Common Yoga Injuries & Their Solutions.Feb 22, 2020
When I started practicing yoga in my early 20s, everything felt great. I practiced a sweaty vinyasa flow everyday and my body felt amazing after class. This honeymoon period lasted for several years, and I saw tremendous physical gains during this time.
After a few years of daily practice, I started noticing aches and pains. The top of my hamstrings felt like they were burning when I bent over, my upper back had shooting pain when I was weight-bearing on my hands, and I had weird tingly numbness traveling through my limbs during practice.
The honeymoon period was over, and it gave way to a nightmare I didn’t know how to wake up from. Even worse, I was continuing to teach during this time--sharing sequences that were creating pain in my body, and packaging them for others as if everything was feeling great. I felt like a sham.
Luckily, many dark-nights-of-the-soul paved way for positive transformation. After a period of letting my practice go dormant, I found myself interested in movement science and human movement in a way I was never interested in before. I didn’t want to forego my practice, but I also didn’t want to be in pain any longer.
I learned that common yoga injuries tend to happen for two reasons: We do too much too soon, or we do too little for too long. I learned that both of those scenarios applied to me in different ways. I was doing too much in the sense that I was going full throttle into end-range positions that I had not developed the strength or stability to do sustainably. This is why my upper back was singing during weight-bearing and my limbs were tingly during practice. I was doing too little in the sense that I wasn’t balancing my yoga practice with the necessary cross training needed for a balanced practice. I spent so much time stretching my hamstrings without strengthening them that they screamed in pain whenever I bent over.
As I started learning more about balanced movement nutrients, I came across hundreds of stories similar to my own: People who were practicing yoga and feeling great, until one day they weren’t.
My work over the past several years has been in trying to figure all of this out in a way that helps me and helps others. I don’t want injury to stop me and I don’t want it to stop you either. In putting what I’ve learned into practice, I’ve found pain-free movement, built up my capacity to do the things I love doing (sustainably!), and have rekindled my love for my practice.
Here’s what I’ve learned about yoga and injuries.
Yoga & Injuries: What The Research Says
I’d like to start this conversation with a disclaimer that yoga is not inherently injurious.
In fact, research shows that yoga is no more injurious than any other sport, and is often less injurious because it is a low load activity (being a bodyweight exercise). Unlike other sports, yoga doesn’t involve intensely complex movement scenarios, like changing direction while sprinting, going really fast and stopping on a dime, or doing really anything full throttle. Our body needs movement, so given this information, yoga seems like a pretty safe choice all things considered.
Research also shows that people who are new to yoga are actually less at risk to be injured than people who have been practicing for a long time. This could be for several reasons. First of all, we know that our bodies thrive on novel movements, which means that when yoga is still new to our tissues, we are adapting to become stronger, which protects us from injury. Secondly, it may be that we take bigger risks the more we practice, increasingly the likelihood for injury. Furthermore, it could be that the people who choose to have life-long yoga practices are less likely to cross-train to account for other movement nutrients the body needs to thrive.
I think it’s important to start the conversation here to minimize the potential fear we might feel around movement and yoga. If we learn how to be smart movers, we will be able to have a thriving yoga practice that can sustain us for our whole lives. Better yet, our yoga practice can actually help us address the injuries we have so that we feel better and have more capacity.
Common Yoga Injuries & What To Do About Them
Having said all that, it’s still the case that some people get injured in yoga. This was certainly the case for me, as it’s been for many others. In studying my own injuries, I found that what I was going through was actually quite common. I also found stories of other common yoga injuries that I had not personally experienced, but that I could see I was on the pathway to developing had I kept going down the road I was going.
Before breaking these injuries down into separate categories, I’d like to share a common thread that ties them all together. Traditional western postural yoga tends to glamorize end-range positions for our joints, and people who are able to achieve these positions are often regarded as more advanced than those who are more conservative with their shapes. Because of this, our joints often pay the price down the line for end-range positions we attempt today, especially if we attempt them without having the prerequisite strength and stability needed to make these positions sustainable. This is something to keep in mind as we break down injuries into different categories.
