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During the peak of the pandemic, online yoga practice almost universally substituted for in-studio sessions—and fitness booking platforms saw an uptick in the number of people adding yoga to their wellness routine. That’s not surprising. Research shows that yoga has helped people manage the stress and isolation of lockdown.
Of course, virtual yoga isn’t new. Stephanie Murphy always advised her students to use online yoga classes to supplement their in-person practice, even before the pandemic.
“I’m only able to teach one class a week, and that’s Sundays,” says the Cleveland-based yoga instructor. “So to continue their practice, I will refer [students] to certain yoga teachers that I follow on YouTube that I really feel comfortable with having a beginner practice with.”
As the pandemic eases in the U.S. and yoga studios reopen, some businesses will continue to offer online options. Not only are virtual classes convenient for clients, but they also open a door for people who are new to the practice and may want to start in the privacy of their homes.
Yoga is generally safe, but injuries can happen when you are moving your body in ways that may be unfamiliar. Yoga practiced without supervision has been associated with increased risks, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), and reports of yoga-related injuries doubled from 2001 to 2014, according to a 2016 study published in the Orthopedic Journal of Sports Medicine. Sprains and strains were most common, as were injuries to the trunk, the neck, and the wrists. Older practitioners were more prone to injury, too.
If you are practicing yoga online or even in live-virtual classes, practice with care. Here are some tips to help you avoid injury and stay safe.
Find a yoga style that’s suited to you
Stephanie Murphy teaches Vinyasa-style classes, which can be challenging for a beginner flying solo. You may want to start with a practice that is gentle and alignment focused. Look for instructors that teach Iyengar, Sivananda, Kripalu, or other forms that allow you time to enter and explore each pose.
Don’t force anything
Murphy says depictions of yoga in social media may encourage overuse injuries. “They’re showing these pictures where people are putting their legs behind their heads and twisting their bodies and all these types of contortions. But that is not what yoga is about. Yoga is totally personal,” Murphy says. The Orthopedic Journal study discourages anyone from “engaging in poses that they feel are beyond their physical limitations.”
Avoid headstands and shoulder stands
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health warns against practicing poses that put pressure on the neck and spine, especially for beginners. In her latest book Yoga Myths: What You Need to Learn and Unlearn for a Safe and Healthy Yoga Practice, Judith Hanson Lasater warns against these poses for people with conditions including hypertension, acid reflux, detached retina or glaucoma, or arthritis in the neck, as well as if you’re pregnant, have recently given birth, or had surgery.
Ask your teacher to recommend a virtual class
Look for instructors who offer pose variations
A seemingly basic pose like Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog) can put you at risk of injury if, say, you have wrist problems. A good online teacher will suggest an alternative, like Child’s Pose or Puppy Pose. Even forceful breathing and lotus position can cause injury, according to the NCCIH report. Your online teacher should suggest alternatives for most poses, and encourage you to opt out of anything that feels uncomfortable.
Do some independent study
In addition to class sequences, many online yoga instructors offer short, how-to tutorials on specific poses (like this Down-Dog lesson with yoga maven Adriene Mishler or these Wheel Pose tips from Lizette Pompa). Practicing specific poses can help you nail the details so that you can be sure that you’re doing it safely when it’s part of an online yoga sequence.
See also: Doing Yoga Therapy Safely
Listen to your body
Yoga novices see photos and demonstrations of complicated poses, and think they have to attempt those asanas. But Murphy says that’s not so. If a pose doesn’t work for your body, don’t force it. “I tell my clients all the time, if [the pose] doesn’t feel right for you, don’t do it. We can find something else,” she says. “You push yourself to your edge, nobody else’s.”
Remember that yoga is more than just asana
Murphy points out that yoga isn’t about exercise; it’s about self-connection and self-reflection. She starts classes by asking her students to set an intention. Beginners may not understand that this step is as important as the bending and stretching. And it’s safe, too.