How Some Risky Yoga Poses Can Cause Injury

There is a misconception that yoga is an easy and passive practice. That means that some people are unaware of the strength and focus that yoga actually calls for to avoid injury.

Make sure you practice safe alignment, find a good teacher, and respect your own body's signals about when to stop.


Headstand (Salamba Sirsasana)

Yoga Class in Headstand
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Headstand's many benefits are often extolled in yoga class, but several risks are associated with this pose. It's hazardous for anyone with a sensitive neck. If you have ever injured your neck, it's essential to speak to your doctor before adding this pose to your repertoire.

To practice headstand safely and with good alignment:

  • Take your time: Don't kick up fast and use a wall as needed to avoid falling.
  • Stack properly: Make sure your elbows are stacked underneath your shoulders with your forearms framing your face to protect you from a shoulder injury.
  • Brace correctly: Engage your core and hug your ribs in to avoid hurting your back.

Like all inversions, it's also a ​no-no for people with glaucoma, whose eyes cannot adjust to the additional pressure of being upside-down.

One of the most significant risks of headstand is hurting yourself in a fall, so it should be avoided during pregnancy. Only practice this pose while pregnant if this was a part of your regular practice before pregnancy.


Handstand (Adho Mukha Vrksasana)

Yoga handstand
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The trouble with handstand is learning to control the effort it takes to kick up while keeping your arms straight since that is the foundation of the pose. You may have seen kicks gone wild and buckling arms too many times.

As a beginning yoga student, you may even strain your hamstring in an overzealous attempt to fling yourself into this pose. Since this pose is even less stable than the headstand, the risk of falling is greater. The same prohibition for people with glaucoma applies.

To find safe alignment in handstand:

  • Use a wall: Use a wall when first practicing, and make sure to have guidance from a teacher.
  • One leg at a time: Focus on kicking your feet up into a letter L, with one foot up the wall and the other behind you. Stay there until you feel stable enough to bring both legs together.
  • Maintain strong arms: Keep the arms strong and do not bend them as you kick up; keep your foundation solid.
  • Focus ahead: Gaze forward, not behind you, for focus.

Shoulderstand (Salamba Sarvangasana)

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Shoulderstand and plow can put the neck in a very vulnerable position if too much of the body's weight is placed at the top of the spinal column.

Poor alignment of the legs also increases the possibility of strain. And the risk for glaucoma patients is the same as described above. To find safe alignment:

  • Shoulders under torso: Make sure to actively walk your shoulder underneath the torso before lifting the legs.
  • Walk your hands: Actively walk your hands up your back.
  • Stack correctly: Make sure hips stack above shoulder.
  • Root yourself: Root into the shoulders and press up and out through flexed feet.

From these positions, students often come out through the ear pressure pose.


Four-Limbed Staff Pose (Chaturanga Dandasana)

Four-Limbed Staff Pose - Chaturanga Dandasana
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The issue with chaturanga is that mis-alignment can be cumulative, resulting from doing the pose incorrectly over time.

In some practices, this pose is done many times in each class, making for a great deal of wear and tear on the shoulders if care is not taken with the alignment. Make sure that your shoulders are not dipping below the level of your elbows.

Traditionally, students have been taught that the ideal alignment for chaturanga is to have the upper arm parallel to the floor. This may actually be too low for a lot of people, especially beginners.

You don't want to dump your weight into your shoulders, so try staying a bit higher than 90 degrees. If you are taking a class with a lot of vinyasas and you feel like you are getting too tired to do safe chaturangas, it's best to substitute knees, chest, and chin or skip the vinyasas. A good teacher will not give you a hard time about this.


Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana)

Yoga Class in Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana)
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Any pose that stretches the hamstrings offers the possibility of over-stretching into injury. This includes basic forward bends like uttanasana on up to advanced poses like monkey pose (hanumanasana).

Hamstring injuries can be serious and take months or even years to heal, so avoiding them is the best strategy. But since opening the hamstrings is of great benefit, yoga students have to ride a fine line.

First, feel confident that you can politely refuse any teacher's adjustment. If you feel this is a sensitive area for you, you can talk to your teacher before class or just say "no thanks" if they move to deepen your pose in a hamstring stretch.

Second, always listen to your own body and respect your edge. Forcing your way into a deeper forward bend is going to be highly counter-productive. It is fine to bend at the knees in this posture to protect your hamstrings and low back.

By Ann Pizer, RYT
Ann Pizer is a writer and registered yoga instructor who teaches vinyasa/flow and prenatal yoga classes.