How to Modify Your Yoga Practice to Alleviate Common Wrist, Back, and Joint Pain

These asana adjustments will help you ease everyday aches.
Yoga is supposed to feel good, right? As in blissed-out-all-day good. So when you’re nursing a nagging ache (see: sore wrists, overworked lower back), it can seriously interrupt your flow. But when the instructor calls for a pose that leaves you wincing in pain, it doesn’t mean you need to roll up your mat. Learning to modify for common injuries allows you to give your body a break without requiring you to give your practice one, too.

“Injuries can be our best teachers if we take the time to learn from them.”

“Yoga is a practice of self-study, and while we reference the full expression of a posture, our ultimate work in the physical practice is about modifying to create space and ease,” say Krissy Jones and Chloe Kernaghan, co-founders of Sky Ting Yoga, the airy, light-filled studios with locations in lower Manhattan and now Brooklyn. “It’s not about mastering the pose but seeing what you can learn each time you come into it. And injuries can be our best teachers if we take the time to learn from them.”

Any good instructor will be able to offer adjustments so you can do poses with zero pain—Jones and Kernaghan offer their own below for the most-common injuries they see in their classes—you just need to ask. And maybe also to change your mindset about what modifying a pose means. “It’s part of your process to learn and support yourself better,” says Jones.

Whatever you do, don’t feel like you’re cutting corners or cheating if you make adjustments to the way you hold an asana, she says. “You’re still getting the full benefit of the pose—in some instances, you’re getting an even greater benefit than if you we're trying to do a pose with poor alignment.”

Keep reading for tips on how to modify your yoga practice to ease everyday injuries.

Woman's wrists
Photo: Unsplash/Brooke Cagle

If you have wrist pain…

Don’t ignore pain or tightness in your wrists, says Kernaghan. Instead, she suggests circling them around or turning them up or backward on various poses (where it makes sense, of course) throughout class: “It’s easy to get ‘bottle-necked’ in your wrists, so it’s key to focus on range and mobility.”

If poses, such as planks and downward-facing dog aggravate yours, "lower to your forearms to take the weight out of the wrist,” says Kernaghan.

Easiest yoga mats to travel with
Photo: Unsplash/Avrielle Suleiman

If you have elbow pain…

Poses where the arms are weight bearing (think planks, downward dog, arm balances) can put tons of pressure on your elbows. Try removing some of the weight by keeping a microbend in your arms, not locking them out. If that doesn’t do the trick, lower to your forearms for these postures to alleviate the pain, suggests Jones.

Woman doing forward fold
Photo: Stocksy/Jury Pozzi

If you have lower-back pain…

It makes sense that bending forward or backward deeply can cause pain on an already-tense lower back. For forward folds, Jones recommends keeping your knees bent to remove some of that pressure from your back. To ease backbends, support your lower back with a block. And as a general rule, try to strengthen your core muscles to offer support: “It they aren't strong enough, it'll put a lot of the work in the low back.”

Photo: Stocksy/Cinemalist

If you have knee pain…

Deep folds of the knee can be really tough on achy [joints],” says Kernaghan. Some of the biggest offenders: Virasana (hero's pose) and Pigeon. To ease the pain, try propping a block or rolled-up blanket under your glutes as you hold the pose. “Lifting the pelvis to create more height can help lessen pressure on the knee,” she says. Same goes for when you're seated with your legs folded to finish your class. Sitting on a block or two can help ensure you seal your practice with an om and not an ouch!

Aches and pains aren't the only reasons you might need to make adjustments to your practice. Here's a beginner's guide to modifying yoga poses. And these asanas are all about supporting healthy aging

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