Yoga might seem like a cakewalk compared to more extreme workouts like CrossFit and pole dancing. But that doesn’t mean you can’t get hurt while you’re upside down in Sirsasana or reaching behind for your foot in Natarajasana.
If you want your yoga practice to last you until you’re old and wrinkly, you’re going to want to protect yourself from injuries like pulls, tears, sprains, and other more serious things! Here are 5 tips from me to you so you can keep flowing in your 30s, 60s, 80s, and beyond.
1. Let go of your ego
With all these super fit, extra flexible, and incredibly strong yogis on Instagram, it’s hard not to get jealous. If you’re exposed to that kind of material every single day, you start basing your self-esteem on your capability to do the same acrobatic asanas. Your practice becomes more about pushing your body and less about respecting your limitations.
This incessant desire to stick your forearm stands and get deeper into your splits is the work of the ego. And it’s the usual culprit behind the most common yoga injuries. So drop the ego and enjoy plenty more wonderful years of safe yoga!
Letting go is a popular mantra in yoga but it’s easier said than done, especially when you’re talking about the ego. It definitely takes time and a lot of practice but you’ll find that it does get easier along the course of your yoga journey. Just always remember that your worth isn’t dependent on the shapes of your asanas!
2. Strengthen the muscles that protect your most vulnerable joints
As a rule of thumb, the more mobility a joint has, the less stable it is. We enjoy the most movement in our shoulder joints which explains why they’re the most frequently injured! And so it’s incredibly important to strengthen the shoulder muscles that support them so that we don’t ever have to suffer the pains of a dislocated shoulder. Plank variations are good for this!
You’re also going to want to protect the knee joints. While they’re supported by a complex structure of cartilage and ligaments, it wears down with time, thus requiring the aid of strong knee muscles. Standing asanas are a great way to develop strength in the knees–just always remember to never allow your knees to go past your ankles to keep them safe.
Of course, you can’t forget about strengthening the powerhouse of the body–the core! A strong core will take the weight off your joints and help stabilize you in all asanas.
3. Learn the difference between discomfort and pain
If you practice the “No pain, no gain” mantra when you’re doing yoga, you might want to reconsider that. While “No discomfort, no gain” doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as well, your body will thank you for it! Discomfort is completely normal in yoga (wheel pose, am I right?) but pain means something isn’t right.
While it might be difficult to differentiate between pain and discomfort, especially when you’re a beginner and everything seems painful, they are two very different sensations. Discomfort is when your body feels challenged–your core might be shaking, your legs trembling, and arms burning. But pain is a sharp and stabbing feeling which sometimes even leads to swelling.
Being able to push through discomfort means your body’s getting stronger but pushing past pain does more damage than good. So it’s important to know when to keep going and when to back off!
4. Listen to your body even when your teacher says you can do better
Yoga teachers are there not only to guide their students through a flow but to make sure they’re safe during class as well. But the overzealous ones will forget about their latter duty and will start molding their students into shapes that aren’t exactly safe for their bodies.
You might have found yourself in this situation before. You’re in Paschimottanasana (seated forward fold), minding your own business, when all of a sudden you feel your teacher’s hands pushing you down until your nose smushes into your shins. Or you’re in Prasarita Padottanasana (wide-legged forward fold) and your teacher grabs hold of your hips and flips you up into a handstand.
While it is important to listen to your teacher, know that you are your own best teacher. Only you would know your body’s true limits. Only you would know if something doesn’t feel right. Only you would know if you’re in pain. Safety is a shared responsibility so make sure you do something if your teacher gets way too excited!
5. Take advantage of Reciprocal Inhibition and Inverse Myotatic Reflex
Reciprocal Inhibi…Inverse Myotat…Say what now?! Don’t let these highfaluting terms intimidate you because they’re actually very simple phenomenon that come in handy when you’re stretching.
Reciprocal Inhibition means that when a muscle contracts, its partner muscle relaxes. Contracting the biceps, for example, will lengthen the triceps. While engaging the abs will lengthen the lower back. And when you contract the quads, your hamstrings release. Knowing how reciprocal inhibition works will allow you to deepen your stretches without pulling your muscles. Magical stuff, aye?
As for Inverse Myotatic Reflex, it happens when our Golgi tendon organs (proprioceptors located at the points where our muscles meet our tendons) sense an excess in muscle tension and produce a lengthening reaction to prevent our muscles from tearing. It’s pretty neat! However, our Golgi tendon organs need time to react so it’s important that we move slowly and hold our poses longer.