If you’ve ever experienced an energetic release in a deep hip or heart opener or have felt invigorated by a few Sun Salutations, you can attest to the feel-good power of yoga. But other times, your practice may involve uncomfortable postures. These have benefits, too. They help you learn about yourself and your resistance—whether it’s physical, psychological, or emotional, says Judith Hanson Lasater, Ph.D., PT, who’s been teaching since 1971.
“The gifts of doing this [type of] work are endless, but it comes with some inherent physical risks,” she says. Yoga can cause musculoskeletal pain and exacerbate existing injuries, according to research.
One study found that from 2001 to 2014, yoga-related injuries doubled for people between ages 45 and 64—and increased eightfold for those 65 and older. This may be because the older age group is more likely to have preexisting conditions, such as spinal issues, decreased bone density, and low flexibility, which could contribute to injuries. The surge in yoga teachers, coupled with a lack of standardized training, may also play a role, the study authors say.
One solution for reaping the healing benefits without harm? Warming up appropriately.
The Importance of Warming Up
A few Sun Salutations at the beginning of class may not be the ideal prep for asana practice, says Jill Miller, co-founder of Tune Up Fitness Worldwide and author of The Roll Model. “Most of us come to our yoga mats after sitting all day and then expect our bodies to move into shapes that are really demanding on our muscles and joints,” she says. “It’s a recipe for injury.”
Take a pose as seemingly basic as Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose), Miller says: You’re asking your arms, wrists, and hands to hold a substantial amount of your body weight—usually after a day spent typing or holding your phone.
Supporting underlying injuries or weaknesses with the right pre-yoga moves can go a long way toward staying safe as you practice. Here, Miller shares her favorite five-minute warmups for commonly injured body parts. Short on time? Prioritize the spots that give you the most trouble.
Warm Up Your Wrists
Most people’s wrist extensors (the muscles that run from the elbow along the backside of the forearm to the wrist) are weak. As a result, they’re often unable to handle the pressure put on them when they’re, say, bent at a 45-degree angle in Down Dog or a 90-degree flexion in Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose).
The Warmup: Start in Tabletop. Place a myofascial massage ball under your right palm, between your thumb and your index finger, and press down. After 30 seconds, maintain pressure on the ball while moving your thumb and index finger toward each other. After 30 seconds, move the ball around your palm to massage the rest of your hand, adjusting the pressure as needed. Repeat on the other side. Engaging the hand muscles helps turn on the muscles in your forearms, shoulders, and core that can take the burden off your wrists when you’re in weight-bearing poses.
Stretch Out Your Shoulders
Spending hours hunched over your computer with your back rounded can mess with your posture, which makes it harder to use proper alignment as you move through postures like Down Dog, Plank Pose, and Up Dog.
The Warmup: While standing, hold a strap taut in front of you at shoulder height, keeping your arms straight and hands slightly wider than your body. Raise the strap above your head, then behind your back as far as is comfortable. Keep tension on the strap as you bring it back in front of you. Repeat 5–10 times. This exercise moves the head of your upper arm through a full range of internal and external rotation, helping you wake up your shoulders so they’re ready for the range of motion your asana practice demands.
Losen Your Hips
Sitting for long periods of time causes glutes to turn oﬀ and spreads the fascia in these muscles out of alignment with the hip joint. The result: decreased stability and an increased risk of injury in your pelvic area. “I know this sounds funny, but you’ve got to pile your butt back onto your butt—move the muscles and fascia of your tush back toward your sacrum before you practice,” Miller says.
The Warmup: Lie on your side with two myofascial release balls under the fleshy part of your right hip. While pressing down into the balls, roll them toward your sacrum, maneuvering your glutes toward the centerline of your body. Repeat for up to 5 minutes, then repeat on the other side. When you stand up, you should feel like you’re able to contract your glutes more easily.
Prep Your Back
Hunching over a desk creates an extreme C curve of the spine, which causes the erector spinae—the little muscles and tendons that run along your spine and help maintain good posture—to overstretch. As a result, they become loose and unable to help you ﬂex your spine in positions like Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute) or Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend).
The Warmup: Place your mat so the short side touches the wall. Lie on your back and press the balls of your feet into the wall. Keeping your arms at your sides, tilt your hip bones toward your rib cage, and activate your abs as if you’re in the middle of a crunch. Without using your arms, slowly peel your spine away from the floor, vertebra by vertebra. Slowly lower back down to the mat, then repeat 5 times. The simple movement turns on your erector spinae to help keep your spine safe during your practice.
For a set of blocks to support you in your practice, try Gaiam Essentials Yoga Block (Set of 2).
Simulate Your Knees
There’s a reason most yoga teachers tell you to activate your quadriceps: Strong quads help center your knee joints, keeping them in good alignment as you squat, bend, lunge, or straighten your legs in your practice.
The Warmup: Sit in Dandasana (Staﬀ Pose), then separate your feet, externally rotate your hips, and make a V shape with your legs. Hyperextend your right knee and lift your right leg an inch oﬀ the floor, feeling your quad do all the work. Hold for 10 seconds, lower, then repeat on the other side. If your vastus medialis (the inner quad muscle that extends the knee) cramps, start with a 4-second hold and build up to longer.
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