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Starting on your yoga journey can be fun and exciting, but you know what’s not fun and exciting? Injuring yourself while practicing yoga!
When people first start looking into yoga, they often look into the best poses or routines for a specific ailment or area, or jump right into a yoga class.
This is what I did, not thinking about whether I was doing the poses right. If I kinda of looked like the person in the picture or the person next to me, then I must be doing it right, right?
I remember my first yoga class: I pushed too hard, and went too fast into most of the poses, and I went home paying for it by feeling as though I’d knocked the wind out of me (strained my back).
This is not uncommon either. The amount of yoga-related injuries nearly doubled in 13 years! And most injuries are completely preventable if you follow safe practices.
It is very easy to injure yourself when starting any new physical practice, because your body and mind just don’t know what to do. It’s completely unfamiliar territory.
That is why I definitely recommend learning the basics before you jump into a class to not only protect yourself, but to learn how do poses properly to build strong roots.
It’s very easy for you to get injured when something is new and unfamiliar, so keep the following tips in mind as you begin to build your practice in order to prevent injury:
1. Don’t push yourself deeper or further if it’s not available.
Don’t rush to enter more advanced postures, whether it’s to get your hands to the floor, your nose to your knees, or upside down into a headstand.
I know those arm balances look super cool. But I promise you, nobody doing an arm balance did it without at least a solid 20 yoga classes under his or her belt – unless they were already into crossfit or a sport where their arm strength and joint resilience were used heavily.
- Don’t attempt arm balances if you cannot hold a forearm plank and regular plank both for 30 seconds or more.
- Don’t attempt headstands or forearm stands if you cannot hold dolphin pose for 30 seconds or more.
- DO be patient with yourself – the strength will come with continued practice.
2. Remind yourself that it’s not a competition.
When you enter the studio or begin your practice at home, drop the ego. It’s human nature to compare yourself to the person next to you or the person on the screen, but try not to. Everyone was a beginner at one point in their lives – don’t feel the need to rush just because someone else is farther along the path than you are.
You’re doing yourself no favor by initiating this negative self talk, and completely put yourself at risk for injuring yourself by not listening to your body.
This is YOUR journey to take as fast or slow as your body is able to. Trust your judgement as to how far you can go.
3. Mind your joints – align knees over middle toes, always!
One of the most common mistakes beginners (and even intermediate and advanced) yogis make is to allow their knees to be misaligned over their feet, which can cause major knee problems!
Think middle toe: in whatever position you are in, your knee should be tracking directly over the middle of your foot. If it’s not, shift the weight off the foot (never try to move a joint or support with weight on it – that’s a major source of injury!), adjust the foot so that the knee tracks directly over the middle of the foot, and enter the pose again.
Think of it this way- your knee joints are lateral – they are only meant to move in one direction (straight and bent forward or back) – trying to make them go any other way will surely result in injury or pain, as they’re just not meant to move that way (same goes for your elbow joints – skip down to #9 for more on that)!
This doesn’t matter what position you are in, it will always hold true. A few examples:
- In Warrior I, the front foot is facing forward with the knee bent at a 90 degree angle – the knee should be bent directly toward the front of the room, over the middle of the front foot.
- In Yogi Squat, your feet might be rotated very far outward, or not so much (that’s a pose that you have to really listen to your own body and not worry about how others’ poses look) – no matter where you are, the knees must be bent out over the middle of their respective feet!
- In Goddess Pose, your knees should bend out over the middle of each foot.
4. Don’t “dump” into your wrists.
Your hands and wrists are the support for a ton of postures throughout yoga, even in poses that you don’t think much about them, like Downward Dog! If you are not mindful of “lifting” your weight up and out of your hands, you are likely to experience wrist pain.
To prevent wrist and hand tension, strain, and injury:
- Visualize activating the muscles in your upper arm to lift upward and out from your palms and wrists.
- Spread your palms wide- maximize the surface area of your hands by spreading the fingertips wide and press your weight evenly throughout the whole hand, not just the heel of the palm.
- Check in with your finger points- are you feeling the weight through all of them? Are you dumping the weight into the heel of your hand? Do you need to shift the weight slightly forward so that it’s spread evenly?
- Your middle finger (just like your middle toe!) should be straight and pointing toward the front of the room. If it’s not, come to your knees and adjust the hand position. (NEVER try to adjust your hand with weight on it – this will most certainly cause injury!)
If you are still experiencing wrist and hand issues in the postures, you may take a majority of poses on your elbows as a modification
5. Don’t lock into your joints- it’s always better to micro-bend.
You never want to lock your joints, you always want to have a sort of “micro-bend” meaning you are keeping the joint soft instead of hyper extended.
A lot of beginners make the mistake of locking their joints in the attempt to get into correct posture, but end up overdoing it and putting themselves at risk for injury.
This causes muscle constriction, which causes more harm upon impact because it decreases the distance of deceleration.
To use a visual metaphor: Think of it like catching a baseball- if you “soft catch” letting your arm bend to absorb some of the impact, it will hurt a lot less that catching it with your arm locked straight out.
If you’re locking your joints in a position where your body weight relies on them, there is a higher chance for your body weight to cause damage.
The joint locking occurs most often in positions where the leg or arm is kept straight – Triangle Pose, Plank, standing balancing poses such as Dancer or Tree. In the standing postures, you can usually correct this by engaging the quadricep muscle to visualize “lifting” the kneecap up.
The good news is that it’s easy to fix, as long as you are mindful of your body in each position. When you are entering a pose where the leg is completely straight, ask yourself “is my joint locking?” – if it is, just engage a teensy-tiny bend in the knee – that’s it!
