As a yoga therapist and Accessible Yoga Ambassador, I am all about making yoga safe for everybody to practice. As a teacher that works with a lot of vulnerable populations, I have spent years searching for the do's and don'ts of yoga poses for safety and efficacy. I simplified them as general principles below.
Before I tell you these safety guidelines, ask yourself: Do I believe in the transformative power of yoga? Do I ever feel a profound difference after practicing?
If you are like me, you have seen dramatic results in your own life and strongly believe in the benefits of yoga. You may have seen a shift in your body, way of thinking, relationships, or any number of health conditions. With that said, if you believe that the practices of yoga are powerful enough to have positive benefits, then, logically, you must acknowledge that these practices have the potential for harm. I created these 6 tips as the foundation.
1. Pay Attention
Moment-to-moment awareness is key for yoga, both for safety and to get the maximum benefit from the practice. Notice when you are thinking about something else—like your list of things to do or that mocha latte you want after class. It's okay when that happens, but try shifting your attention back to the physical areas where you feel the most sensation.
Breathe into those sensations to come back to presence. Breathing fully through poses also helps your body function optimally, ensuring safety. Lastly, pay particular attention when transitioning into and out of poses. Transition slowly into the pose in order to double check that you are warmed up enough to safely do the pose.
2. Warm Into Your Practice
A lot of injuries occur from not properly warming the muscles up to prepare for the practice. Some people need more warm up time of gentle movements than others (for example, as we age, we tend to need more time). However, pretty much nobody should jump into a full Pigeon pose without a warm up.
Different times of the day require more warm up, like the morning. Honor what your body needs to prepare for the practice.
3. Avoid the Red Flags
The Hippocratic oath states: first, do no harm. Yogis embrace this concept with the first yama of Ahimsa, or non-harm. For this reason, I used to say at the beginning of all of my yoga classes: “Don’t do anything that hurts.”
Then, I realized I should really be saying: "don’t do anything that increases pain" because some days, you may just hurt as your norm. However, your asana practice shouldn’t exacerbate any pain. How do you even know what "pain" is? It is subjective and hard to define, so it is best to focus on these red flags.
- Sharpness, shooting, numbness, or tingling down the limbs, which may cause nerve damage or be a sign of something you need to get checked out.
- Anything that makes you grimace, grunt, or hate your yoga instructor.
- Intensity deep inside the joint, which may cause damage to the cartilage, tendons, or ligaments.
Instead, breathe into:
- A stretch or engagement that you can smile through, even though it may be challenging.
- Sensation in the belly (thickest part) of the muscle, which is the safest place to feel when stretching.
4. Modify For Your Body and Try Using Props
Every body is different and, therefore, everybody’s yoga practice needs to be individualized. In an asana practice—or even when setting up for a seated meditation—don’t be afraid to grab a bolster, pillow, block, chair, or anything else that works for your body. This means your practice may look very different than others, including your teacher.
As Theodore Roosevelt said, "comparison is the thief of joy." Also, in the context of a yoga class, it can be dangerous. It is natural to try to do exactly what the teacher is demonstrating. In a group class, it is impossible to avoid noticing what those next to you look like in a pose.
However, neither the other students nor the teacher are any better or worse than you—just different. Don’t hesitate to modify a pose or even skip a pose if it just doesn’t feel right to you.
5. Know Some Basic Anatomy.
For yoga instructors, it is very important to have a grounded knowledge in anatomy (the parts of the body), physiology (how things work in the body), and pathology (when things go wrong in the body), as they relate to yoga.
For students, seek instructors that have this sort of training. For those with any health conditions or physical limitations, invest some time into learning a bit of the basic science, as applied to what is going on in YOUR body.
For example, a herniated (aka “slipped”) disc, is a common condition that greatly affects a lot of the poses in most yoga practices. Depending on the type of herniation, you would want to avoid things like rolling up from a standing forward fold or any forward fold with a rounded spine. Specific do's and don'ts like this can be made more clear for your concerns by talking to a specialist.
6. Talk to a Specialist
If you have any medical conditions, surgeries, or injuries, first seek advice from your doctor or specialist, like a physical therapist. Once you know generally what is safe or isn’t for your body, you may still want to work one-on-one with a certified yoga therapist or highly trained yoga instructor.
This can help give you ideas on personal modifications for poses, so you can do group classes or online video classes with confidence. You’d also learn individualized practices and sequences that you can do at home or fit throughout your work day, creating autonomy and sustainability of your yoga practice.
Basically, to be safest, make sure your personal yoga practice is YOURS—mindfully adapted for your body (and mind). Trust that in yoga, it is not about doing the poses perfectly; it is about being perfectly okay with who you are (and where you are) in your body at in this moment.