Most yoga teachers are chock-full of posture cues designed to protect the body during an asana practice. Alignment prompts like “keep your knee over your ankle,” and “inwardly rotate your thighs” are often heard during Warrior postures as important tools for keeping the body safe.
In slower paced classes, those alignment cues are often easy to follow. However, the popular, fast-paced flow of vinyasa yoga causes some of us to overlook alignment, contributing to habits that over time—despite our good intentions—can lead to injury and physical harm.
Imagine what years of misaligned chaturangas could do to the low back if you regularly hung your hips down like a hammock! Consider what hundreds of upward facing dogs could do to that complex group of muscles known as the rotator cuff if you arched the upper back without strengthening your legs, chest and core? Ouch.
The good news is that with mindful attentiveness, we can reduce the risk of injury during faster-paced practices. Here are three common vinyasa yoga injuries and some steps to avoid them:
1. Wrist strain: Have you ever felt like your wrists were screaming during downward facing dog, plank and other poses in which the hands were supporting the body? Ever receive a cue to take a break and “shake out the wrists?” While this instruction can be helpful in the moment—and though it can take a new yogi time to strengthen the hands and wrists—we can avoid straining these muscles during our practice. Here’s how:
The next time you’re in a pose in which your hands bear weight, check to make sure that your fingers are pointed towards the front of your mat (use your ring finger for a marker here). Then, check the weight distribution in your hands. All ten fingers should feel as though they are sinking into the mat, without any room for air to pass between the mat and your fingers. This allows your body weight to be evenly spread across the palm and fingers instead of the wrists. Finally, many teachers instruct students to focus on the area of the palm that lies between the index finger and the thumb. If you can, press this area into the mat while externally rotating the arm bones (or visualize rotating the elbows towards each other), and voila! You have set yourself up for optimal wrist protection. Note: This can be extremely challenging for new yogis and/or seasoned yogis with established habits. But overtime this will help the wrists by strengthening the mechanical system of the hands, fingers, forearms and shoulders so that they synergistically function in the way they were designed.
2. Low back “crunching”: Whether we over compress during backbends or sag during plank pose, our lower backs take a considerable amount of abuse when we practice out of alignment. How to avoid “crunching”:
In just about every pose, we want to visualize a long low back. This does not mean to “tuck” the tailbone by squeezing the buttocks. Rather, visualize the tailbone lengthening towards the heels and the belly button gently drawing in and up, towards the front plane of the spine. By doing this, we engage the lower abdominal muscles to support the low back and strengthen the group of muscles designed to support the pelvis. This action goes beyond physical safety; by strengthening the pelvic floor and first and second chakra regions we tone and optimize urinary and adrenal functions. Furthermore, be sure to engage the strength of your quadriceps and chest muscles during cobra and upward-facing dog. Though these are backbending poses, your back should not be doing all of the work!
3. Knees, please: The knees are another common area of injury. Too often, in poses like high lunge, we can over bend the knee and strain the connective tissue around the kneecap. This can lead to injuries like torn or over-stretched ligaments, which can have long-lasting effects on our leg strength and overall posture. So how do we protect the knees?
Always keep the knee directly over the ankle—or closer to the body—in any weight-bearing, bent-knee poses. Never bend the knee so deeply that it aligns over the toes. This is a lot of strain! When you’re in lateral poses like Warrior II, where our hips face away from our bent knee, visualize the bent knee drawing away from the midline towards the middle toe of same foot. Our knee joint was only really designed to flex and straighten in a single plane, that is, move back and forth in a direct line rather than move from side to side. By visualizing your knee drawing away from the midline in Warrior II, we engage the outer thigh muscles to keep it aligned with the hip and ankle, which helps to bear our weight.
So, the next time you’re in a pose, check your alignment, and check it twice. It can feel exhilarating to flow through vinyasas intuitively without over-thinking, but make sure to bring your awareness to your alignment enough to honor your body’s natural movements.
What are some of your favorite posture cues that have helped your alignment?