Coming to the mat to practice yoga is an incredibly effective way to increase health and vitality while decreasing stress levels. People are drawn to yoga for the health benefits and because the perception can be that yoga is a low impact activity that doesn't have a high risk for injuries. Ironically enough this is not true. It is quite possible to injure yourself while doing yoga by pushing too hard in a posture and going past your edge or by doing postures with incorrect form or inadequate support. It is also possible to aggravate old injuries by not listening to your body and honoring your pain threshold. The good news is that there are ways to reduce the risk for injury so that you can consistently gain in strength and flexibility and get the most out of your practice.
It All Begins In The Mind
In order to protect from injuring yourself on the mat, the first place to start is in your mind. Patanjali addresses the phenomenon of mind chatter in the Yoga Sutras for a very good reason. We sabotage ourselves quite effectively by the very things we say to ourselves. In Sanskrit the conversations we have in our heads are called vritti and the first reference to vritti in the Yoga Sutras happens right away, in the second sutra. This is because the very purpose of Yoga is to gain control of the mind, and for good reason.
We have the highly developed ability to convince ourselves that we should be better, that how we are or what we're doing is not good enough. Initially you may not be aware of the chatter in your mind. Unconsciously you may be comparing yourself to others in your class. Or you may be thinking of all the ways that you're not good enough because you're don't yet have the flexibility to put your head on your knees in Seated Forward Bend. As a result of this mind chatter you may push yourself deeper into a posture than your body can physically handle which can lead directly to an injury.
Some of the ways that you can become present to your vritti is to notice if you're pushing too hard in your practice. Do you clench your jaw and scrunch your forehead? Do you grip the mat with your toes? Are you locking your knees out without keeping a micro bend in them? Do you lose your breath often while practicing? Do you experience persistent soreness or pain in your muscles, ligaments or joints? Answering yes to any of these questions is an indicator that your mind is going a million miles an hour while you practice and you're either headed for an injury or you've already injured yourself somehow.
Once you become aware of how your thoughts influence your practice you can change them so that they support you. By changing your thoughts you will begin to give yourself permission to back out of a posture when you lose your breath, rather than pushing through it. Or you may decide that it is acceptable to use props while you practice. You may even tell yourself that it's alright to take Child's Pose when you feel tired or to go into svasana before the end of class. As you listen and become aware of your thoughts, your intuition and knowledge of what your body is capable of will grow.
Line It Up Alright
Another area where you may be setting yourself up for injury is with your alignment. Each posture should be fully supported by the skeletal structure. Being out of alignment puts added strain on your muscles, joints and ligaments in order to keep you in the posture. Over time this can lead to repetitive motion injuries such as strained ligaments in the knees, shoulders, or wrists. If you've been practicing alone or in large numbers of students where the instructor isn't able to devote her attention to you for more than a minute or two, you may be out of alignment in your postures without even realizing it.
You can be proactive in preventing alignment-related injuries by enlisting the aid of a yoga instructor that you trust to lead in you in a one-on-one session. If you have a friend who is a trained yoga instructor then set up a time to have them come help you with your alignment. If not then invest in a private yoga class with an instructor from a local studio. A skilled yoga instructor will be able to help you achieve your neutral alignment so that you can experience how postures are supposed to feel when your body is in alignment. Once you feel your postures in alignment, you'll begin to develop the body awareness and muscle memory that will help you achieve your neutral alignment on your own.
Modify and Support Your Practice
Finally, another effective way to avoid injury on your yoga mat is to use props and take modifications in the postures. Modifications, such as coming to your knees in Chatarunga Dandasana, allow you to go into postures that you may not otherwise be able to do without compromising your alignment. Blocks, straps, bolsters, towels or blankets can help keep you safe from injury by supporting you. Props can allow you to go deeper in a posture while keeping your alignment. Blocks or rolled up towels can be placed under limbs to help you keep your neutral alignment or give support and take some of the strain out of the posture. Straps can give length that you may not yet have. Placing a strap around the feet in Seated Forward Bend can help you to go deeper in the bend while keeping your back straight.
When considering whether to use props or to take a modification or to talk to your yoga instructor about getting assistance with your alignment, pay close attention to your vritti and change any thoughts that would try to convince you that you don't need any help. Staying safe on your mat is the best way to ensure that you don't suffer any injuries that could set you back in your practice or prevent you from enjoying all those wonderful benefits that come along with practicing yoga.