If I go one week without doing yoga, I'm already feeling achy (and a little cranky). Taking regular classes helps me to gain flexibility, strength, balance, endurance and a calmer state of mind. I recommend it to almost everybody. However, if practiced incorrectly, yoga can do more damage to the body than good. Misaligned poses can lead to injuries ranging from aching joints to pulled muscles. "Yoga injuries are often a result of not knowing or realizing your body's limitations," says yoga instructor and educational kinesiologist Candace Morano.
Below are Candace’s dos and don’ts of the top five yoga techniques commonly misaligned:
#1 Seated Pose with Pranayama:
DON’T: Sit in a slumped position. It decreases the ability to breathe into a straight, long spine. “Not breathing fully into the torso and body can also lead to anxiety and low energy,” says Candace.
DO: Sit in a comfortable cross legged position on the floor or on a blanket. Loop a yoga belt or one of your own comfortably around your lower ribs. The belt will serve as a boundary for feeling the connection between your diaphragm and breath.
As you begin to breath feel your lower belly expand. Then feel your breath extend higher above the belt, into the mid-chest as you extend your breath further into your top chest. Follow this pattern as you begin to descend downward and start to exhale. Using the belt will help you understand how to breathe into the lower and upper torso and how to preserve the space that is created within, even as you exhale with full attention.
#2 Standing forward bend:
DON’T: Hyper-extend knees.
DO: Slightly bend knees and move your hips directly over ankles. This will encourage top of shin forward and engage your front thighs and avoid hyperextension. “Yoga practice has a building block effect,” says Candace. “Remember to take what you learn in every pose and apply it to the next.”
The Standing Forward Bend is the practice of grounding into the support right under our feet. Standing tall in mountain pose, inhale, lift your arms upward and extend your spine forward towards your toes. Inhale from the heels to the balls of the feet, keeping the toes relaxed, and follow muscular attention upwards. Feel your kneecaps lift towards thighs and thighs engage strongly towards pelvis. This will help to bring the knees into alignment over the ankles. On the exhalation, stay with the essence of strength in front of legs as you practice releasing any tension in the back of the legs, back to the source under your feet; the earth. Practice this cycle of attention and breathe 3 times. Feel the upward magnetism of energy into the pelvic floor as you lift and extend back down through tailbone on the descent towards the earth.
#3 Warrior III Pose:
DON'T: Extend in one direction rather than feeling polar attraction of opposites.
DO: From mountain pose, inhale lifting your left leg off the floor reaching your arms straight out in front of you and as best you can, bringing both hips points level to encourage them to be even and square. As you bring your torso forward, extend through your left leg imagining a see-saw playfully finding balance between the front and back body, using your arms and legs as anchors. Your head and chest stay lifted. Make sure to practice the other side and notice any differences and imbalances on one side versus the other.
#4 Upward Facing Dog:
DON’T: Tense and compress neck and shoulders, hyper extend elbows, or put any strain on the wrists. “Tense shoulders cause problems in the wrists,” says Candace.
DO: Micro bend elbows or as much as needed until you can keep your shoulder blades engaged on back as you lift your chest high. Lie on your belly with your chin or forehead on the floor. Your palms are shoulder distance apart and next to your chest. Breathe into your hands, pressing evenly through the palms as if you were energetically pulling them back to your feet. Grounding hip points, legs and tops of feet down into earth, lift pubis, belly, chest and head toward the sky feeling the length you are creating from your waist to your armpits. Feel a soft bend in elbows as shoulder blades soften onto your back. This muscular action encourages your chest to expand while feeling vulnerability in the heart. Exhale and slowly lower back to the support of the earth allowing any stress, extra effort or tension to release.
#5 Triangle Pose:
DON’T: Hyper-extend the front knee or lean weight into bottom arm and front leg, shortening bottom side of front waist, allowing torso to lean in towards the center instead of lifting upward and away from the earth.
DO: Stand tall with your feet wide apart. Turn your right toes forward and your left toes 45 degrees towards the front, arms extending in a T position. The instep of your back foot aligns with the heel of your front foot. Inhale, grounding into both feet and exhale tilting your hips towards your back leg and lifting your navel and chest as you extend your spine long and out over your front leg. Inhale, lifting from the earth up through your body. Exhale with your right hand to your right ankle, a yoga block or the floor on the outside of the right foot if you have found flexibility without compromising the extension of both sides of the waist and spine. Inhale into the ball of the right toe mound, as you reach down into the support of the earth to rise up to extend upward to the expansion of the sky.
Practice taking your left arm forward towards the center on the inhale and then exhaling and extending the left arm back to the sky. This will give your body an exploration of its own intelligence via the breath and repetition of movement.
Candace Morano is a certified yoga teacher & educational kinesiologist based in New York.