How to Practice Yoga Safely

“Stretching is not about imitating the girl in your yoga class who can fold in sixths like an origami crane. Stretching is about feeling your way to the places where your muscles have sensation without causing injury.”
~ Cameron Diaz, THE BODY BOOK
How to Practice Yoga Safely

The Powerful Health Benefits Of Yoga

Yoga is an essential part of my own training program, and for my clients – who are predominantly surfers, mountain bikers, runners, rock climbers and other action sports athletes – it’s non-negotiable.

Yoga is great for relieving muscular pain, correcting alignment, improving balance, building strength, enhancing coordination, teaching body awareness, increasing breath efficiency, rehabbing injury, building mental resiliency, enhancing focus and concentration, relieving stress and anxiety, improving sleep, and boosting mood.

Yoga Body Illusion

If you search #yoga on Instagram, you’ll find thousands of images of yoga girls with slim, ‘perfect’ physiques. The obvious conclusion to draw is that they sculpted their slender, bendy bodies through an intense daily yoga practice.

This, however, is an illusion.

Yogis don’t have perfect bodies because they do yoga every day. It’s actually the other way around. Yoga instructors are attracted to yoga because they were born with bodies that make them naturally good at it. Folding up like origami swans comes easily to them, so they enjoy going to classes and many decide to take it up professionally.

Here’s another example of this illusion:

“Female models advertise cosmetics and, thus, many female consumers believe that these products make you beautiful. But it is not the cosmetics that make these women model-like. Quite simply, the models are born attractive, and only for this reason are they candidates for cosmetics advertising.” Rolf Dobelli, The Art Of Thinking Clearly

My fear is that many women take up yoga to lose weight and master feats of contortion, and that there are potential hidden dangers in pursuing these goals that few people are talking about.

How to Practice Safe Yoga

Yoga Fails

Although there are definitely exceptions, the research shows that yoga does not excel at achieving the following objectives:

    • – Weight loss
    • – Boosting metabolism
    • – Building functional strength – yoga prioritises push over pull movements, which over-develops the chest and neglects the upper back muscles
    • – Improving cardiorespiratory fitness

If you choose to take up yoga to lose weight, burn calories or trim your waistline, I believe that you’re putting yourself at unnecessary risk of injury.

Yoga was designed to be practiced slowly and mindfully, synchronizing breath with movement. You’re asked to stretch your muscles to full extension, simultaneously challenge your balance, strength and coordination, turn yourself upside down and stay there for longer than you thought possible. These are not simple or easy skills to master.

The beauty of yoga is that it can be both deeply restorative and it can also challenge you to push beyond your limits. But it isn’t a silver bullet.

‘Active’ Stretching For The Flexible

Injury occurs in yoga most frequently in people who are naturally fairly flexible.

Healthy flexibility is not just a measure of how deep you can go into a stretch. It’s actually how strong you are at your full range of motion. So, doing the splits may not be a healthy goal for you if you don’t have the anatomy and elasticity to master it without compromising your ligaments and tendons.

If you’re already quite flexible, I strongly advise that you do not hold deep poses for more than a few breaths. In addition to stretching the muscle, you’ll start to tug at ligaments and tendons which have a fraction of the elasticity and are therefore much more prone to injury.

I’m personally at risk of being overly flexible. To protect myself from injury, I’m almost always active in static poses. For example, in Pigeon, I don’t relax fully into the stretch as I would recommend to the majority of my athletic clients. Instead, I contract the muscles in my hips, glutes and core to simultaneously build strength and increase my flexibility.

An injured tendon or ligament can be very hard to rehabilitate and movement is my life, so it’s too high a price to pay to listen to my ego over the intrinsic wisdom of my body.

If you’re not very flexible, it’s safe for you to spend several breaths and up to 5-10 minutes in static pose. This style of yoga is called yin yoga and it’s especially effective for men and for female athletes with restricted flexibility.

How to Practice Safe Yoga

Change It Up

The other major cause of injury in yoga is repetitive strain.

Each sport typically sets up a dysfunctional set of postural imbalances from overuse. For example, cyclists suffer from tight hips, quads and hamstrings, weak core and glutes, and rounded upper backs. Yoga is no different. In flow classes, you might go through a vinyasa (Downward Dog to Plank, Chaturanga and Upward Facing Dog) multiple times, which if repeated every day, could lead to repetitive strain injury.

This does not mean you shouldn’t go to flow classes. They are phenomenal at easing muscular tightness, restoring proper movement patterns and increasing range of motion, but make sure you mix it up and don’t repeat the same routine over and over again. Be conscious of staying active and controlled, especially in the transitions between postures, and be intentional with every movement, pose and breath.

Practice Safe Yoga

I absolutely don’t want to discourage you from practicing yoga. It has been life-changing for me and for hundreds of my clients, but please be careful to choose the right style for you and for your body. If you practice yoga regularly and have noticed any niggling aches or pains or hyper mobility in your joints, take a moment to assess whether your exercise choices are properly serving you, as these may be the early warning signs of an injury.

A Smarter Way To Get Fit

In The Body Book, Cameron Diaz offers a balanced prescription for building and maintaining a body that you love.

She recommends that you lift weights, sweat, play and throw in some yoga to stretch out tight muscles and check in with yourself. 

I’m often asked if doing yoga is enough to achieve your fitness goals. In my opinion, it’s far too high risk. Your body craves diversity of movement and your brain thrives on novelty.

The safest and smartest prescription is to be as active as you can in as many disciplines as you find fun and have time for. To lift weights, sprint, dance, swim, surf, mountain bike, rock climb, take up Barre, spinning, CrossFit, Pilates, gymnastics, MovNat, Barry’s Bootcamp, kettlebell training or kickboxing, and walk as much as possible in between.

Also from Abi: 7 Ways Yoga is Beneficial to You Longevity

ABI CARVER designs 15-minute yoga routines to improve flexibility, balance and strength, de-stress and ease aches and pains. Her videos are available to download from her site:

Photo credit: Graham Mattock