joint. [This] particularly [affects] where the humerus (upper arm bone) and clavicle (upper chest bone) meet,” he says. “Congestion between the articulation point of these two bones leads to muscle strain and inflammation of the tissues. This injury can be prevented by pushing the heels back and reaching the chest forward while lowering the body.” Sugrim explains that this stretches out the weight of the torso in two directions, taking pressure off the shoulder.
In other poses, Okabe’s advice is to keep shoulders held back and down away from the ears as much as possible and to modify if you feel any sensitivity in the shoulders. For example, in a posture like upward facing dog, be sure to broaden through your collarbones as you press fully through your palms, and in any stretch or bind, be careful not to pull too hard on the shoulders.
Many people feel discomfort, tension, or pain in the knees during a yoga class. This is primarily due to tight hips or preexisting injuries. A 2012 study indicated that yoga can lead to meniscus tears, which is why keeping your knee over your ankle in any lunging postures matters so much.
“When bent, your knee should always track over your second middle toe,” says Rose. “You never want your knee to cave inward. Think about rolling your thigh (of your front knee or bent leg) and butt underneath you, to bring your knee towards the pinkie toe side of your foot. When straight, keep a micro-bend in your knee. Try not to lock your knee out, as this is really bad for the joint.”
“Hamstring injuries tend to occur when people fold forward without contracting the front side of the body, the quadriceps, and the lower abdomen,” says Sugrim. “When the front of the body provides stability, the hamstrings feel safe letting go. If your hamstring stretch comes only from the back body, the risk factor for this injury goes through the roof.”
This happens, says Weible, because lots of people try to increase their flexibility through deep stretching—when really, less is more. Or, it occurs when an individual attempts to perform a pose without proper alignment and control. The result? A muscle strain or pulled muscle, caused by sudden movement or pushing yourself too hard.
“It’s very easy to pull or over-stretch the hamstrings in straight-leg yoga poses, such as forward bends,” says Okabe. “For those that are a little tighter in the hamstrings, keep a slight bend in the knees as you forward fold and focus on lengthening the spine, rather than rounding at the low back.” She recommends using blocks to bring the floor closer during standing forward folds, and using a blanket or bolster to help the pelvis’ anterior tilt during seated forward folds.
Limited flexibility may not be the only culprit, however. “It’s also possible for those that have a lot of mobility in the hamstrings to also over-stretch. [This] results in an injury at the hamstring insertion,” says Okabe. “To avoid this injury for a more bendy type of body, think about engaging the outer hips to the midline before forward bending. Be mindful to not go past your limit.”
Any time you put pressure on your neck in a yoga pose, such as during shoulder stand or headstand, it’s an act of compression that can lead to issues with your cervical vertebrae. She’s witnessed inexperienced yogis resting on the top of their head before going into full wheel, which puts a dangerous amount of body weight on your head and neck. Bonanno says these are the scariest areas to harm, due to the length of time required for healing.
Don’t force yourself into any poses, either, says Barajas. If you have a question about alignment, then he says you should ask your instructor; otherwise, follow the golden rule of easing into every position. “Each person’s body and yoga journey is different,” says Okabe. “The goal of yoga isn’t to perform any given pose. It’s a mind-body experience that has the power to transform you from the inside out if you allow it.”
Rose echoes this sentiment and encourages students to move at their own pace, even if everyone else is moving fast. She also says it’s okay to give yourself time to open up the parts of the body more prone to injuries, such as the wrists and lower back, even if the teacher skips over doing so.
“We try to do new poses and push our bodies into positions that they’re not used to. If it hurts, we need to just stop and let the ego go,” concludes Bonanno. “Also, before taking a new yoga class, understand exactly what kind of class it is. From beginner, intermediate, or advanced, there are many different types and styles of yoga today.”