Is Yoga Actually Hurting Your Body?

The ego has a funny way of overriding that internal voice that tells you when you've gone too far. Are you getting a little too aggressive on your yoga mat? Here's how to tell.

Yoga has become all the rage over the past decade. And for the most part, that’s a good thing. But practicing improperly can cause problems for your body and mind. As more yoga studios continue to open up around the country, more and more yoga newbies are starting their own practice.

While the studios are excited and ready to welcome newcomers with open arms, it’s important to be acutely aware of where your mind and body are at during your practice. Sometimes what happens on and off your mat can lead to you feeling discouraged or disappointed and may also lead to injury. Seeing people who devote their lives to yoga bend into positions you can only dream of doing can spark feelings of envy or competition. It’s this exact competitive spirit that can damage your practice and your body.

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When yoga becomes too much of an athletic endeavor and you are no longer aligned with the breath, the ego can take over. When your practice is more about what you can do compared to others in class and less about what’s happening on your own mat, the likelihood of your ego causing damage is higher. And the thing is, it’s not actually the pose that hurts us in yoga—these poses have been safely practiced for centuries.

It’s the ego wanting the physical body to go further than it’s ready to go. The ego has a funny way of overriding that internal voice that tells you when you’ve gone too far. Going too far will lead to injury and may discourage you from continuing a healthy, safe practice. Feeling like you might be getting a little too aggressive on your yoga mat? Here’s how to tell.

1. You lose your breath.

The breath is the most important indicator that tells us if we’re ready for a particular pose. Your yoga practice should constantly be aligned with the breath. If you find you’re not breathing in a posture or the breath is constrained, that’s a signal that you need to either come out of a posture or modify the pose to the level you’re at on that particular day. Just because you can do handstand one day doesn’t mean that you can do it every day.

And just because you can’t do pigeon one day doesn’t mean it’s always out of bounds. Your breath is the only tool that can tell you how you’re doing in a particular moment. If you’re finding yourself reaching into poses that just might not be right for you on that particular day, take a minute to come back to your breath. Take a resting pose and center yourself. You’ll probably find that focusing on the basics of your practice will allow you to make good decisions for your body.

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2. You’re over-stretching.

It’s easy to over-stretch certain muscles in yoga. That competitive spirit might push you to find a pose that your muscles aren’t ready for, which can leave you feeling sore. Listen to your body and arrive at a pose that feels natural to you. It’s crucial to protect your most vulnerable body parts, like your hamstrings, shoulders, and knees.Hamstrings injuries—especially where the muscle attaches to the "sits" bone (ischial tuberosity)—are common after years of over-stretching.

Make sure you’re engaging the leg muscles in each yoga pose rather just dumping into a posture. In forward folds, for example, focus on engaging the legs rather than just flopping forward. If your hamstrings are too tight to forward fold, bend the knees slightly to increase your range of motion. Take care to treat your body with respect; it will thank you.

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3. You’re over-heating.

Some of us don’t do well in hot temperatures. And it’s not because we’re wimps either. While some people thrive in hot yoga—during which the studio is heated between 87 degrees and 104 degrees Fahrenheit—other people feel light-headed and dehydrated. Don’t worry if you try hot yoga and feel like it’s just not for you.

Pushing yourself in a hot yoga studio is even worse for your body than in one set to a regular temperature. Though bikram yoga has become incredibly popular in recent years, it’s only been heavily practiced since the 1970s, so you aren’t missing out on ancient yoga tradition if you find it’s not the best way to spend your time on the mat.

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4. You refuse to use props.

Because of the competitive spirit that certain yoga classes can sometimes foster, some practiced yogis have come to believe that using props is a sign of weakness. After all, isn’t it always the newbies who immediately grab blocks, blankets, bolsters and straps? This is, however, extremely flawed thinking. Using these props to come into poses is a great way to understand the limitations of your body and the depth of the poses you are seeking.

Using a prop, especially on a day when your body may be a little stiffer than normal, can help ensure that you can maintain the poses you want while protecting yourself from injury. The next time you feel your ego holding you back from utilizing these props, try to get over that hurdle and pick up a strap. You’ll never know how deep of a stretch (while still being safe) it can provide if you never try.

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5. You don’t speak up.

Attending yoga classes is much different than grabbing a DVD and doing it in your living room. While yoga on YouTube can be much more convenient for those of us with busy schedules, you don’t have the benefit of having a teacher right there in front of you. That’s obviously not an issue with a class where your instructor is either right in front of the room or walking around making sure everyone is doing well.

An instructor isn’t just there to call out random poses—the course of the class is carefully planned to ensure that the students are getting the most out of their practice. If you’re feeling confused about a pose or don’t know of a safe but effective modification, speak up. Often the instructor will ask at the start of the class if there anyone is new, if anyone has any injuries to keep in mind, or if there are specific poses anyone wants to try that day. If any of those things apply to you, be sure to let her know. Nobody will think less of you for sharing; it’s crucial to share that information so that your practice will be safe and productive for your body and mind.

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6. You’re taking the wrong classes.

With a busy schedule, you may be tempted to take whatever class is on offer when you get out of work, but what if that class isn’t the one for you? While you should aim to try new things to deepen your personal practice, you need to make sure that any classes you take match your ability level.