6. Keep a slight bend in the knees in forward folds.
This applies to seated forward folds, standing forward folds, one-legged forward folds – any kind of forward folds!
The purpose of this is:
- The slight bend protects your joints (importance mentioned in #5)
- A slight bend ensures that you are not stressing your lower back
- A slight bend makes sure that you will not over-stress a tight hamstring, which will result in a pulled muscle (refer back to #1 – not fun!).
You might not realize it, but Downward Dog is actually one of the most common forward folds in yoga – it’s totally okay to keep your knees bent in Downward Dog if your hamstrings are tight or if you experience lower back pain (or both).
7. Protect the lower back by engaging the core or supporting if necessary.
There is in fact not a single yoga pose where you should ever be sticking your booty out like in a Kim Kardashian video – doing so will likely harm or strain your lower back.
To prevent this “sway back,” engage your abdominal muscles to tuck the tailbone forward and down. Visualize your tailbone being in line with the rest of your spine.
A few of the most common poses where the tailbone like to creep outward:
- Chair pose: Visualize pulling the bellybutton to the spine to tuck the tailbone. If your lower back is still forming an arch, decrease the bend into the chair.
- Lunge (high or low): Keep a slight bend in the back extended leg to allow your pelvis to tuck forward. Only straighten the leg if you are able to do so while keeping the tailbone tucked and lower spine straight toward the ground.
- Warrior I: If the lower back is arching in Warrior I, it is likely that you need to widen your stance.
The common theme here is to engage the core – doing so provides support for your spine, which allows the vertebrae to sit in the proper place. Visualize creating space through each vertebra in the lower spine by using the abdominal muscles to life the weight up and off the spine.
Using support: In backbends, use support until your core is strong enough to hold your body weight up. You can do this by placing the palms of your hands on your lower back as you fold backward – this can be done in Camel pose and any standing backbend.
8. Watch your head and neck alignment.
Your head and neck are a direct extension of your spine – they should not arch forward or backward out of line with the rest of your back. A good rule of thumb for your head and neck for positions where your arms are raised is to keep your biceps directly in line with your ears.
When you don’t have your arms up by your ears to guide you, visualize your head, neck, spine, and tailbone as a string of pearls hanging from the ceiling, where you want the string to be completely straight – no curves. This visualization is one of the most common metaphors used for ballerinas across the globe – it’s a tried and true (and very helpful) visualization!
9. Rotation happens from the “square” of joints – nowhere else.
Visualize your body where your upper torso is one rectangle. The shoulder joints make up the top 2 corners, and the hip sockets make up the bottom 2 corners. Now make it a rule that any rotation only occurs out of these joints, no others!
Your arms will always rotate inward or outward within the shoulder sockets, not the elbows or wrists.
Your legs – and as a result your knees and feet – will always rotate outward from the hip sockets, not the knees or wrists. If the knee position needs to be moved, the muscles in the hip sockets must rotate the quadricep outward or inward to do so. Where your leg rotates within your hip joint is where your feet will follow in placement.
In seated postures, it’s very easy to try to push the knees further than they should go – remember that even in the seated poses, the turnout originates from the hip.
You might think this goes without saying, but with so much going on when you first start learning yoga – from figuring out where your left and right foot go to where the head and neck should be in alignment with the spine and everything in between, it’s very easy to forget the quality of breath.
When you’re not breathing properly, you’re usually holding tension somewhere – whether it’s the arms, legs, shoulders, chest, wherever – we already went over the harm that tension can cause (check out tip #5)
Breathing also helps control your blood pressure, balances your emotional responses, and calms your nerves – it’s no wonder that breath work and meditation have shown to greatly improve cancer patients’ health and day-to-day living.
At the end of the day, sitting in child’s pose breathing is just as much “yoga” as doing 500 Vinyasa flows in a row. Long, diaphragmatic breathing provides the muscles with all the oxygen they need to perform their best, while allowing you the calm space to relax.
Those are the top 10 tips for safety, but a lot more goes into the practice as a beginner. What do I wear? What should I bring? What should I expect? are also all very common questions:
What should I wear while practicing yoga?
Wear what you will be comfortable practicing in. Try the “bend over” test in any leggings or shorts you are wearing to make sure they won’t ride up or down or show anything you wouldn’t want seen! Don’t wear anything that ties or bunches up in the back, because this will hurt you when you lie on your back.
What should I bring to yoga class?
Bring a water bottle, and a mat and towel if the studio your practicing doesn’t have them. If you don’t know, just give them a call to find out. If you are practicing at home, I would definitely recommend some type of mat when first starting out. Here is an article where we go over the top 5 yoga mats for beginners.
What should I expect at my first yoga class?
Expect a calming experience. Give yourself enough time to get to class at least 10-15 minutes prior to start. If you know there will be traffic, pad your time a little bit more – stressing in traffic the whole time to get to your yoga class is totally counterproductive!
That is also the beauty of practicing at home… no need to worry about traffic or finding a class time that fits your needs. That is one of the many reasons we created our Free Resource Library full of yoga routines you can practice at home. If you’re not already signed up, you can sign up below to get the password e-mailed to you:
And if you are a complete beginner to yoga, check out these other articles to help you get started!:
- 20 Yoga Poses for Complete Beginners (+ Free Printable)
- How to Start a Home Yoga Practice as a Beginner
- What is the First Yoga Pose You Should Learn?
- Should You Warm Up Before Yoga?
- The 20 Minute Yoga Routine Every Beginner Needs + Free PDF
Previously a dancer, Ashley has been practicing yoga for over 15 years and teaching for 5.
She balances an executive-level “corporate” position during the day with healthy, mindful wellness practices in her free time to stay grounded; she lives on celery juice and cold brew, and can’t live without her dark chocolate!