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Yogi Beware: Make Your Practice Safe

Hidden dangers can lurk within even the most familiar pose. Here's how to play it smart and safe.

By Judith Hanson Lasater

Life is a risky business, whether you're walking down the street or balancing on a high wire. But because we're such complicated beings, we don't always accurately perceive risk; messy things, like our emotions, can interfere with our judgment. Against all logical input, we often think that some activities are more hazardous than they really are, and vice versa. Many daily activities—driving is a good example—are actually much riskier than we want to acknowledge, while others—traveling on a plane, for instance—are quite safe but often evoke much greater fear.

It can be the same with yoga. While the likelihood of physical injury is fairly low, no pose is completely free from risk. And we're not always accurate in judging which poses are the most perilous. There are plenty of reasons for these misperceptions: You may not know enough anatomy to understand why a pose can be dangerous; your familiarity with a pose and love of its benefits may make it seem safer than it really is; you may see other students practicing a pose and assume it's safe for you as well; or you may think all the dangers of a pose are obvious.

But even the most commonly practiced and seemingly innocuous poses can be risky. You can injure yourself in them not just because of their inherent risk but because you may not have the necessary knowledge, flexibility, strength, and subtle awareness to proceed safely. That doesn't mean you have to give up practicing or teaching the poses, but you should be well informed and prepared before attempting them. : We've chosen four common but potentially risky poses to examine here: Padmasana (Lotus Pose), Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend), Marichyasana III (Pose Dedicated to the Sage Marichi III), and Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose). We'll teach you to assess their risks, know when to avoid them, and practice them safely. That way you can practice with enthusiasm, curiosity, and joy—without creating a legacy of injury.

TO PRACTICE PADMASANA SAFELY, you must be able to do two things: sit in Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose) easily with your knees almost flat on the floor, and come into full Padmasana without pain in or around your knees and ankles.

To practice Padmasana, sit on the floor. Bending your right knee and externally rotating your right thigh, take hold of your shin with your right hand and your heel with your left. Do not grasp the top or side of the foot, or you might overstretch the ligaments at the outside of the ankle as you draw your leg into the pose. As you exhale, place your right heel high up on your left inner thigh so the right sole turns up with minimal bending at the ankle. If this feels comfortable, do the same with the left leg, placing the left foot on top of your right thigh so your shins cross. If Padmasana is new for you, hold it for 15 seconds, then repeat with the left leg beneath the right. (Eventually, work up to holding it for 2 minutes each way.)

Do not practice Padmasana if you're rehabilitating a knee or ankle, or if attempting the pose causes any strain, pain, discomfort, or uneasiness in or around those joints.

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