If you’re new, try a beginner’s class. It’s nothing to be ashamed of; understanding the basic poses is key to advancing on your yoga journey. Any yoga studio should have a description of their other classes on their website so you can find one that matches your style. Feeling overwhelmed? Have a chat with someone at the studio to find out which class fits what you have in mind.

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7. You aren’t taking advantage of savasana.

Savasana, also known as corpse pose, should feel like your hard-earned reward after a full class of poses. Don’t look at it as a time to be lazy—it’s not just a time to take a nap. This cool-down period is crucial to helping you feel centered and relaxed before you leave the mat. While some people may skip this part of the class, resist this urge.

As you lie in savasana, close your eyes gently, continue to take your breaths, and focus on how your body feels. Concentrating on relaxation may sound counterintuitive, but it can help in many ways. This cool-down time can prevent your muscles from becoming sore or achy, will lower your blood pressure and heart rate at a safe pace, and can actually improve your flexibility. Close your eyes and enjoy this part of the class as a respite from your otherwise busy life.

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8.. You don’t quiet your mind.

Speaking of your busy life, try to remind yourself that yoga isn’t the time for multitasking. While you may be tempted to run through your grocery list, recall the details of a meeting with your boss, or wonder if everyone else in class is judging your abilities (or lack thereof), none of these thoughts will improve your practice.

At best, they aren’t what you should be thinking about; at worst, they’ll leave you feeling distracted and more susceptible to injury. If you’re feeling like you just can’t quiet your mind in a large class, try a practice in your living room. On the other hand, if your at-home process just reminds you of all the chores to be done, consider going back to the studio to find your focus. Center your mind on your practice and on your breath and your practice will feel more fulfilling than ever before.

While those common mistakes are general issues that can affect any yogi new or experienced, it’s important to know of the mistakes you can be making in specific poses as well. While you should always heed the advice of your instructor, don’t forget to keep these few problem areas in mind.

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9. You’re kicking up into headstand.

Certain poses, if done incorrectly, can cause compression of the spine. For example, the cervical spine is normally asked to support the weight of the head. But in headstand, it's asked to support the weight of the entire body.

Kicking up into headstand dramatically shifts weight into the cervical spine, which can compress and injure the vertebrae. Instead, slowly engage the core and lift one leg at a time and then extend the legs into headstand. Additionally, build a strong base using your shoulders and forearms rather than allowing the head to carry too much of your body’s weight.

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10. You’re not strong enough for chaturanga, but you do it anyway.

Shoulder injuries are common in yoga because too many people do chaturanga, also known as a yoga push-up, incorrectly. To avoid such injuries, draw the shoulders away from the ear, hug the biceps and triceps tight into your ribcage, make sure your elbow is directly over your wrist, and engage the core. If your biceps, triceps, and core aren’t yet strong enough to do a chaturanga correctly, then drop your knees to the ground until you can build the upper body strength to do the full extension of the pose.

11. Your low lunge isn’t low enough.

Avoid the Hunchback of Notre Dame look when you’re doing low lunge by keeping your back low and straight. If you can’t touch the floor without rounding your upper back, modify your pose to keep your fingers off the ground. It’s important to keep your shoulders square. Lift your chest and pull your shoulder blades together. If you still can’t touch the floor with your fingertips like this, then use blocks on each side of your front foot. Make sure to fully engage your core to stay low and strong in this pose.

12. You’re skipping props with pigeon.

Pigeon is a very tricky pose with mistakes and misalignments being incredibly common, even for experienced yogis. As a fantastic hip opener, it’s used often, but given the nature of the pose, it’s hard to check yourself to make sure you’re doing it right to give your hips the optimal experience. Remember that your thighs don’t need to touch the ground—overexerting yourself here can stretch the exterior ligaments too far. If your hips are feeling too tight to stretch as deeply as you want, use a prop! Place a blanket, bolster, or block underneath your thigh or hands to prop yourself up and enjoy the pose without added pressure.

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13. You’re rounding out in downward dog.

Perhaps the most famous yoga pose of all, downward dog can lead to injuries in ways you never thought were possible. Despite being so popular, plenty of people still make mistakes in it. One of the worst? Rounding out your lower back. When your back is rounded, that passes your weight forward onto your shoulders and perhaps even further into your wrists. Neither of these areas of your body should be holding that much weight. By engaging your core and keeping your back as straight and strong as possible, you will have a strong current of energy to give yourself the best stretch possible.

14. Your tree trunk isn’t strong enough.

Tree pose is a fantastic balancing posture that can lead to leg and core strength. The biggest mistake most newbies make is getting freaked out about falling over and placing their foot in the wrong place. By putting your foot directly against your inner knee, you place a lot of pressure on your knee, which is something you always want to avoid.

If you can balance enough to keep your foot up on your inner thigh, you’ll feel far more rooted into the ground; if you need to keep your foot on your inner shin, that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Place your foot in a safe place and keep your gaze lifted and strong.

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Be sure to listen to your instructor if they offer advice or suggestions for poses or pose modifications. They aren’t there to make you feel incompetent—they want you to have a practice that is both fulfilling and safe. 

Yoga is a beautiful, life-long practice that balances the mind, body, and the spiritual self. But if you overdo it, you can injure yourself just like in any activity. Be true to yourself and what your body can do and let that reflect in your yoga practice.

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