Yoga is one of the healthiest fitness practices around. It can improve your cardiovascular health, help you lose weight, enhance your circulation, tone and strengthen your muscles, balance your metabolism, give you more energy and improve your stamina.
And, as the icing on the cake, it also makes you feel more peaceful, centered and relaxed. But there’s a catch….
More and more people are injuring themselves doing yoga. A recent study from the University of Alabama at Birmingham found that between 2001 and 2014, ER-treated yoga injuries rose from 9.5 per every 100,000 yoga participants to 17 per every 100,000 yoga participants.
In fact, over the 13-year study period, 30,000 Americans visited the emergency department for sprains, fractures or other injuries caused by their yoga practice. And that doesn’t count any injuries that weren’t treated in the ER.
But if you enjoy staying fit and healthy with yoga, this doesn’t mean it’s time to roll up your mat for good. Far from it!
You can reap the benefits of a downward dog without doing damage to your body — as long as you follow a few simple guidelines…
- Select a style that’s right for you. If you’re new to yoga, you may not realize just how many yoga styles there are. There’s hatha yoga, Bikram yoga, Iyengar yoga, power yoga, Kundalini Yoga, Svaroopa yoga… the list goes on and on.
But if you haven’t done much yoga or you’re returning to the mat after a long hiatus, play it safe and avoid super intense, fast-paced yoga classes like power yoga. After all, no matter what yoga style you choose, you’ll still get benefits like improved strength, flexibility and balance.
The best classes for beginners (or anyone looking for a safe, well-balanced yoga practice) are hatha yoga classes, which tend to be slow-paced classes that focus on proper alignment and breathing. And don’t forget… most yoga classes are assigned difficulty levels, which go from level 1 (the easiest) to level 3 (the hardest). Ignore these levels at your own risk.
- Research your teacher. Whatever style of yoga you choose, make sure you do a little online sleuthing to check out the credentials of your yoga teachers. See what style of yoga they are certified to teach and where they were certified. If their credentials aren’t available online, you can call them or email them to ask about their training.
At the very least, any yoga teacher you take classes with should have a 200-hour certification from the Yoga Alliance, which is the main organization for yoga teacher accreditation in the U.S. Proper instruction from a well-trained yoga teacher is the best way to prevent yoga injuries.
- Attend smaller yoga classes. No matter how well-trained your yoga teacher is, he or she can only help so many students at the same time. If you’re attending a huge yoga class, chances are you’re not going to get much personal attention from your teacher. That may be fine for experienced yogis who have each pose down pat. But for beginners or people who don’t practice yoga regularly, a large class can be a recipe for disaster. In a small class, your teacher can correct you right away if you’re doing a pose wrong and save you from a yoga injury. In a large class, he or she may not be able to do that. Try to stick to classes with 15 students or less.
- Don’t get competitive. When you go into yoga class with a competitive mindset, you’re setting yourself up for injury. That’s because everyone’s body is different. Just because the guy next to you can twist his body into the shape of a pretzel, doesn’t mean you can (or should). If you compare yourself to other people, you’re going to push your body past its safety limits. You may even end up in the ER with a yoga injury. For a healthy and beneficial yoga practice, focus on your individual progress…not whether you can do a handstand longer than the guy next you.
- Use props. One reason yoga is great is that it meets you where you are—no matter what your fitness level or body type. That’s especially true if you know how to make good use of yoga props like blocks, straps, blankets, bolsters and even chairs. Can’t touch the floor when you do a forward fold? Use a yoga block or two. It will help you get a good stretch without overextending your hamstrings. Many yoga studios will have props available for student use. Or if you plan on practicing yoga regularly, you can always invest in a few of your own.
- Listen to your body. Any good yoga teacher will tell you the same thing: If you’re doing a yoga pose that’s painful, uncomfortable or just doesn’t feel right, stop. Ask your teacher check your alignment to make sure you’re doing the pose right. If you are doing the pose right and it still hurts, ask your teacher for a substitute pose that feels more comfortable. Or take a break in a resting pose like child’s pose. Not every pose works for every person.
“The Benefits of Yoga.” http://www.osteopathic.org. American Osteopathic Association. Retrieved December 24, 2016.
“Serious yoga injuries, though rare, are on the rise.” MedicalXpress. http://medicalxpress.com. Retrieved December 24, 2016.
“Study finds yoga is relatively safe, but know your limits.” MedicalXpress. http://medicalxpress.com. Retrieved December 24, 2016.
“Which Type of Yoga Is Best for You?” Health. http://www.health.com. Retrieved December 24, 2016.
“Finding the Right Yoga Teacher.” Yoga Alliance. https://www.yogaalliance.org. Retrieved December 24, 2016.