Once you’re in Padmasana, see if there’s any disparity between the heights of your knees. One knee is usually a bit higher—typically, the one you fold into the pose last. This usually isn’t a problem unless the difference is large, in which case you’re probably creating strain in the knees and would be better off sticking with preparatory work for the time being.
If either of your ankles is “sickling” (the joint curves and the foot rolls over its outer edge the way it would if you sprained your ankle), you’re increasing mobility in the outer ankle ligaments, which is where you want stability. You’re also increasing the risk of spraining your ankles. Instead of curving, the outer ankles and heels should be directly in line with the outer shins.
TO AVOID INJURY ON SEATED FORWARD BENDS, including Paschimottanasana, move into them by tilting your pelvis, not your spine, forward. Your pelvis should rotate easily toward your thighs, the back of your pelvis should slant toward the floor, and you should feel the stretch in the meat of the hamstring muscles at the middle of the back of your thighs (not at the back of your knees), at your sitting bones, or in your lower back.
If you’ve been diagnosed with disk disease or if you have pain radiating through your buttock(s) and/or down your leg(s), avoid seated forward bends until you consult a health professional and an experienced yoga teacher about whether these poses can be healthy for you now. If they give you the go-ahead, follow their personalized practice guidelines very carefully.
Also avoid seated forward bends if your lower back rounds backward when you bend forward; this means you’re creating the forward bend from your spine, rather than from your pelvis. If your pelvis and sacrum slant forward in Paschimottanasana, you can probably proceed safely with seated forward bends. But if your pelvis and sacrum slant back when you try to bend forward (or if your chest collapses, your shoulders hunch, and your upper back rounds significantly), you should do more preparatory work. All this rounding is a strong sign that your spine is moving but your pelvis isn’t.
TO PRACTICE MARICHYASANA III SAFELY, make sure your pelvis rotates in the same direction as your spine during the twist. To do that, sit in Dandasana (Staff Pose), with your spine long and your legs straight in front of you. Place your weight toward the front edge of your sitting bones so your pelvis and lower
spine don’t slump backward. (You’ll try to maintain this alignment throughout Marichyasana III.)
Next, bend your right knee toward your chest, placing the sole of your foot on the floor near your right sitting bone. On an exhalation, hug the right leg with your left arm and slide your left leg and the left side of your pelvis several inches forward. Do not hold the pelvis stationary as you turn the spine. Doing so separates the sacrum from the ilium; the sacrum is pulled with the rest of the spine into the twist, while the pelvis remains behind, creating an overly loose joint and pain associated with sacroiliac dysfunction.
Instead, think of your pelvis as your lowest vertebra; it is the foundation of the twist and must turn in order to avoid strain on the ligaments that join the ilium and sacrum. Once you’re sure you understand the mechanics of moving the pelvis properly, you can rotate further, repositioning yourself so you can press the outside of the left arm against the right thigh or complete the traditional pose by reaching the arms behind the back and catching the right wrist with the left hand.
The Marichyasana III precautions also apply to most other seated twists. Avoid these poses if you suffer from acute sacroiliac pain, and consult a qualified health professional and an experienced yoga teacher for help in creating an asana program you can practice safely. (If you experience pain around your sacrum and the pain is exacerbated during transitions from sitting to standing and vice versa, that’s a good sign it’s caused by sacroiliac strain.)
If you’re premenstrual, menstruating, or pregnant, you might want to avoid Marichyasana III as well as other strong twists. Ligaments may be more lax during these hormonal changes, and increased laxity in the sacral ligaments increases the risk of injury.
TO KEEP YOUR SHOULDER JOINTS SAFE IN CHATURANGA DANDASANA, draw your
scapulas (shoulder blades) toward your waist and bring them slightly together, especially at their lower tips. In addition, draw the top of the humerus (upper arm bone) firmly down toward your waist and rotate the arm externally, so your elbows stay close to your torso. You should feel as if the top of each humerus at the shoulder lifts toward the ceiling and then moves down toward the waist. Finally, make sure your forearms are perpendicular to the floor; this will contribute to safe overall alignment in the shoulder girdle and also protect your wrists against strain.
Chaturanga involves the whole body, not just the shoulders, and thinking about it this way can help prevent injury. Contract your abdominal muscles to support your core as you go into and hold Chaturanga Dandasana. Keep your thighs and lower legs active by pressing them away from your hands while simultaneously pressing your femurs (thighbones) toward the backs of your hamstrings and lifting the backs of the thighs.
If you have a shoulder injury or feel discomfort in the joint, skip Chaturanaga Dandasana. Also skip the pose if you’re more than three months pregnant or fewer than three months postpartum.
If you can’t keep your shoulder blades from moving up toward your ears and their inner bottom edges from winging away from your spine, practice modified versions of the pose (see next page). Unless you can move your shoulder blades toward your hips and move the inner edges toward each other, you’ll have trouble stabilizing the joint, and you’ll increase your risk of injury.
Judith Hanson Lasater, Ph.D., is a physical therapist who has taught yoga since 1971. To learn about her most recent book, 30 Essential Yoga Poses: For Beginning Students and Their Teachers, visit www.judithlasater.com.