There are many health benefits of yoga that are backed up by research, but if those perks aren’t happening for you, there’s a chance you’re making some critical mistakes that are sabotaging your yoga practice.
Common yoga mistakes range from things that reduce the effectiveness of your workout, to things that could actually put your body in danger. Here are some of the most common ways yogis sabotage their practice.
1. Not activating your core
The truth is, almost all yoga positions, or asanas, require some core engagement, but it’s tempting to let your core rest and just rely on other muscles to hold up the pose.
“While taking a vinyasa or flow, the core needs to be engaged so that you don’t put any pressure on your lower back,” says Alexandra Bernal, yoga and kickboxing instructor in New York City. This is especially important in planks and chaturangas—where it’s easy to dip the back if your core is slacking off—or in heart-opener poses where you arch your back.
“Back pain is very common and yoga can help tremendously with that. Start by strengthening your core by keeping it engaged during poses,” says Bernal. (Ask your doctor before beginning yoga if you have serious back pain.)
Your core also stabilizes you. Says Bernal, “Balance comes from the core, so if you feel like you are always wobbly during balancing poses, make sure you find a spot to look at and make sure to engage that core.”
2. Not modifying poses when needed
A good yoga teacher will provide options to modify asanas during class, especially in an all-levels class. It’s understandable to want to “challenge” yourself, but that doesn’t mean you have to risk injury. If a position causes you pain, do the modification.
In fact, yoga instructor Katherine Parker avoids the word “modification” altogether in her teaching. The term can give the impression that there’s a right or wrong way to do the asana, according to Parker, owner of Studio PDX in Portland, OR, and co-founder of Yomassage, a yoga-massage fusion class.
“The truth is that everyone’s body is different, so everyone is going to look and feel differently in every position. It’s the job of the teacher to make sure that everyone in the class feels comfortable to practice the variation that feels best for their own body,” says Parker.
3. Holding your breath
When you find yourself in a particularly challenging pose—maybe crow or pigeon—it’s easy to cram your jaw together and hold your breath without even thinking about it. Focusing on slow and steady breathing, however, can actually help you sustain and even deepen the pose.
“Breath work is there to help you stay more aware of your body and mind, but it also helps while transitioning or while holding a pose,” says Bernal. “If you have pain or are having trouble with a pose, breathing helps your body adjust to it.” And of course, holding your breath and getting lightheaded won’t make your yoga class any easier.
If you find yourself holding your breath through a pose, your body might be speaking to you, according to Parker: “If you are not able to breathe during a pose, your body is telling you that the pose is not serving you today.” Consider doing a variation of the asana, or taking a child’s pose.
4. Locking your joints
It’s common for yogis to lock their knees during triangle pose or their elbows in high plank, but this is a dangerous habit. This comes from the misconception that a locked joint creates a deeper stretch.
Here's the problem: “Locking your joints overextends the ligaments supporting the joints and can cause damage and pain,” says Bernal. “You should always keep a light bend on your knees or elbows so that the pressure is off the joint.” Additionally, locking the knees can result in dizziness.
5. Leaving early to skip savasana
You did your workout, and now you want to hit the shower before continuing on your day. Sneaking out as your teacher leads you into savasana (or corpse pose) is harmless … right?
The short answer: no. If you think it’s just “lying there,” there’s a chance you might not be doing it right. In fact, some people consider it one of the most challenging asanas, as well as the most valuable. “Savasana, or final relaxation, is the most important part of the yoga practice—it’s the part of the practice that allows you to rest, release, and calm the nervous system,” says Parker.
And if you won’t do it for yourself, do it for your classmates. Someone who gets up, rolls up their mat, and lets the door clamor shut as they leave is causing a major disruption to the entire class while they try to find stillness in savasana.
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