When I first started yoga, I took fast-paced, workout-focused flow classes. It was great for my fitness, but not for my form. I rushed through the poses and didn’t pay much attention to my technique. Without realizing it, this lack of attention led to painful injuries. I had created bad habits, which would later become difficult to fix.
Yoga is effective at alleviating pain, healing your body, improving flexibility and toning muscles. But you could easily hurt yourself if you are not vigilant with your alignment. Wrist, knee, hip-flexor and low-back pain are the most common signs that you are not aligning yourself properly.
Everyone has a natural anatomical blueprint for what is optimal alignment in their bodies. If you use specific physical landmarks and deep breathing techniques in the poses, you can stay safe while advancing in your practice. In fact, yoga is great at teaching you how to stay aware of your body if you tune into how you are feeling. If you’re short of breath, or if you push yourself beyond the boundaries of good form, you will get hurt.
Best Types of Yoga to Avoid Pain
I recommend an alignment-based hatha or Iyengar yoga class because they focus on slowing down and noticing the subtleties in your technique. These styles are less taxing on your body, and they train you to attune to how your body feels. In contrast, vinyasa flow yoga is fast-paced and therefore more difficult to achieve good alignment because of the speed of the class.[
Avoid common mistakes in these six yoga poses to maintain a pain-free practice:
Misalignment: Down dog, plank, push-ups, cobra and up dog are all poses where your hands are part of your foundation. They are practiced with repetition in most yoga classes. When done correctly, they build strength and open your arms, shoulders and back. When misaligned, these poses can cause debilitating wrist and shoulder pain. The most common mistake while placing your hands on the mat, is not flattening the entire perimeter of your hands evenly. Often the base of your index-finger lifts, which collapses your weight onto the heel of the hand. This could hurt your wrists.
Correction: Place your hands so that the center of your wrists are directly under your outer-shoulders and your wrist-creases are perpendicular to the short end of your mat. Spread your fingers wide and flatten the entire perimeter of your hands as evenly as possible. Make the pad of your index knuckle the first point of contact with your mat. At the base of your wrist, create a slight lift at the heel of your hand. This will make your forearms engage, and it will protect your wrist. Claw your fingertips slightly, as if you were palming a basketball.
2. Down Dog
Misalignment: For most students, when they force their legs straight in down dog, they are limited by tight hamstrings and it rounds their low back. Over time this will create low-back pain. The goal in down dog is not to get your legs completely straight and heels to the floor, but instead to create a healthy S-curve in your low-back.
Correction: In down dog, bend your knees 15 degrees and widen your knees as wide as your feet. With your knees bent, press down through your hands to create a slight arch in your low-back. Only go as much as you can to maintain a slight arch in your lower back. Don’t worry about straightening your legs.
3. Uttanasana, Standing Forward Fold
Misalignment: Most people are not flexible enough to touch the ground in a standing forward fold, especially if they are not warmed up. It is common to try to touch the floor with straight legs although you are not flexible enough. This causes your feet to turn out and rotates your thighs out,which compresses and hurts your lower back.
Correction: When you bow forward, step your feet hips-width apart and point your feet straight forward. As you fold, bend your knees as much as you need to in order to touch the floor and create a release in your low back. As your hamstrings open, and you can maintain a slight arch in your low-back, you can start to straighten your legs.[
4. Chaturanga, Push-Ups
Misalignment: When you squeeze your elbows tight to your rib-cage as you lower down into a push-up, it rounds your shoulders. This is also a result of lowering too far down and letting your chest dive down towards the floor. It is an easy way to injure your shoulders.
Correction: While keeping your chest open and your shoulders plugged back even in their sockets, bend your elbows just wide enough to keep your shoulders engaged evenly on your back. Only lower as far as you can without slouching your shoulders or upper-back. If you are working on strength, modify your push-up by lowering to your knees.
5. Cobra, Up Dog
Misalignment: Cobra and up dog could be very deep backbends. If you push your arms straight, it rounds the head of your humerus bone (the long bone of the upper arm) in its shoulder socket. It is dangerous to slouch your shoulders in cobra because you are bearing weight on your hands and creating resistance in your arms. If you force yourself into cobra without lengthening your spine, it will compress your low-back, causing back pain.
Correction: To maintain healthy alignment in your shoulders, bend your elbows just enough to plug your shoulders back. Make sure you are pulling your chest forward towards the front edge of your mat rather than pushing away from the floor. If you are tight, rotate your hands out just enough to keep your shoulders back.
6. Warrior Two
Misalignment: Beginners are especially reluctant to go long enough in their standing side-plane poses, such as warrior two. It feels safer to take a shorter stance. However, by doing this, you can easily misalign your front knee, turning your pelvis forward and potentially causing a rotation all the way up to your back, causing back pain.
Correction: When you set up warrior two, adjust your feet far enough apart so that when you bend your front knee over your ankle, your front thigh is parallel with the floor. This is how you know you have a proper foundation for warrior two and for all of the poses where your hips and shoulders are square to the long edge of your mat.[
Yoga is a powerful tool for healing your body and developing awareness in your body and mind. Take the time to learn good alignment, avoid these mistakes and you will be pain free both on and off your mat.
How to Keep Your Yoga Pain Free was originally published on U.S. Health News & World Report.
Article written by Jake Panasevich, US News. Practice with Jake Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7:30am and Wednesdays at 5pm. Register here!
Jake is a yoga teacher in Philly specializing in yoga for men and office workers. He is also a yoga trainer for professional athletes. Listen to Jake’s recent interview on NPR. You could also learn more about Jake in his featured articles in Men’s Health, Huffington Post and US News. Visit Jake’s website at yogawithjake.com.