How To Avoid Pain In Yoga: 5 Simple Tips Everyone Should Know
As a yoga instructor, one of my least favorite things to hear is that students have to stop practicing yoga due to pain, injury, or a combination of the two. Even worse is when the source of the pain is yoga. Unfortunately, I hear this all too often. Students are forced to quit practicing something they love, something that is good for them, because somewhere along the line they have picked up bad habits. While there is the occasional instant injury caused by yoga (a hyper-extended knee, a sprained wrist, etc.), more often is the injury that is caused after months, or even years, of practice.
These potentially harmful bad habits can come from a variety of sources. One of the most common is instruction from yoga teachers. Oftentimes the instruction is well-intended, such as a phrase like “tuck the tailbone”, but can cause a student to focus too much on one very specific element of a pose, leading to over-correction and pain and discomfort over time.
Bad habits are also picked up thanks to the overwhelming amount of yoga-esque images that bombard us literally everywhere – our phones, computer, magazines, televisions, and even in our yoga studios. These images, while inspiring and beautiful, can lead us to believe that this pose done exactly like this should be the end result, the finish line, of our practice. So many times yoga students simply try to copy a pose from a picture, concerning themselves only with the “Does-It-Look-Like-That?” factor, completely ignoring how one should enter and exit the pose safely, the muscles that should be engaged, the way the pose feels in their body, and so on.
This habit of focusing only on the appearance of a practice is becoming a huge issue and, unfortunately, is forcing many people to stop practicing altogether because of injury and a whole myriad of other issues (i.e. boredom, exhaustion, depression).
Thankfully, there is a way to break bad habits (or if you’re new to the practice perhaps never pick them up!) And the solution is easy: get back to the basics. If we approach yoga in terms of what it really is supposed to be, a lifestyle, a union of the body and mind, we can begin to re-focus on what really matters in our practice. (Hint: it’s not the poses.)
Yoga is meant to be an exploration of the individual body and mind, your individual body and mind. Not the girl’s in the magazine. Not the model’s on the beach in a swimsuit. Not the woman’s in her underwear on YouTube.
Yoga is for everyone, young or old, fat or skinny, man or woman.
There is such a misconception that yoga is only for the fit and flexible and so much of that comes from the media and its love of “yoga” images that only show extreme postures performed by a small population of people whose bodies are able to bend, fold, and contort in unusual ways (whether what they are doing is good for them or not, how long they have been practicing, their background, etc. is rarely discussed when an image like that is distributed and shared).
But before I get too far off on a tangent (I’ll discuss this rabbit hole later, I promise), let’s get back to the one important thing: yoga should not hurt.
Let’s say it again together just for good measure: yoga should not hurt.
The second you move into a space of physical pain, you are not doing yoga. The moment you become more consumed by how your pose looks instead of how you are breathing, you are not doing yoga. The day you decide you are going to stop practicing because you are no good at it, you have stopped doing yoga already.
Pain, discomfort, injury – all of these can be a part of life and can sometimes be unavoidable, but they shouldn’t have to be a part of your yoga practice.
Here are five things to keep in mind while practicing yoga to help keep you pain and injury free.
1. Pay Attention To Alignment: Depending on the style of yoga you do, alignment may or may not be a big part of the instruction. And while it’s fine to enjoy a fast flowing Vinyasa class (I love these and teach these too!), it’s important to not get so caught up in the fancy transitions that you forget completely what pose you are doing.
If you take a class you love but the teacher doesn’t go over alignment (or not much of it), it might be wise to invest in a quality book (think Light On Yoga by BKS Iyengar) or a local workshop or class where you can learn even just the basics of alignment. Oftentimes poor alignment in a pose won’t cause immediate injury, but it can cause chronic pain after a long period of time. (I see this so often in the shoulders after people practice Chaturanga Dandasana with poor alignment for years).
It’s also a good idea to branch out and try new instructors or types of classes on occasion.Hearing a different instructor take you through a familiar pose but with new cues can really be eye-opening and help you to discover the depth of a pose, what it should feel like, what muscles should be working, isometric actions that are happening in the body, etc., not just its appearance.
2. Use Props: I am a prop slut. I love my yoga props. I take them everywhere. I have so many and so many different kinds of everything you can think of: straps, blocks, bolsters, blankets, pillows, wedges, chairs. Again, depending on the style of yoga you practice you may or may not be taught to love your props like I do. Oftentimes, I’ll see a studio stocked with props but no one using them. Either the instructor doesn’t encourage students to use the props provided or students believe the stigma that using props is a sign of weakness, a sign of being a “beginner”. I hear instructors so often say, “Do this and if you aren’t able to you can use a prop.” That’s like saying, “If you aren’t good enough, go ahead and use your prop.” No wonder so many people struggle through pose after pose refusing to use props!
I am here to tell you that using props is not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of knowledge! Embrace the block! Love your strap! Sit on your blanket! Use your towel! It feels good! Get over the mindset that if it doesn’t hurt you’re not making progress. Sure, there might be a time and place for that thinking, but I firmly believe that yoga is not one of them. If a prop helps you to be able to relax into pose, to breathe more deeply, and to enjoy it longer then please, please, please, use it!
3. Practice Sthira Sukham: Sthira = steadiness, Sukham = comfort and ease. This is part of one of Patanjali’s yoga sutras and a key tenant to practicing the physical part of yoga. In each pose you practice there should be a sense of balance, a balance between a concentrated and resolute steadiness (Sthira) and comfort and ease (Sukham). I’ll be honest, finding this balance is tough. It’s easy to want to go balls to the walls in a pose, mustering up every ounce of energy and strength to hold a posture, even if just for a second. It’s also easy to get lazy, to just go through the motions without really being intentional about what you are doing (Savasana, Corpse pose, is the perfect example for most people).
However, when you can find the balance of these two, you not only begin to understand your yoga practice on a deeper level, but you also keep yourself safe. Recognizing you are approaching something with too much effort and are unable to comfortably stay in it for any length of time, is an indicator that you are either not ready for it yet or that it’s time to approach it in another way. Either way, you will be better able to prevent injury and enjoy your practice.
4. Don’t Compare Yourself To Others: This doesn’t mean you have to cancel your subscription to your favorite yoga magazine or close your Instagram or Pinterest account, but it does mean that you should be mindful when you look at these images. Remember that you are unique and wonderful and that your body is too. It may or may not be able to do a certain pose perfectly, it may take years or decades of work to finally open your hips, you may never get into splits or float into handstand, but that is okay. It can and does do wonderful things and your yoga practice should be a reminder of that. An advanced yoga practice should not necessarily be something that someone can observe. It is deep, intentional work done in the mind. Don’t let your ego or your media-driven idea of what your yoga practice should look like ruin your ability to enjoy it. Do more of what you love and do it well. Practice for the sake of practicing, not with an end result.
Yoga can and should be practiced for a lifetime. Don’t be in any hurry…
5. Listen To Your Body: This one may seem obvious, but I feel like it’s worth repeating. No matter how good your instructor is or how badly you want to be able to do something, first and foremost always listen to your own body. If something doesn’t feel good, stop. If something is telling you that you shouldn’t go any further, don’t. If you are feeling like you need a break, rest. Your body is absolutely incredible. As a woman who has birthed two children I can tell you firsthand that your body is ridiculously amazing. It knows what it’s doing. Don’t let your mind get in its way. If I have learned anything from yoga it is the importance to be quiet, listen, and trust my instincts (in that order). If your body is telling you something, there is a reason for it. Stop and listen.