Although yoga is often thought of as a gentle, benign practice, there is the potential for injury in almost every yoga pose. Of course, you could also hurt yourself walking down the street, but you still do it because it’s good for you and gets you from point A to point B. The same is true in yoga: it’s worth the risk to obtain the benefits. That said, it’s helpful to know which poses are the equivalent of dodging traffic on the highway, i.e. much more likely to lead to injury. That doesn’t mean you should avoid these poses altogether, but you should be aware of the dangers and how to minimize them by practicing safe alignment, finding a good teacher, and learning to respect your own body’s signals about when to stop.
Headstand (Salamba Sirsasana)
Headstand’s many benefits are often extolled in yoga class, but there are a number of risks associated with this pose. It’s especially dangerous for anyone with a sensitive neck. If you have ever injured your neck, it’s important to speak to your doctor before adding this pose to your repertoire. 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 greatest dangers of headstand is hurting yourself in a fall, so it should be avoided during pregnancy, except by very experienced yoginis.
Handstand (Adho Mukha Vrksasana)
The trouble with handstand is learning to control the effort that 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 headstand, the risk of falling is greater. The same prohibition for people with glaucoma applies.
Shoulderstand (Salamba Sarvangasana)
Are you seeing a pattern here? Yes, this is the third inversion to make the list. These poses are inherently dangerous since they put the body in an unstable, unfamiliar position. Of course, these are the same reasons that these poses are valuable for more experienced students. 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.
Four-Limbed Staff Pose (Chaturanga Dandasana)
The danger with chaturanga is cumulative, resulting from doing the pose incorrectly over time. In some practices, this poses 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)
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 extremely counter-productive.