Yoga’s Worst Offenders: Protecting your Knees, Back and Shoulders

yoga pose
Photo by milopeng

In a perfect world we would always step off our yoga mat feeling better, clearer and stronger than when we stepped on, but that isn’t always the case. Injuries can happen regardless of what we are doing, and yoga is no an exception. Aside from the standard caveats—listen to your body, watch your ego, remember to breathe—there are a few general principles that can help keep us stepping off on the good side of the mat.

While it is possible to get hurt in any pose, many injuries tend to involve the back, knees or shoulders. Ironically, these are also often achy and injured areas on the body that cause people to seek yoga out in the first place. Increasing our awareness of these areas, being mindful of their alignment and not forcing poses that stress them can help keep them healthy and happy.

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Perhaps one of the easiest ways to force your spine where is doesn’t want to go is in a twist, for example Parivrrta Parsvakonasana (Revolved Side Angle Pose) and Parivrrta Trikonasana (Revolved Triangle Pose). Twists are deceiving—they can appear simple, but are anatomically complex. Many people are also tempted to try to push just a little bit further. Resist this urge, and instead approach twists with caution and humility. Focus on keeping your spine long and belly relaxed. Stop before the end of your range and breathe. If you lose your breath, you’ve gone too far. Be extra careful in supine twists like Jathara Parivartanasana (Belly Twist), as gravity can also take you into the pose too deeply. Use props to support your knees and/or shoulders in these poses.

Forward folds also pose challenges to the back—especially the lower back. Never be afraid to bend your knees, and remember you don’t get a prize for being able to touch your toes in Urdhva Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend)! Coming out of folds with a long spine and engaged core is also important. While still a popular instruction in some classes, rolling up one vertebrae at a time can be detrimental to spinal health. If you have tight hamstrings, standing forward folds like Padangusthasana (Big Toe Pose) will be a better choice than seated ones such as Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend).

Knees are such tricky little things, often quick to become injured, but very slow to heal. Luckily, knee-alignment, once you know it, is pretty easy to remember, whether you’re in a standing pose, lunge or squat. In short: Keep them directly over or slightly behind the foot. Think about this simple rule the next time you’re in any of the Warrior Poses or in Utkatasana (Chair Pose). In hip openers with deep knee bends, the knee can become stressed, so using props liberally can help keep them safe, especially if you have limited flexibility.  Be extra cautious in to support the leg and not push too far into poses like Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (King Pigeon Pose), Agnistambhasana (Firelog Pose), or Padmasana (Lotus Pose).

It’s common to carry the weight of the world in tight, weak shoulder muscles that are accustomed to creeping up towards our ears or roll forwards. Beware of over stretching the shoulder muscles, especially in Downward Facing Dog Pose. Strengthening the shoulders with inversions can help here if you have the strength to practice, but if you’re not there yet, practice some shoulder opening sequences to increase flexibility and rotation. Also, be sure to loosen any tension in the neck and upper back before entering postures that will challenge your shoulder strength and stability.

Perhaps just as important as learning to keep yourself safe, is practicing with others that support and encourage your efforts. If you are attending classes that shame you for not pushing yourself into the pose of the moment, you’re likely to get hurt. The same goes for classes that move too fast for you to practice good alignment and awareness. Beyond that, it’s up to us to know when we must accept that there may just be some poses that are not going to work for our bodies in this lifetime. So practice self-acceptance and honest awareness with each breath you take.

What are some of the ways you keep yourself safe during your practice? Are there any poses you currently avoid?

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