Happy New Year!

New year, same awesome you!  But maybe you decided to start practicing yoga?  Or you decided to practice more at home?  Awesome!  We’re all for that!!  But we do want to share some safety tips so you can mitigate the injury risk that comes with all physical practices, yoga asana included!

Annoying, but totally necessary disclaimer: Check with your healthcare professional to make sure that starting a yoga practice is a good idea.  Always listen to your body, don’t push too much, and consult with a qualified teacher if you need more guidance.  All physical activity comes with some injury risk – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.  Have fun and happy practicing!!

1. Breathe!

There’s a great Natalie Dee comic that shows someone having keeled over with the caption, “You forgot to breathe!!!” – see it here.  Anyways, I’m happy to tell you that no one has ever keeled over from not breathing in my yoga class, nor have I ever fainted while practicing by myself, but it IS important to tune in and notice your breathing as you move through your asanas.

The breath is a great barometer of what is happening in the body in an asana.  So, for example, if you are in downward dog and your breath is easeful, you’re probably fairly relaxed and happy and you could stay in the pose for a longer period of time.  If your breath is coming very fast or you can’t breathe easily, it might be time to come out of the pose!

I find that sometimes I can actively work on breathing more calmly, which can really help in those long holds.  So, if you are practicing along with a video or an online class, try lengthening your inhale and exhale to see if you calm your nervous system down a bit to better evaluate if you need to bail out of a pose.

2. Bail out!

I often say that there is so prize at the end of class for whomever holds the pose the longest, or takes the most complex variations or really for anything. I’m all for challenging yourself but in the end, if you need to bail, bail.  And no one, at least no one worth bothering with, will think the less of you.  You always want to make sure you have enough energy to exit a pose with as much attention and precision as you had when you entered into it.  Before I knew any better, I often hurt myself coming out of a pose because I didn’t really pay attention to where my body went as long as it was somewhere else.

I’d even add that if you are compromising your form, and/or experiencing pain in a pose, it’s better in the long run to bail out so you don’t learn weird alignment habits that you’ll have to unlearn later (trust me, it sucks).  Instead, try a few shorter holds with breaks in between, concentrating on making sure the alignment feels right to you.

3. Use props!

It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a full complement of yoga props or a bunch of couch cushions and coffee table books.  There are so many ways to support and enhance yoga poses.  Having a wall space nearby is really key to a safe and happy practice.  You can use blocks to bring the floor up to you.

You can use bolsters to give you some lift or to practice supported restorative poses.  You can use the wall for balance, a strap to bind or flip your grip without killing your shoulders.  The possibilities are endless!

4. Pay attention to your joints!

The first thing I notice when I get tired is that I collapse or sit into my joints because using muscles is a lot of work!  So the first thing to go when you get tired is that muscle work, which results in sitting into your joints and hyperextending (I’m looking at you, knees) or putting too much pressure on them, which can hurt and lead to problems later on.  So to avoid this, make sure your muscles are engaged and that you have a microbend in your knees and elbows.  Sometimes it’s hard to tell if you are sitting into your joints, so photos can actually be really helpful here – you don’t have to share them if you don’t want to!  You can see if your joints are going past 180 degrees or if it looks like you are leaning all of your weight into one place.

5. Practice your inversions, arm balances and other challenging poses carefully and safely!

Ok Instagrammers, I heart you, I really do, and I heart you so much that I *cringe* – like look away, grimace, I might need a break cringe – when I see people kicking, jumping or otherwise hurling themselves into inversions with their heads on the floor.  I’m not going to be so crotchety as to say that you absolutely can’t teach yourself headstand and shoulderstand – but I really do think you should work with a qualified teacher for those poses.  Because neck injuries are not something you want to mess around with, ever.  You can do all sorts of prep and strengthening work on your own (various dolphin variations, L-shape and hallway inversions etc).  But kick up at your own risk, really.  However, head off the floor?  Awesome!  Hurl away!! Ok maybe not, so here are some tips!

For inversions, try to use a little less force than you think you need to kick up – your walls will thank you.  Also, it’s more likely that you’ll keep your core engaged and your joints integrated.

For both inversions and arm balances, make sure you have space to fall (particularly if you are in the middle of the room) and that you are warmed up enough to fall properly.  For example, if you are going to flip over into wheel to fall out of handstand, it’ll be a lot more fun if your back is warmed up!  Also banging your foot into the edge of a table or dresser isn’t really an experience I’d recommend.

Make sure you have enough energy to fall carefully and intentionally – and hopefully in the right direction.  For example, it hurts a lot less to crash your feet down out of an arm balance than to face plant, in my opinion.  It doesn’t matter which one you do, but you do want to decide which way you’d rather go and try to execute that.  Also, that one last try you were considering even though your arms were shaking and you were having trouble controlling your fall?  Probably not worth it – tomorrow is another day!

Have questions about how to practice yoga asanas safely?  Ask us in the comments!