Yoga Mistakes You're Probably Making

As a yoga instructor, I recommend yoga to just about anyone I meet. It does not matter how old you are, how much you weigh, or how flexible you are. You can still benefit from a regular practice. From improved strength and flexibility to a balanced metabolism and improved circulation, yoga just makes everything better. Yoga improves our moods, eases anxiety, and may even keep you healthier at work.

Yoga can also help you recover from an injury, providing you with stronger muscles to prevent future injuries. But what if yoga is what caused the injury in the first place? Like any physical practice, yoga moves our bodies in new ways, and this can lead to injury. It's important to be aware of how you're feeling during a yoga class. Some sensations of stretching and discomfort are to be expected, but pain should not be ignored. The moment you feel pain or "just not right," back out of the pose and give yourself a break. Yoga injuries can range from mild strains and sprains to even being more at risk for for stroke. Here are some of the poses and injuries to watch out for.

Relax your neck

Many yoga poses like shoulder stand require us to put some considerable pressure on our neck muscles. Physical therapist Julie Gudmestad explained to Yoga Journal that most of us already have some neck pain and soreness anyway, so this can really be exacerbated in yoga class. "Many people habitually tighten their neck and shoulder muscles when they concentrate, and it's easy to carry that habit over into yoga," she explains. "If you come to yoga after years of neck tension, the muscles at the back of your neck will probably be quite short and tight, limiting your ability to bring your head toward your chest."

Proper body alignment will really protect the neck during yoga class. As an instructor, I love teaching about what muscles help with each pose. For example, if you go into a headstand without the necessary strength and alignment, all that weight is held in your neck, which causes considerable soreness. Many students are surprised to hear that strong arms and core are essential to holding a headstand. Most of the weight is actually supported by your triceps, keeping your neck safe. Gudmestad recommends strengthening the neck and back muscles before ever attempting a more advanced pose like headstand.

Strengthen your wrists

Much of any yoga class is spent pressing into our hands and wrists. When we're in plank pose (the top of a push up) or downward dog, we're asking our wrists to support much of our body weight. If we have weak wrist muscles, this can cause pain and injury over time. I've had personal experience with wrist injuries. After giving birth to my daughter, I experienced carpal tunnel syndrome and had to put the brakes on my entire yoga practice. The entire class felt painful. Luckily, I used yoga to strengthen my weak muscles and made a full return to yoga.

Yoga instructor Doug Keller told Yoga International that our hand placement on the mat can really protect our wrists. "Despite challenges and misalignments, the hands are designed to bear weight," he explains. "But certain parts of the hand are more suited to this task than others." Any time you're placing weight in your hands, focus on pushing through the mounds of your fingers. Placing too much weight in the heels of our hands puts too much stress on the wrists.

Go easy on your knees

Some new yoga practitioners can experience knee pain and even knee injuries at yoga class. This can come from sitting with legs crossed. If your hips are tight, they will cause a pulling on your knees in this sitting position. If you are starting to feel uncomfortable while sitting in yoga class, try straightening your legs or even coming forward into child's pose for a break. It can also feel good to place a rolled up blanket or yoga mat behind your knees, so the stretch is not so intense.

Release your back

Many people decide to try yoga to ease chronic back pain. The irony is that low back pain is the most common yoga injury reported. Sonja Appel, founding director of Sushumna Yoga School & Studios, told SheKnows that it's absolutely essential to warm up before stretching our backs in yoga class. "Our lower back is another part of our body that can get injured easily," she explained. "If we go too fast and bend forward or backward too strongly, do not warm up enough or fail to support ourselves, we can easily hurt our lower back."

Yoga instructor Jeni Livingston of Body Space Fitness told Greatist that if you notice a low back pain or pulling sensation when you're bending forward, this is probably due to tight hamstrings. If your back is aching in forward fold or downward dog, try putting a slight bend in your knees to ease the discomfort.

Awareness is key

The key to preventing yoga injuries is being aware of the sensations in your body. Make sure you continually check-in with your body throughout class. We can sometimes get so distracted by what everyone else in the class is able to do, that we aren't noticing the warning signs from our bodies.

Eddie Modestini, the co-director and co-owner of Maya Yoga Studio in Maui, told Yoga Journal that if you are not able to breathe through your nose during the entire class, it's time to back off. Breathing through your mouth means that you're really exerting yourself and may be approaching your threshold. "If you're shaking uncontrollably, meaning you can't stop the shaking by focusing on the posture, focusing on the breath, or by backing off a little bit, then you're beyond your threshold," he explained.

Start with the beginners

If you're new to yoga, look for a beginner's class. These classes are a great refresher for everyone, so there is no shame in hitting up the beginner class. You'll have the opportunity to learn the poses and correct alignment in a more relaxed pace and environment. When you try to start your yoga practice in an intermediate or advanced class, it's distracting and intimidating to see how advanced some of the other participants are. If you're too focused on your neighbor's awesome headstand, you're not focusing on your own body.

Find a small class

If you're new to yoga or coming back from an injury, make sure you find a small class where you'll receive plenty of one-on-one attention from the instructor. My first job as a yoga instructor was at a large health club, and my classes typically had 30 to 40 people in them. As an instructor, especially a new one, it was impossible for me to see all the participants during class. I led the class through the poses but wasn't able to make sure everyone was perfectly aligned the entire time. I eventually left that position because I hated the thought of someone injuring herself in my class simply because the group was so large. Look for a small yoga studio instead of a gym for smaller classes and experienced instructors.

Your body knows

While the possibility of an injury sounds scary, don't let it keep you from trying yoga. A study in the American Journal of Epidemiology looked at 94 yoga studies over a period of 40 years and found that only two percent of the 8,430 yoga participants studied reported an injury. The researchers concluded that yoga is as safe as any other exercise.

Natalie Nevins, DO, a board-certified osteopathic family physician and certified Kundalini Yoga instructor, still believes that yoga is appropriate for everyone, as long as we listen to our bodies. She explained to the American Osteopathic Association that anyone can attend a beginner's yoga class and be safe. "The idea is to explore your limits, not strive for some pretzel-like perfection," she said. "It is a great way to get in tune with your body and your inner self."