Somehow along the way, yoga—the practice associated with stress relief, increased flexibility and strength, and a myriad of other benefits—obtained a bit of a bad rep: It may cause injuries. In fact, the rate of yoga injuries per 100,000 participants almost doubled between 2001 and 2014, according to a study published in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine in 2016.
But don’t let these numbers scare you away from this beneficial practice. Although that research made headlines, other studies show that yoga injuries are rare, perhaps affecting less than 3 percent of yogis.
So can you get injured doing yoga? Sure! Any kind of physical activity poses a potential risk. But that doesn’t mean it has to, or that it should stop you from practicing altogether if it does.
“When an injury happens, it is an indication that yoga has stopped happening,” says Yoga52 instructor Brent Laffoon. “What causes an injury is when you are not doing yoga [properly], not paying attention, and not tuning in. People go to class and do not listen to their body, take a class level that’s not appropriate, or the teacher pushes people beyond their limits.”
Common Yoga Injuries
Ready to start practicing yoga with minimal risk of injury? Here are some of the most common yoga injuries and how to avoid them so you can stay safe and continue to grow within your practice.
Poses That Cause Shoulder Injury
Chaturanga is a big cause of shoulder injuries in yoga, Laffoon says. “It requires a certain amount of shoulder and triceps strength to hold properly. People will dip their shoulders down or do something that creates misalignment in the shoulders and puts strain on the rotator cuff. Over time, that creates a repetitive stress injury,” he explains. If you cannot perform chaturanga properly, Laffoon suggests coming down to your knees first from plank, then lowering your torso.
Other asanas that may lead to shoulder injuries are handstands and forearm balances. These advanced poses place a lot of load on your shoulders. If you do not have the strength to do them, avoid the full poses and work on building up your strength first.
Poses That Cause Hip Injury
There are two things that may commonly cause hip injuries in yoga: over stretching and overusing the hips.
Pain in pigeon pose is a clear signal that you’re over stretching, Laffoon says. To reduce the chance of injury, pull the heel of your front foot closer to your groin. Or if the hip of your front leg does not comfortably touch the ground, place your hip on a bolster or block to reduce the strain, rather than forcing it down to the ground.
Hip injuries from overuse often happen with one-legged standing poses such as tree pose and warrior III. In some cases, discomfort in these poses can be a sign of weakness, in which case those muscles need to be strengthened mindfully and patiently. But if the pain is sharp, or the kind that lingers even when you’re not doing the pose anymore, it’s likely an overuse injury and you need to rest for anywhere from a few days to a few weeks weeks, Laffoon says.
“But that doesn’t mean you have to stop practicing altogether. There are things you can do that don’t involve the hips,” he adds, so talk to your teacher, who can help you modify your practice.
Poses That Cause Back Injuries
“Muscular back injuries can be caused by doing any forward fold [standing or seated] too quickly,” Laffoon explains. Or, you may back bend too deeply before properly warming up, which also can cause serious harm such as a bulged disk or pinched nerve.
There’s a reason why these kinds of poses are done towards the end of class. Before doing camel, bridge, wheel, or any backbend, make sure your spine is warmed up and ready.
Poses That Cause Wrist Injuries
“Yoga can be very wrist-intensive,” Laffoon says. Think: down dog, chaturanga, plank, any arm balance…the list goes on. In order to avoid this kind of yoga injury, make sure to warm up and stretch your wrists before putting too much pressure on them.
If you feel extra sore after class, you can ice your wrists. Laffoon recommends soaking your entire wrist in a bowl of ice water for 20 minutes two to three times a day, taking at least 20 minutes between icing sessions. Do this for as many days as you need to feel better. But if your wrists aren’t feeling better after a week or two, it might be time to see a doctor.
How to Avoid Yoga Injuries
Yoga doesn’t need to be a form of exercise where you should be concerned about frequent injuries. Follow these tips to avoid getting hurt in the first place.
Listen to your body
The main way to avoid yoga injuries is to listen to your body. “People sometimes have this expectation that they will be able to do today what they did yesterday, but the body is different every day,” Laffoon says. “Tune in and honor those limitations and where you are on a given day.”
As you do this, keep in mind that pain is never a good sign. “There is this idea that people need to push themselves to really uncomfortable places to make some kind of gains in flexibility or strength,” Laffoon says. “To some degree, yes, but ultimately it should all feel good in the body. If not, it’s a pretty good sign something is out of alignment.”
To make the appropriate adjustments for your body, don’t be shy to use props—they are your friends! Using a yoga block during poses such as half moon and triangle can help you from going too deeply and doing more than what your body is ready for, Laffoon explains. You may even find that the extra support helps you go deeper in the right ways.
Be smart about what classes you take
Take the appropriate level and style of class for you, with an experienced teacher. If you prefer online yoga classes, make sure you’re doing them from a reputable site, and again, with instructors who are certified. If something continues to bother you, talk to the instructor for advice and modifications, or check in with your doctor.
What Should You Do If You Have a Yoga Injury?
If you do happen to get hurt while doing yoga, that doesn’t mean your practice is over for good. Don’t let it discourage you — look at it as an opportunity instead of a blocker. “Injuries can help you grow,” Laffoon says. “You just have to have the right attitude about them and stay curious, not only about what you might have done that caused it, but also how to continue moving forward in a new way while you heal. Learning how to do this well is one of the keys to making progress on the yoga path.”
To take your practice further in a safe way, try Openfit’s Yoga52, a collection of 52 elegantly produced yoga classes from beginner to expert taught by five of the world’s leading yoga instructors.