Yoga is one of the safest physical activities there is, comparable to the injury rate of gardening (e.g. about 3.5 reported injuries for every 10,000 practicing yogis). When injuries do occur, they are often not serious, requiring little more than modifications or rest. Sometimes injuries develop over the course of years, often due to overextension and poor alignment. However, yoga is prevalently recognized as a form of restoration for the body, and can actually prevent — and help repair — injuries.
“Injuries often happen when we practice from the mind,” says Brenda Kwon, an Oahu writer, professor, and yoga instructor. “Something inside you says you want to look a certain way or go to a certain point, but that’s when we can hurt ourselves.”
In other words, a major cause of injury in yoga is ego. The first step in preventing injury is to listen to the body and avoid pain. If you put yourself into a new (or old) pose and it hurts, back off. “It’s so important to establish a very real connection with our bodies,” Kwon continues. “When we do that, we know when to stop, when to move forward, what practice to do for our bodies’ needs, which change everyday.”
Whether you’re a runner, a hiker, a cross-fitter, a gardener or a laborer, gentle yoga is suitable for all activity levels. Practices such as Yin, Restorative, and Therapeutic yoga can help your body recover from high-intensity training, prevent injuries, and can often help heal existing injuries. In terms of therapy, these types of gentle yoga offer perhaps the best returns on time investment, as it increases agility, balance, flexibility, strength, and mental activity across all levels of practitioners. Furthermore, it decreases your risk of injury when participating in high-intensity activities.
“We’re so conditioned to push in our daily lives that we often unconsciously carry that into our asana practices. With Yin, we learn to slow down, allow, and observe,” explains Kwon. “We hold and breathe, knowing and trusting that the body will open on its own. It’s the idea that change is as much about surrendering and receiving as it is about doing.”
Gentle yoga zones in on the lower body and hips with a mellow and focused pace. Props are both beneficial and necessary, supporting the body and allowing it to fully relax and open. Research shows that holding a pose for a minimum of 72 seconds has the ability to restore and rebuild connective tissue. Holding supported poses for more than five minutes can have a dramatic effect on tight and inflamed muscles, tissues, and joints.
“Yin yoga is often called ‘yoga for the joints.’ There’s a different way of holding the poses that bring flexibility and pliability to the ligaments,” says Kwon. “The process is slow and gentle but very profound. We’re very muscle-oriented when we think about physical movement, but the truth is that the bones and the ligaments are just as much a part of it, much more than we think.”
Steps to prevent injury during your practice:
1. Find the right class for your level and communicate with the instructor about any concerns or injuries before class begins.
2. Use props. They are not a sign of weakness but rather a way to safely and effectively assist a pose.
3. Don’t skip prep poses, they both open and warm up the body for deeper stretches.
4. Utilize micro-bends to prevent hyperextension, especially in the knees.
5. Engage the core; not only does a strong core stabilize the entire body, it can also prevent back injuries.
6. Breathe! If you can’t, you’ve gone too far into a pose.
7. Listen to your body, on that day, in that moment, in that pose. If you feel pain, back off.
8. Stay for savasana. The final resting pose enables the nervous system to slow down and allows you to truly feel the effects of your practice.
Rebecca lives in Kailua and spends most of her time smiling very broadly. She has practiced yoga for over a decade and has kept pen to paper considerably longer. When she is not on the mat or composing words, you might find her on the ridge of a mountain or the peak of a wave.