4 Ways to Practice Safe Yoga

Many of yoga's practitioners tout its benefits for strength, flexibility and general health.

But the practice can also cause a range of injuries among beginners and experienced yogis alike, according to a report in the New York Times .

William Broad, author of the Times story and an upcoming book, "The Science of Yoga: Risks and Rewards," describes gruesome injuries that have happened as a result of the practice - popped ribs, ruptured spinal discs, torn Achilles tendons, even partial paralysis and strokes.

Yoga and sports injury experts say yoga is right for some people, wrong for others and, like any physical activity, carries an inherent risk of injury. But if people approach the practice in the right way, they can do a lot to minimize their risk of injury.

 "Yoga is a powerful tool and if you misuse it, you're going to end up in the emergency room," said Leslie Kaminoff, a New York-based yoga educator and author of the book, "Yoga Anatomy."

Here are some ways to keep your yoga practice safe:

No. 1 - Know Your Limits

Experts say the chief culprit in yoga injuries is often overzealousness. Most people don't think of yoga as a competitive sport but, at times, the need to out-perform others in class can seem irresistible.

"Sometimes, we find ourselves being very competitive with fellow students, especially in physically based classes," said Judi Bar, a yoga therapist at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute. "Then, we end up getting ourselves in trouble and hurting ourselves by not realizing our limitations."

Another path to potential pain comes from taking on classes meant for more experienced yogis. Certain types of practices, such as high-heat bikram yoga, can encourage stretching that's too aggressive. Beginners should steer clear of classes that are too advanced or strenuous.

Karen Sherman, who studies yoga and other complementary medicine techniques at the Group Health Research Institute in Seattle, said it's important to listen to your body and respect its limits.

"One of the basic tenets of yoga is non-injury and self-honesty," Sherman said. "When you practice with the idea that non-violence to your body is part of the practice, you're more likely to avoid those injuries."

No. 2 - Poses Can Aggravate Injuries

Certain poses, too, can be too much for the casual yoga-phile and create problems if done incorrectly or by people with little experience.

Bar said certain seated, stretching poses can aggravate sciatica or injure spinal discs. Headstands can be risky for the nerves, blood vessels and joints in the neck and spine , not to mention the risk of injury from toppling out of the pose. Even certain breathing practices can exacerbate asthma.

For people who are already injured, yoga can be either a useful therapy or can lead to further injury if students overdo it.

"Lots of patients go to yoga because they have herniations of the neck and back, and they go to yoga and those injuries improve. But at the same, time, I see patients who get these injuries from yoga," said Dr. Jeffrey Goldstein, director of the spine service at New York University's Langone Medical Center.

Any sore joints, such as the hips, knees, wrists, shoulders, neck and back, can become more painful if tweaked or twisted in even the simplest of poses. For example, downward dog could put too much stress on an injured shoulder; forward- or back-bending might be too much for a strained back. Also, patients with other health concerns, such as high blood pressure, should steer clear of certain poses or yoga practices.

No. 3 - Let Teachers Help

Injuries don't necessarily put yoga off-limits. Students should let their instructors know if they are injured or have a medical condition so instructors can tailor a yoga routine to their specific physical needs.

Kaminoff said experienced teachers will get to know their students and ask to hear about any physical problems. Then, it's up to the student to be honest with the teacher.

"The teacher-student relationship is important," Kaminoff said. "If the student's not willing to confront a teacher with a difficulty they're having, the teacher won't be able to help them avoid further injury."

No. 4 - Choose the Right Teacher

More people than ever before are toting yoga mats and regularly practicing their asanas. The number of Americans who do yoga has grown from nearly 4 million in 2001 to 20 million in 2011, according to the New York Times.

As interest in yoga has exploded in the last decade, the number of yoga studios and instructors has grown along with it. But not all teachers have the same level of qualifications and experience to safely teach yoga.  

To help choose the right teachers, experts offer this advice:

  • Observe a teacher's class before you participate to see if it's right for you.
  • Be sure a teacher is qualified; the Yoga Alliance certifies instructors as registered yoga teachers at basic, intermediate and advanced levels.
  • Avoid teachers that aggressively adjust your poses - they may push your body over its limits.