How to Avoid Yoga Injuries

According to a 2016 study by Yoga Journal and the Yoga Alliance, more than 20 million people are down-dogging across the U.S. these days,pressing heels to mats in an attempt to reap yoga’s much-touted health benefits.

Among the many benefits are improved balance and flexibility,Polsgrove MJ, et al. (2016). Impact of 10-weeks of yoga practice on flexibility and balance of college athletes. DOI: 10.4103/0973-6131.171710 reduced anxiety and depression, and even lower blood pressure and heart rate.Lakkireddy D, et al. (2013). Effect of yoga on arrhythmia burden, anxiety, depression, and quality of life in paroxysmal atrial fibrillation: the YOGA My Heart Study. DOI: 10.1016/j.jacc.2012.11.060

Not only that: Research has also found that yoga can boost cognitive performance,Gothe N, et al. (2013). The acute effects of yoga on executive function., improve respiration,Bezerra LA, et al. (2014). Do 12-week yoga program influence respiratory function of elderly women? DOI: 10.2478/hukin-2014-0103 and help reduce chronic pain.Highland KB, et al. (2018). Benefits of the restorative exercise and strength training for operational resilience and excellence yoga program for chronic low back pain in service members: A pilot randomized controlled trial. DOI: 10.1016/j.apmr.2017.08.473 But this doesn’t mean that yoga, if performed incorrectly, can’t also cause harm.

While most yoga injuries aren’t severe and go unreported, more serious issues can occur, including strains and sprains, fractures, dislocations, and, in rare cases, sciatic nerve damage and stroke.Swain TA, et al. (2016). Yoga-related injuries in the United States from 2001 to 2014. DOI: 10.1177/2325967116671703

The truth is, injuries can happen any time, in any sport, or even walking down the sidewalk — and scary injuries are rare. Most yoga injuries develop gradually over years of consistent overstretching and misalignment.

As with any physical activity, the safest approach to yoga is to learn how to practice the poses correctly and stay in tune with your body to avoid overdoing it.

To get the lowdown on common yoga injuries and specific tips for addressing them, we spoke to yoga instructors Steven Cheng of Simha Yoga Lab in Jersey City, Julie Skaarup of Sol Yoga in Frederick, Maryland, and Jeni Livingston, a personal trainer and yoga instructor in New York.

Read on for their injury RX — from head to toe.

1. Wrists

When it comes to the wrists, it’s all about leverage. Placing all of the body’s weight in your wrists when your hands are on the mat can lead to muscle and joint injuries.

How to find relief

In any pose where weight is placed on your hands, distribute your body’s weight through both hands by spreading them wide and pressing through your fingers.

In Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Muka Svanasana), push your hips back to decrease the angle of your wrists to the floor. In arm balances, such as Crow Pose (Bakasana), look to see that your elbows are stacked directly over wrists, Cheng says.

2. Elbows

Joint pain in the elbows can result from bending them out to the sides in poses like Low Plank (Chaturanga Dandasana). While it may be easier to execute, lowering down with outward-pointing elbows can stress the joint and can also put undue stress on the wrists.

How to find relief

When bending your elbows in a pose (particularly Plank or Chaturanga), keep them tucked alongside your ribs as you bend them. Also, make sure your elbows’ creases face forward, Cheng says.

If this is difficult (yes, it’s a serious test of triceps strength), begin with knees on the floor. Remember, you can always work up to the unmodified version through regular practice.

3. Shoulders

Beware the shrug. By raising the shoulders up toward the ears (like when moving into Upward-Facing Dog or Urdhva Mukha Shvanasana), yogis stop using the supporting muscles in the arms, shoulders, and neck.

Shrugging also compresses the shoulders, which can cause muscle injuries, Cheng says. Even worse: It’s easy to injure the shoulder girdle or rotator cuff (and even dislocate the joint) by overextending or overstretching.

How to find relief

Let go. Be careful not to pull too hard on your shoulders in stretches, and always keep them held back and down away from your ears, yoga teacher and personal trainer Jeni Livingston says.

4. Ribs

Twists are awesome for releasing tension, but if done improperly they can overextend or bruise the intercostal muscles (the muscles in between the ribs).

How to find relief

Lengthen upward through your spine before twisting. Imagine that someone has a string attached to the crown of your head and is very gently pulling you up toward the ceiling. Twist to the point of feeling a stretch but not past it, even if you’re flexible, Cheng says.

5. Lower back

Lower back pain is a frequently cited yoga injury, and teachers speculate that it’s likely the result of rounding through the spine in poses like Forward Fold (Uttanasana) and Downward-Facing Dog.

Rounding causes the spine to flex the opposite way that it’s supposed to, Livingston says, which can cause disc problems in addition to that achy feeling post-class.

How to find relief

Before hinging at the hips and bending down, imagine lengthening the spine up and away from the hips. This will help you avoid rounding in the spine.

If you’re still struggling to stay on the straight and narrow, try bending the knees in poses like Forward Fold and Downward-Facing Dog, Livingston says, since the culprit could be tight hamstrings.

During Seated Forward Folds (Paschimottanasana), try sitting on a blanket or block to take pressure off the lower back. This will also help you hinge forward even more.

6. Hamstrings

Spend most days sitting in front of the computer, in class, or in the car? Guilty as charged. As a result, many of us have tight hamstrings, so it’s easy to pull or overstretch them in poses like Forward Bend, Cheng says.

How to find relief

Downward-Facing Dog, Warrior I (Virabhadrasana I), and Crescent Lunges (Anjaneyasana) are great ways to stretch out your hamstrings. Just remember to go slowly and work at your own pace.

If you have any kind of hamstring injury, try laying off poses that extend through the back of the body until the injury heals.

