Bend, don’t break: How to stay injury-free in yoga

Almost every yogi gets an injury at some point. Doug Swenson, who’s been practicing since 1963, has had his fair share of them. The yoga polymath (and older brother of top Ashtanga teacher David Swenson) recently gave a NYC workshop on injury prevention based upon his 47 years of doing down dog (mostly the right way). Here’s what we learned:

Swenson divides injuries into two categories: impact injuries and cumulative injuries. Impact injuries happen quickly and often dramatically: falling out of a pose or stretching too deeply when cold. Cumulative injuries happen over time and are caused by imbalances in your poses and your practice. That is, doing too much of one thing without enough of the counter to balance. To try to prevent these injuries, Swenson had a few tips on how to structure your practice.

1. Stretch and strengthen. Often yoga emphasizes the openings or the stretch, but we can damage joints by overstretching without strengthening the surrounding muscles. Swenson recommends isometrically (meaning using your own body as resistance) strengthening in and out of an opening pose in class. For example, after a series of back-bending poses, do core or ab-strengthening work for balance. Similarly, heavy-duty arm balances and endless chaturangas call for some strength-promoting pulls to counter all the pushes (and probably some simple circles and stretches to protect against jammed wrists).

Injury prevention tip: Don't try Swenson's cliffside lotus crow pose unless you're a yoga pro

2. Consider cross-training. Early in his practice, Swenson developed knee problems from lots of time in lotus pose. But he discovered that his knees felt much better after he went for a hike, because he had strengthened the muscles surrounding them and brought more stability to the knee joint. Now, he plans lotus and hiking or biking within a few days of each other.

3. How are you approaching your poses? Like a lion or a lamb? It’s important to respect your body and its limitations—and to try not to compare yourself to the yogi on the next mat—and use props if you need to. Instead of giving your ego a stroking, you’ll be giving your body what it needs.

4. Be aware of your body type and how that might change alignment cues for you. For example, if your hamstrings are tight, lift and separate your sit bones to create more space when doing forward bends. However, if your hamstrings tend to be very open, pull your sit bones down and together to protect the connective tissue in your upper thigh and seat.

And if you do get injured, Swenson recommends the age-old sports medicine remedy of alternating hot and cold: take a hot bath with Epsom salt, tea tree oil, and arnica, followed by a cold compress on the affected area. (And of course, see your acupuncturist or MD if you need to.)

Swenson’s upcoming East Coast workshops: Toms River, NJ, on Feb. 4 and Cape May, NJ, Feb. 5–7. Details at

Got any injury-prevention or recovery tips to share? Tell us, here!

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