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.
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.