7. Hips

It’s easy to overextend the range of motion in the hips in Splits (Hanumanasana), Warrior II (Virabhadrasana II), and Wide-Legged Forward Folds (Prasarita Padottasana), Cheng says, which might tear the muscles of the inner groin or inner thighs.

How to find relief

A good rule of thumb is to make sure that your toes are pointed forward in any pose where your hips are squared off in the same direction (think: Warrior I).

Imagine there are headlights attached to the front of your hips and that you’re trying to keep the area straight ahead of you illuminated at all times.

8. Knee

Knee issues can plague even experienced yogis well after class. A common culprit of pain is the cross-legged position, Livingston says. Flexibility carries from the hips first; if the hips are tight in the pose, the knees will be the first place to feel pain or tension.

How to find relief

For those regularly bothered by knee pain, avoid sitting in cross-legged position or Full Lotus (Padmasana) for long periods unless the hips are already very flexible, Livingston says. Placing a block or rolled up blanket under the knees in cross-legged positions can also help reduce strain.

For low lunges, place a blanket underneath the knees. Any time the knee is bent in a standing pose (such as Warrior I and Warrior II), look to see that there’s a vertical line from the bent knee to the heel, Cheng says. This ensures that the body is bearing weight properly.

9. Neck

Headstands (Sirsasana) and Shoulder Stands (Sarvangasana) can be the worst culprits for neck pain and injury, says yoga teacher Julie Skaarup.

Repeatedly and incorrectly placing pressure on the neck leads to compression and puts pressure on the cervical vertebrae. This results in joint issues and, in some cases, loss of neck flexion.

How to find relief

For starters, always arrive with a beginner’s mind. When we see others doing cool upside-down postures, it can be tempting to give it a shot well before we’re ready. For those newer to yoga, master the modifications and build up your core and shoulder strength before trying these poses.

If you already have chronic neck or shoulder issues, it might be best to avoid full inversions altogether, Cheng says. If you really want to advance your practice, attempt them only with close supervision and by using props that elevate the neck away from the floor.

For those who already practice the pose without props, make sure your shoulder blades are drawn down and back so they’re safely supporting your body. Most importantly, never jerk your head once you’re up in the pose, Skaarup says, because it can destabilize the body, possibly causing a fall.

Proper alignment in poses is key, but it’s not the only factor in a safe yoga practice. To stay blissed out instead of stressed out over injury, follow the basic guidelines below.

Leave your ego outside

It can be tempting to rush into more advanced poses (how tough can handstands be, right?), but pushing our bodies is a recipe for injury. Yoga is “about finding where you are,” Skaarup says, “not trying to push to a place where your body may never be able to go.”

Warm up

It’s an important part of any physical activity, and yoga is no exception. Basic stretches (like neck rolls, shoulder rolls, and gentle twists) help prepare the body for more challenging poses later on in a sequence, Cheng says.

And remember to give the mind a chance to warm up to the practice: Take a few breaths to get centered at the beginning of class, or establish a pre-flow ritual (such as chanting some Oms) to get grounded.

Ease in

No one would expect to run a marathon the first time they lace up their sneakers. Don’t expect to do a Headstand or even get your heels to the floor in Downward-Facing Dog the first time you hit the mat, Livingston says.

Instead, opt for beginner-friendly or all-levels classes that will develop the foundation for more advanced moves. Even if you’ve been doing yoga for a long time, it’s always good to take a refresher once in a while.


Get to know the teacher and be sure to share any preexisting issues that might require modifications in certain poses, Cheng says. At the beginning of class, mention things like slipped discs, fractures, tears, or joint issues.

If you don’t know how to modify or use props in a certain pose, politely raise your hand and make eye contact with the teacher so you can get support. When the teacher comes over, keep it to a whisper so as not to disrupt the flow of class.

And if a pose just isn’t working, don’t be embarrassed to simply… not do it. Rest and take a Child’s Pose (Balasana) instead, or focus on the poses that provide benefit and release to you.

Come out of postures slowly

This is particularly important if you’ve been holding a certain pose for several minutes, Skaarup says, like Pigeon Pose (Kapotasana) or Frog Pose (Mandukasana). A good rule of thumb is to work out of a pose as gradually as you moved into it.

Use props and modifications

There’s no shame in not being ready to hold a pose completely on your own. If there’s tightness somewhere in your body, other parts of you will have to accommodate it, Livingston says, which is why it’s so important not to push your body past what it’s able to do on a given day.

Props and modifications allow your body to get a feel for a pose and gradually work up to its full variation without injury. It’s never a bad idea to grab a blanket and a couple of blocks at the beginning of class, and maybe even a strap for supine (floor) postures.

Never lock your joints

Hyper-extension (locking) is a surefire way to wear out joints and cause injury down the road. Focus on engaging the muscles around the joints to gain stability, Cheng says.

In standing or balancing postures, like Tree Pose (Vrksasana), keep a micro-bend in the knee of the straight leg. In poses with one or both arms straightened out, like Warrior II, keep a gentle bend in those elbows as well.

Stay for Savasana

It’s easy to head for the door as soon as the instructor calls for Corpse Pose (Savasana), the final resting pose of a yoga flow. But sticking around is good for your health.

Savasana allows your body’s nervous system to slow down and brings closure to the practice. Even just 2 or 3 minutes can have an effect, Cheng says.

If you do get injured, take care

If you tweak, pull, or tear something during a yoga flow, don’t be afraid to step out of class early. Care for it like any other sports injury and seek a professional’s opinion if the pain persists.

At all stages of yoga practice, stay mindful. Really listen to your body so you can be sensitive to any tightness or strain. Just because you did a particular pose one day, doesn’t mean your body will be able to do it the next.

“In our yoga practice,” Skaarup says, “we are building a relationship with our bodies the same way we build them with other people: by listening.”

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