Chances are if you’ve been practicing yoga for a while, you may have experienced pain from some kind of yoga-related injury. As with any physical activity, yoga asana carries some risks, especially when practiced aggressively or without proper awareness of the body’s limitations. In the best cases, these injuries are minor, heal completely, and serve to inform your practice through a deeper, more attuned awareness of your body. Major bodily injuries from yoga are still pretty rare.
But recently, a 38-year-old man in Ireland broke his leg while practicing ashtanga yoga. While moving into Marichyasana B pose he heard a loud crack as his right femur fractured 4 inches above his knee. While most yogis don’t need to worry about sustaining an usual injury such as this, it does raise important questions about yoga asana: What is to be gained or lost from practicing a repetitive sequence like the primary series taught in ashtanga yoga? And what should you do if you feel pain during or after practicing yoga asana?
In my own ashtanga practice, I’ve discovered that learning a set sequence can help in developing a personal home practice, and the repetition means more time is spent focusing on the breath and current posture rather than anticipating what comes next. However, a drawback to practicing a set series is that it can cause repetitive stress injuries. The tendency to repeat an action in the body becomes harmful if practiced incorrectly, and without variation, we can put continued stress on the body.
Most likely we have all been told at some point to “listen to our body.” But how we listen to our bodies varies from person to person, and learning to distinguish injurious pain from non-harming discomfort is something that even experienced yoga practitioners can struggle with. So how do we heed our own advice and allow our yoga practice to challenge us while still keeping ourselves safe?
Here are five ways we can bring more awareness to how we respond to pain in yoga:
- Distinguish the difference between discomfort and pain in your body. Discomfort is challenging, but pushing discomfort too far can lead to pain. If you feel you’re at the edge of discomfort, it’s probably a sign to ease up and back off.
- Vary the style of yoga you practice. If you feel pain or suffer an injury, take a break from practicing in your usual way. Variation in asana brings physical benefits and can help heal injuries.
- Seek advice from professionals, but always trust your intuition. Consult an experienced yoga teacher or doctor if you have pain in your body, but don’t let someone else’s advice replace your own. Remember that you are your own greatest teacher.
- Focus on balancing tension and release in the muscles when you practice. Some muscles should work hard to support the opposing muscles’ stretch. Yoga asana should rarely be all strength or all release. Keeping this in mind can help prevent painful injury from pushing too far in one direction.
- Learn the foundations of alignment. It’s important for anyone hoping to avoid pain and injury in yoga to understand how to maintain structural integrity in the body, and how to support it rather than hurt it.