Here's what you need to know to go with the (yoga) flow.
When it comes to exercise injuries, yoga isn't nearly as dangerous as, say, running marathons or doing overhead presses with heavy barbells. But the number of yoga injuries serious enough to rate a trip to the emergency room, while not commonplace, has grown between 2001 and 2014, according to a study from the Center for Injury Sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
"Many of the 29,590 yoga-related ER visits recorded in the study had to do with sprains or strains, and the researchers think the number of injuries may be even higher once those not treated at an ER are factored in," says Sarah Brewer, MD, a family medicine physician at Mission Heritage Medical Group who practices yoga two to three times a week. "The popularity of yoga has absolutely taken off--an estimated 36.7 million people do some sort of yoga practice--and one theory is that people who are beginners and not well versed in yoga are more likely to get an injury. So it's important to know what you're doing and make sure the class is a right fit for you to reap the great health benefits that come from a yoga practice."
Here's what you need to know so you can go with the (yoga) flow:
1. Know what kind of class you should take. "There are different styles of yoga--for instance, hatha yoga moves slowly and focuses on basics so it's good for beginners, while ashtanga is more intense and may be a better fit for people with more experience," Dr. Brewer says. "When checking out a yoga studio, ask what style of yoga is practiced there and if special introductory classes are offered." And beginners should be extra mindful of taking hot yoga classes, where the rooms are usually heated between 90 and 105 degrees. "It's easy to overextend the body in the heat, or become dehydrated, so it may not be the best place to start a practice," Dr. Brewer says.
2. Know what you can handle. "Yoga requires balance, flexibility and strength training by using your own body weight in certain poses," Dr. Brewer says. "If you have any health conditions, you may want to clear yoga with your doctor--that's especially true for older people, as the study found that the rate of yoga injuries went up for older practitioners. If you have certain areas of the body that are prone to problems, such as the knees or lower back, let the yoga teacher know before class so she can help you modify any poses as necessary."
3. Know your yoga teacher's credentials. Yoga teachers should have a minimum of 200 hours of training under their belt and be named a Registered Yoga Teacher by the Yoga Alliance, which is the largest yoga nonprofit. Teachers can also be certified for certain specialties, such as prenatal yoga. "If you are recovering from an injury, or have a problem area, ask your teacher if they have any training in anatomy and physiology.," Dr. Brewer says. "That background can help them better understand what will and will not work for your body to help prevent injuries."
4. Know how to listen to your body. "If you ever feel pain, you need to stop immediately to prevent injury," Dr. Brewer says. "You should always pay attention to how your body feels in each pose, and if there is ever a time when you feel you may be pushing past what you can handle, ease into something restful such as lying down on your back."
5. Know how to breathe. Of course, you know how to inhale and exhale, but yoga breathing is an important part of the practice. "There are specific breathing exercises in yoga that, if done properly, can help guard against injury," Dr. Brewer says. "Breathing helps you get centered, which means you'll be able to focus on your body and any warning signals of pain it may give out. Breathing is also used to guide you into poses--you'll move slowly and purposefully, as opposed to shifting too quickly into a pose, which could cause strain. Holding the breath may be a natural inclination while trying to keep a difficult pose, but it can make the body tense up, which leaves you open to injury. Your yoga teacher should guide the class in proper breathing technique, and you should always check in with yourself during class to make sure you're following it."
Suggested reading: Benefits of yoga for kids
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.