Yoga's an every-woman activity. But just because anyone with a mat and a will can bust some yoga moves doesn't mean you're doing it right—or getting the most out of your hour.
"When you practice yoga on autopilot, not looking at your mistakes and working to correct them, your form and awareness suffer, reducing your practice's benefit and increasing your risk of injury," says yoga expert Kimberly Fowler, author of Flat Belly Yoga! and founder of YAS Fitness Centers. And we aren't just talking newbies here. "Yoga is a practice. You never achieve perfection," she explains. "The goal is to constantly improve."
So whether you're a beginner or an experienced yogi, chances are that your practice can benefit from some fine-tuning. Fowler suggests you start by watching out for these 10 common yoga mistakes.
|Holding Your Breath|
Breathing—something that you typically do without giving it a thought—can feel anything but automatic during a challenging pose. But without constant breath, your muscle fibers don't get the oxygen they need to fire, support your body weight, and bend at will.
The result: wobbly limbs and—if you're in a balance pose—falls, says Fowler.
And little chest raises won't cut it. You want to go for full-belly breaths: Inhale through your nose so you feel cool air hit the back of your throat and your stomach expands with air. Then slowly exhale through your mouth until you feel your lungs are empty.
|Pushing Too Hard|
"'No pain, no gain' doesn't apply to yoga," says Fowler, who notes that most people—if they're really being honest with themselves—know when they're pushing themselves too hard.
While in some exercise classes and sports you want your muscles to cry uncle, the exact opposite is true in yoga. It's a sign you're on the fast track to muscle strains and injury.
Yoga should never feel painful. If it starts to, back off. Yoga is all about awareness, about listening to your body's subtle signals, and responding accordingly.
|Comparing Yourself to Others|
Every class has that one super-flexible yogi who seems to effortlessly master every move—and who has a core you could bounce a quarter off of.
Fight the urge to compare and get down on yourself. If you get tripped up measuring yourself against everyone else in the class, not only will you get a crick in your neck, you'll get a crimp in your fun. You'll likely become frustrated and maybe even convince yourself that yoga isn't for you. Wrong! Fowler stresses that yoga is for everyone, and your personal yoga practice isn't about anyone but you.
"Every body is different, and yoga is about treating your individual body," she says.
|Picking the Wrong Spot in Class|
Place your mat wisely. Where's that, exactly? Near the back of the class.
"People think they need to be in front so they can see the instructor, but much of the time the instructor is moving around and helping people correct their form, so you're left at the head of the class and can't see what you're supposed to do," explains Fowler.
Try the next-to-back row. Since some moves require facing the back of the room, this spot will guarantee you always have someone you can follow without looking over to the side and sacrificing your form.
|Coming to Class With a Full Stomach|
Yoga studios should have signs that read, "No food babies allowed." Why? When you have a full stomach, not only are most yoga poses uncomfortable, but blood supply is funneled to your stomach to process the nutrients from your food, leaving your muscles shortchanged on the energy they need for a successful practice.
Still, pre-class eaters have one thing right: Food is fuel. The key to benefiting from that fuel is keeping the portion size down and eating about an hour before class, says Fowler. That way, your blood has time to head to your stomach, pick up the nutrients, and deliver them to your muscles before you strike your first pose.
Try a banana with peanut butter or a handful of nuts along with a piece of toast. The combo of protein and carbs will give you the energy jolt you need while keeping your blood sugar from crashing mid-pose.
|Thinking Too Much|
This top shows more boob than I thought it did. What's for dinner? I need to buy detergent. I love this song. If that reads anything like your inner convo come yoga time, you aren't getting the full mind or body benefits, says Fowler.
Distractions—be they from checking out the cute guy's butt during down dog or rattling off to-do lists in your head—slash your focus. Research shows the brain isn't equipped for all that multitasking, so instead it toggles back and forth, sacrificing both your form and the mind-body connection that comes with a focused practice. By concentrating on your body and your breath, you can help tune out these distractions, she says.
|Skipping Basic Poses for Advanced Ones|
Come on, who doesn't want to master a headstand? But too many people rush into these flashy poses before they get down the basics. Big mistake, says Fowler. Since all of yoga's postures are integrated, being able to complete the foundational ones helps to ensure you have the strength, balance, and flexibility needed to tackle more advanced moves.
When you rush into advanced poses, it's very difficult to hold the correct posture, meaning you won't use the right muscles, and you can risk injury. Plus, the basics are great strengtheners in and of themselves, she says. Take advantage of them.
|Being Too Quiet|
What's the point of paying for a yoga class if you aren't going to make good use of the instructor? They're in class not just to give you a template you can follow (a DVD can do that!), but also to help you grow in your practice based on your individual needs and abilities. So if you have a question or need some help, raise your hand.
Likewise, when she asks at the beginning of class if anyone is new or has injuries, let her know. It's not to single out or embarrass you. It will help her to help you. If you keep quiet about injuries, tight muscles, or the fact that you're pregnant, the instructor may unknowingly set you up in poses that can do more harm than good.
|Taking Any Class|
Sure, your schedule is tight, but signing up for any class that fits your available time slot—regardless of whether it matches your ability level—is a recipe for dissatisfaction at best and injury at worst, says Fowler.
Stick with a beginner's class, even if you've tried yoga a few times. Once you get it down and are experienced enough to mix things up (ask your instructor if you're unsure), go ahead and try some other classes. Just make sure to read the descriptions first. There are a wide range of yoga levels and styles out there that may or may not suit your needs and preferences. For instance, if you live for a relaxing, low-key yoga sesh, Bikram might not be your bag.
|Skipping the Cool Down|
There are just a few minutes left in class and you can hear half of the class rolling up their yoga mats and heading out for the next item on their to-do lists. Those people (and if you are one of them, tsk tsk!) are skipping one of the most important parts of yoga: the cool down.
By focusing on stretching postures and deep relaxation, the cool down can help prevent muscle soreness, enhance flexibility, and slowly lower your heart rate and blood pressure to prevent dizziness that can result from abruptly ending exercise. Plus, it's a great way to close your practice and leave feeling centered and rejuvenated.
If you're completing poses at home, Fowler recommends creating your own cool down with a combination of easy spinal twists and seated poses. And don't forget corpse pose—it's your hard-earned reward!