Yoga is well documented as being one of the safest forms of movement out there. Many students, like me, come to yoga looking for a way to help them manage and rehabilitate a pre-existing injury. Others of us use yoga to help prevent injury occurring in the first place – its no coincidence that many top athletes rave about yoga. That said, injuries sadly do occur in yoga and I’ve become fascinated with how and why injuries happen on the mat. More importantly, how does one cultivate a safe sustainable yoga practice?
In Part 1 of this article we’ll explore some of the factors that I believe may predispose you to injury during practice. In Part 2 we’ll then identify and explore the essential ingredients necessary for creating a safe and sustainable yoga practice.
Yoga and Injury Risk Factors
Type A personality
It’s sometimes said that whatever you bring on to the yoga mat is what you feed. Many of the traits typical to a Type A personality such as ambition, striving, perfectionism and competitiveness can get us into very hot water when bought into the yoga practice. These qualities create an underlying tone of aggression and pushiness that when left unchecked leave us vulnerable to injury because we are unwilling or unable to heed the body’s feedback and respect its boundaries.
I believe if we are honest about many of the injuries that we incur in yoga, we will see that a certain amount of egoism lies at their root. We were trying too hard and were too busy trying to get somewhere.
The antidote to this is we need to keep asking ourselves what is it we are ultimately seeking from this practice? What qualities are we looking to foster and grow? Is it really about getting into the splits or is this pose trying to teach us the greater lessons of humility, honesty and self-respect?
Speed and momentum
Movements done with momentum are some of the more risky manoeuvres because they lack the fine motor control and finesse that more controlled movements possess. Momentum usually implies speed which in turn means less control, again increasing the risk factor. Kicking into handstand therefore is always going to have a higher element of risk than pressing into handstand, particularly if the kick uses a large amount of momentum and swing.
When we move slowly on the other hand, we develop greater strength and we can identify more easily where strength may be lacking. This is one of the main reasons that I encourage students to learn to move slowly and steadily in their practice particularly during transitions. It’s no coincidence that injuries are more likely to occur when going into or out of a pose. Often we are so intent on getting from a to b, from trying to get somewhere, that we simply rush through the transition rather than regarding it as an intrinsic and meaningful part of the experience.
What makes yoga yoga and not simply Eastern calisthenics? I would argue that the whole foundation of yoga depends upon our ability to be present. Attention is a skill and a birthright – we’re all born with the ability to be present but we need to practice it regularly in order to maintain the habit. It is this awareness that transforms and elevates yoga from a simple stretch class to something more akin to a moving meditation. In terms of injury prevention, attentiveness is critical because it’s usually when we’re on autopilot and not paying attention that mistakes happen and injuries occur. When our minds are drifting off we often miss important cues from the teacher, and we’re much less tuned in to the feedback from our bodies and breath. Our ability to discern what we need in any given moment is compromised and we may not realise we’ve overdone it until it’s too late.
In this context ignorance has more to do with a lack of self-awareness than insufficient knowledge. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras ignorance is considered one of the key obstacles, or Kleshas, that lead to suffering along the yogic path. When it comes to injury prevention, the key to a safe and fulfilling yoga practice is to be honest about your current strengths and limitations and tailor the practice accordingly.
The physical yoga practice is really a lesson in finding and maintaining equilibrium. In each asana we practice to strike the perfect balance between strength and stability on the one hand, and softness, and flexibility on the other. If you have too much stability you can become rigid, tense and your joints lack appropriate range of motion. If you have too much flexibility and softness, then you lack the necessary support to maintain joint integrity and alignment.
We also commonly see a combination of these two presentations, where certain joints display increased movement, whilst those above and/or below remain stiff and unmoving. This places the hypermobile joints at more risk of injury and the stiffer joints are predisposed to becoming pain generators due to the lack of movement. We need to remain aware during practice to try and counterbalance between these extremes and allow for more even movement throughout the body.
Students therefore need to develop a certain level of self-awareness so that they can adapt the practice to their needs. Some practitioners need more strengthening; others need more lengthening and stretching. Often it’s more complex than that – one part of your body will need more stability, whilst another area will need more work to open up and create space. The important thing here is to know yourself. From that place of deeper understanding and humility, only then can you create a practice that will truly serve you.