Several years ago, New York Times reporter William Broad started a firestorm of words by painting yoga as a body-wrecking fitness fad. The response from the yoga community was passionate and ongoing. Many teachers, however, regard yoga injuries non-news in the West, where we approach yoga primarily as a physical fitness regimen rather than as a system of personal transformation. To protect yourself from injury, focus on yoga’s history as “inner-cise” versus exercise.
- Warm up. Try to arrive early to class, and take time to center yourself. Begin by establishing breath awareness. Find your rhythm, linking the breath to simple movements like the Pawanmuktasana series. Start with gentle stretches—stretching too deeply too soon triggers your muscles’ protective reflexes and sets the stage for strains and pulls.
- Learn alignment principles. There’s a reason many yoga styles, like Iyengar Yoga, emphasize musculoskeletal alignment. Imagine what would happen to a three-story building if the footings were shaky or the frame was out of plumb. Learn how to ground your asana with strong lines and a solid foundation. If your alignment is less than ideal, you not only risk injury but also miss out on some of the benefits each asana has to offer.
- Return to the breath. Throughout class, be aware of your breath; it indicates your mental and physical state. Is your breath long and rhythmic—or shallow and erratic? Be receptive, and observe as you inhale. Make adjustments on the exhalations.
- Practice from the inside out. Humans are visual beings, and we often take our cues from looking at something outside ourselves—the teacher, a mirror, or the student on the mat next to us. But something may look okay on the outside and feel wrong inside. Yoga teaches us to deepen and refine our awareness from the grossest layers to the most subtle.
- Modify. If you know your hamstrings are like crowbars or if you had knee surgery last month, don’t shy away from using props or practicing a variation. Inform your teacher before class if you have an injury or condition that will affect your practice. When something feels wrong (if it hurts, or if your breath becomes erratic), back off, ask for assistance, or seek the teacher’s advice after class.
- Establish a home practice. During a fast-moving class, sloppy alignment habits can start to stick like a groove on a record. At home, you can focus on exploring and refining your asana. Where do you feel tension (pulling or stretching)? Where do you feel compression (pushing or “stuckness”)? Are you holding back in some places? Are there places where your awareness hasn’t reached? Where are your edges?
- Step back—literally. For years, I was a front-row yoga student, until I realized I learned more by moving further away from the action, making it easier to internalize my focus. In particular, Type A personalities, pitta-dominants, need to be watchful about competing or overdoing to reach a goal.
- Know your enemy. The comic strip Pogo is famous for the line, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Similarly, in yoga, the biggest obstacle is the ego—not necessarily the ego of pride or self-puffery, but identification with the false self of personality, thoughts, desires, etc. Test yourself: Do you enter an asana from willfulness or mindfulness?
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By now, you probably recognize a common theme of self-awareness underlying each item in the list above. While it’s important to choose the right teacher and class, ultimately you are responsible for your journey. Practicing swadharma in asana is a familiar concept for students of longtime yoga teacher Rama Jyoti Vernon. Swa means “one’s own,” and dharma is often translated as “duty” or “path.” In other words, be true to yourself.
Do you have any other tips to help prevent injury during a yoga class?