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In 2012 William Broad published an article entitled, “How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body” in The New York Times Magazine bringing attention to the fact that yoga has the potential to harm as much as to heal. And while the examples he gave were extreme (one man kneeling in Vajrasana for hours a day), the plain and simple truth is that certain poses present greater risks and should be approached with more knowledge and caution.
Here, we look at three of the “riskiest” poses commonly practiced in yoga and how to modify them for your and your students’ safety. And it is imperative that those with specific health conditions and concerns speak with a doctor before hitting the mat.
3 Safe Modifications for Risky Poses
While Sirsasana has the most known benefits of any pose, the inversion also has the most potential for serious injury if not supported properly by your shoulders, arms and upper back. