5 Yoga Poses You're Probably Doing Wrong
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We all show up at yoga classes with the best of intentions—to stretch and strengthen, to heal our bodies, minds, and spirits. But unfortunately, it's easy to find injury instead—especially if you step on your mat with a competitive mindset, or encounter a teacher with less than optimal training or experience (all too common given our current yoga boom). That's especially true for beginners.
I asked Judith Hanson Lasater, PhD, a physical therapist who's been teaching Iyengar-influenced yoga since 1971 to share her thoughts, and she points to 5 poses people often get wrong: Triangle Pose (Trikonasana), Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana), Four-Limbed Staff Pose (Chaturanga Dandasana), Upward Facing Dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana), and Shoulderstand (Sarvangasana). Here's how to do them rights to protect yourself from injury and get the full benefit of each pose:
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The Problem: "Beginners approach this pose as a simple side bend, and they dump all their weight into the inner knee, which really stresses it," Lasater says. "Then they wrench their heads to the ceiling, which puts a lot of pressure on the cervical spine."
The Solution: Make sure you have your legs far enough apart—about 3½' or 4'—so that the pelvis moves down and back and can take some pressure off the forward knee. Rotate the front foot a little past 90 degrees to engage the quadriceps to further protect the knee. Finally, "don't turn your head look up at the ceiling," Lasater says. "The head weighs 15 pounds and when you're turning it, it's hard to support. I have people look forward and lift their heads slightly up to engage the neck muscles to the support the head. It's an 'aha' moment for many."
MORE: 12 Hip-Opening Yoga Poses
Standing Forward Bend
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The Problem: Beginners standing in the pose with legs together tend to flop into the pose moving from the lower back, putting maximal pressure on the intervetebral disks, Lasater explains. Moving this way lets the lower back take the brunt of the pose—not the hamstrings, as is the intention.
The Solution: Lasater has everyone approach this pose with feet 12" to 14" apart, and parallel to put the pelvis in the optimal position. "You want to keep the back slightly concave as you're going down," Lasater explains. She often has beginners work with their hands on a wall, tipping the pelvis slightly forward and moving into the pose only so far forward as they can hold the pelvic tilt. "You will have to round over eventually, but if you don't learn to enter from this place of pelvic tilt, and you just flop into the pose, you're putting your lower back in one of the most stressful positions it can be in," she explains.
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The Problem: Chaturanga—the floating half push-up position that is the calling card of every vinyasa class—is fraught with problems for those who lack upper body strength and/or proper training. "People dump weight into the upper body, which burdens shoulders and wrists," Lasater says. And that's to say nothing of the sagging abs and dragging legs that pull on back muscles. In even a beginner's vinyasa class, you may be asked to perform this pose up to 30 times, compounding the stress on your body.
The Solution: "Plank Pose is the best place for a beginner to stay to build strength in arms and to learn to use the abdominal and leg muscles to support you," Lasater says. "You don't have to go down into Chaturanga every time, or at all. I'm not sure I believe the benefits of Chaturanga outweigh the risks. Just stay in plank, lift the abdominals up and in, and position the mid back so that it rises slightly above the shoulder blades, and you'll get just as much benefit."
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The Problem: Also a vinyasa favorite, Upward-Facing Dog can do more harm than good when it's practiced without awareness and openness. "It's incredibly important in this pose that you're imagining that your breastbone is lifting higher than your collarbone, because if you let your breastbone drop, you're just hanging on your shoulder capsule, putting stress on the tendons and ligaments of your rotator cuff," Lasater explains. Collapsing into the shoulder blades compounds the problem.
The Solution: Stay up on your toes in the pose, as opposed to rolling over the tops of the feet, to keep the thighs and abdominal muscles engaged. You'll get a more even arch, and you'll be engaging the large muscles of the body to lend support to the pose. You'll be in a better position to open your chest and move the breastbone upward. Make sure your hands are positioned directly under the shoulders to offer the best support.
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The Problem: Don't get Lasater started on this one—seeing it done wrong is her number one pet peeve. "Unless you're doing this pose with a teacher who is working with blankets to support your cervical spine and leading you into the posture in a way that doesn't involve momentum, you shouldn't be doing this pose at all," she says. The potential for injury to the neck is too serious to merit trying this pose any other way. Plus, the list of contraindications is lengthy—if you're pregnant, menstruating, or have retinal problems or high blood pressure, the pose is not for you.
The Solution: Try a simpler inversion. "I have people simply put their legs up the wall, or lie on the floor with their shins resting on a chair," Lasater says. "These are safe inversions with some of the same benefits as Shoulderstand." Don't feel embarrassed to do your own thing even in yoga class—you are there for you, and should be doing postures appropriate for your body. If your teacher inquires, Lasater advises simply telling her "I'm just not comfortable doing that right now," or "I'd just like to lie on my mat." If you feel pressure to do something you're not comfortable doing, find another class with another teacher.
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