Most yoga injuries are minor, however occasionally significant injuries can also occur. Recently these types of injuries have been getting as much coverage as the health benefits millions of people experience from yoga. In the new book Yoga Therapy, authors Kristen Butera and Staffan Elgelid have put together some tips on how best to avoid yoga injuries.
Why do yoga injuries happen?
There’s several theories but there’s not many clear answers. Theories have suggested people pushing themselves too hard, teachers who are not well educated and people having preexisting conditions that flare up during yoga. A study by Fishman, Saltonstall, and Genis (2009) tried to answer that question. The researchers sent out a questionnaire to yoga teachers and yoga therapists in several countries. They received 1,336 responses. Their first question was “Please estimate what you believe to be the percentage of people who do yoga (primarily) for each of the following reasons.”
The responses found the following to be the most reasons for practicing yoga:
- Fitness and general health (53.4%)
- Peacefulness, liberation and enlightenment (18.2%)
- Remedy for specific medical solutions (16%)
- Remedy for emotional problems (9.7%)
Therefore 16% of students might be doing yoga for solutions to medical problems and nearly 10% might be stressed and therefore at an increased risk of injury. Which is unsurprising considering that yoga has been touted as a remedy for several conditions including osteoporosis, stress, back pain and neck pain. We published a post back in February Exercise not drugs for lower back pain which featured evidence that exercise could be as beneficial for back pain as medicine.
The next question in the survey asked whether there were more injuries among yoga practitioners today than in the past. 39% of those surveyed said yes, giving the following reasons:
- Excessive student effort (81.4%)
- Inadequate teacher training (68.2%)
- More people doing yoga overall (65.4%)
- Unknown preexisting conditions (59.5%)
- Larger class sizes (47%)
How can you avoid yoga injuries?
For the most part Yoga Therapy focuses on excessive student effort and unknown preexisting medical conditions. It’s important that you’re are aware of your own body. By being more aware, you can become more mindful of the effort you’re using. This includes overall efforts as well as where in the body you can sense strain. These areas are likely to the be parts most at risk of injury. After identifying areas of excessive effort, you can differentiate in the asana to become more aware of how you can lessen the strain. Once you decrease the excessive effort, you will be able to safely continue and modify your asana practice throughout life.
All people are different. We have different habits, skeletal structures and connective tissue extensibility. Trying to make our bodies fit the pose instead of the other way round can lead to injuries. When the person next to us can do the pose easily, can hold the pose longer or is more flexible than us, we can often become competitive. In fact, when the survey asked yoga instructors which factors might cause injury, the number one response was ego. This was closely followed, again, by excessive effort. Also high on the list was inadequate instruction, pressure from the teacher or group and undisclosed prior conditions.
Lower Back Safety Tips
Low-back pain and pain in the lumbar spine, is one of the most common complaints in the Western world. It’s also one of the most popular yoga injuries. Usually the pain goes away by itself, but its estimated that more than about half of those with low-back pain don’t seek treatment. Common diagnoses include disc dysfunctions, muscle strains, repetitive strains and osteoarthritis. What most of the diagnoses have in common is that symptoms come and go. Many people experience increased back pain when bending forward. They might complain of soreness in the back, strain or radiating pain and numbness going down the leg. A movement or yoga pose that causes radiating pain or numbness is a sign there may be a nerve problem. Continuing the movement that causes the pain or numbness may make the problem worse.
For the lumbar spine, it is usually a forward bend of the spine or a forward bend with rotation that causes the radiating pain or numbness.The tips below can be used to perform safe forward bends (flexion) of the lumbar spine:
- Tilt the pelvis forward to increase lordosis in the low back. Lumbar lordosis is the healthy curve, or arch, in the low back. Maintain that lordosis during forward bends.
- Spread your legs and take a wider stance. This will give you a more stable base of support.
- Bend your knees if you have tight hamstrings while doing forward bends. This allows your pelvis to rotate and your low back to maintain lordosis while protecting your back.
- Use blocks and chairs to protect your lumbar spine during forward bends. Other chapters offer suggestions on how to use these props to modify your practice.
- Don’t pull with your arms to go farther into forward bends. This increases the risk to your spine.
- Be careful about doing any yoga pose that combines forward bending and rotation. Remember that rotation should occur in the thoracic spine (middle and upper back), not in the lumbar spine. Rotating and bending forward puts a high amount of stress on the lumbar spine, even if you don’t have a preexisting condition of the low back. If you have a disc problem or another low-back dysfunction, you may want to avoid this movement, or at least to be careful with it. Poses that combine spinal flexion with rotation include rotated angle, rotated lateral angle, balancing half moon and thread the needle.
- Brace with your abdomen before bending forward. This will slightly increase the tone in your abdomen and low back so that you can maintain lordosis when you enter the bend. This is especially important if you have a preexisting condition in your low back.
Yoga Therapy is a practical guide for incorporating yoga into new and existing routines. The resource offers detailed images and descriptions of proven poses and exercises. It also provides tips for technique to help you create a personalised plan for better health and performance. You can buy the book from humankinetics.com for £17.99/€21.60 (HK Rewards £14.39/€17.28).
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