I once threw out my back practicing yoga. I was a beginner pushing myself to keep up with the hyper-flexible students in a heated power yoga class when it happened. I could hardly stand up, and slowly made my way out of the yoga studio hunched over and hurt. It took me months to fully recover.
Now, as a yoga teacher, I make proper technique a priority. I've learned that yoga poses will either heal you or hurt you, depending on your approach. Use these pointers to stay out of pain while you practice yoga:
1. Modify poses.
Every movement in yoga can be adjusted to accommodate your limitations and experience level. If you're ever in pain, or if you cannot achieve the pose instructed, you should take a step back and work on a more appropriate variation. This is especially important for beginners. Almost every new student comes to yoga stiff or in pain, and should adjust even the most basic poses.
For example, in down dog, if your low back rounds in an effort to straighten your legs, bend your knees as much as you have to in order to create a lift in your low back. If you can't touch the floor in front of you while you are standing bent over in a forward fold, widen your feet and bend your knees to touch the ground.
Be willing to be completely honest with yourself. No matter how advanced you become at yoga, you will always have to modify poses to some capacity. Know your limitations and when to work on a more accessible posture for you.
2. Use props.
When you practice yoga, it's helpful to have two blocks, a strap and a blanket or towel. These props will help you avoid injuries and advance more effectively.
Blocks, for example, are generally used for balancing poses, standing stretches and some seated postures. If you cannot yet touch the floor in side angle, triangle, pyramid, half split, standing split, twisted triangle or twisted half moon, use your blocks. They will help you stay balanced, protect your back and joints and open your body. You can also sit on your blocks at the beginning and end of class and in seated poses, such as hero pose, cross-legged or bound angle pose. Avoid sitting on props when your legs are straight because you risk hyperextending your knees.
Next, a strap helps maintain good form while in locust, standing shoulder stretch, variations of side angle and other poses involving binds or backbends. If your shoulders slouch forward when you clasp your hands behind your back, use a strap to keep your shoulders set back and engaged.
Finally, a blanket or towel can be used as padding under your knees when you lower them to the floor. Movements such as low lunge, thigh stretches, splits and hero pose can be uncomfortable if you have sensitive knees. Put padding underneath them until you are able to align your body in a way that protects your knees.
3. Practice proper lower-body alignment.
While standing in mountain pose, make sure your feet point straight forward and your weight is heavy and distributed evenly throughout all sides of your feet. Point your knees in the same direction as your feet. Set your upper thighs back evenly over the center of your heels in order to keep them inserted into their hip sockets in a way that is anatomically neutral. This is the only way to create a healthy curve in your low back.
When you practice lunges and warrior poses, be sure your front foot and knee point straight ahead. In seated poses, anchor your legs and hips down evenly to create an even lift out of your pelvis in your low back. From your pelvis down, root down and get stable in your stance. Follow these basic lower body mechanics to keep your ankles, knees and hips feeling healthy.
4. Align your upper body, too.
Every inhale, lengthen the sides of your torso until your shoulders are even with the base of your neck. As you exhale, maintain that lift and place your arm bones back into their shoulder sockets without slouching. Create an even engagement across your upper back without pinching your shoulder blades together.
When you place your hands on the mat in poses like cat/cow, down dog, plank, low plank and cobra, make sure your wrists are straight across and even with your shoulders. Your neck should lengthen evenly in the back as much as the front so your chin is parallel with the floor. These calibrations will prevent injury in your shoulders, neck and back.
5. Pay attention to your breath.
The most important strategy for maintaining a pain-free yoga practice is to stay attuned to your breath. Your breath is your guide and it will help you avoid pushing beyond your limits. In yoga, you should breathe deeply in and out through your nose the entire class. If you're breathing loudly, in a choppy way, are panting or are short of breath, you need to take a step back and reconnect to your breath. The last thing you want is to evoke a fight-or-flight response. Instead, remain aware of your breath at all times and you will have a healthy practice.