Upper Extremity Injuries: Wrist, Elbow and Shoulder
When our wrists feel achey in yoga, it’s likely because we aren’t strong enough to support the positions we’re doing. Dozens of times throughout a single vinyasa yoga class, we bear weight on the wrists with the entire weight of our body. If our wrists are not strong enough to extend 90 degrees on their own without the help of the floor pushing into them, then we are relying on leverage and gravity to create our positions, rather than our own strength. This can create achiness through the wrist, elbow and into the shoulder.
If we feel pinching or pain in the shoulder during or after practice, this is also telling us something. Between table-top, plank, downward dog and other upper-body-weight-bearing poses, there’s quite a lot to troubleshoot. What I’ve found helpful is understanding the optimal positioning of the shoulder joint in each of the weight-bearing positions, and learning to assess whether my shoulders are able to execute those positions without compensating in other parts of my body. Without kaleidoscoping too deeply into the matter, what I’ve found helpful is learning to activate the muscles of my arms, armpits, upper back and chest to create a container of support for my shoulder joints, so that my bones never feel like they are sagging or drooping--they always feel buoyant and held up. Take a look at the article I wrote on how to do a push-up to learn more about optimal shoulder positioning in weight-bearing positions.
Because yoga is a low load activity, it is unlikely that our spine will incur injury directly from our yoga practice. However, we may have aches and pains in our spine that we want to correct with our yoga practice, and our yoga practice may exacerbate issues we already have.
Our spine is a wavey spring that has four natural curves to it. When we move our spine in yoga, we want to consciously articulate our movement, rather than have our movement just happen to us.
Backbends are notorious for causing pain in the low back--this is because the low back’s natural curve is already a backbend shape, making it easier for this part of our spine to move in this direction. Our work, then, is to find ways to distribute our backbends evenly throughout the entire spine, rather than simply letting the easiest things move.
Forward folds can also exacerbate back pain we already have. This often happens because our movement strategies are such that we move from the spine first before moving from the hips. In my experience, when our brain is able to declump the spine from the hips and is able to move our hips independently from the spine, the entire back feels better.
Try my free yoga practice called Low Back Love to gain some deeper insight and try out new movement strategies.
Lower Extremity Injuries: Hips, Knees and Ankles
When we know how to articulate the six movements of our hips in a way that’s supported by our strength, the hips tend to work and feel better. If you find that you have persistent pain in the hip joint or muscles surrounding the hips, be open to the possibility that there is some imbalance in how you access movement around the joint. If you are used to sinking into the hips in standing poses and relaxing the muscles to feel a deeper sense of stretch in big hip openers, you might consider going less deep into those positions and supporting them with your muscular strength. The hip is a capsule, and it has muscle tissue 360 degrees around it--this tissue should be communicating and working (i.e contracting) to create our positions, rather than us simply relying on gravity to get deeper into the hips. Our muscles have one job: to contract; and so if we are used to relaxing our muscles during hip movements, we aren’t adapting our tissues to do their jobs. We end up doing too much in our joints and not enough in our tissues--we need to reverse this and do less with our joints and more with our tissues. If you take this to heart, my prediction is your hips will feel better, less tight and more capable within a few practices.
The good news is, when we use our hips better, our knees and ankles tend to follow suit. The knees can often feel achey when we use them in an imbalanced way on the inside and outside of the joint. An easy fix is to continuously monitor them throughout practice and to focus on generating even pressure on the inside and outside of the joint. When the knees feel off, adjusting the feet and/or hips can often help because the knee is really a middle-man between those two joints. Building strength on all sides of the legs and learning how to flex the knee (bend the knee) using the strength of our muscles rather than gravity or leverage will also help.
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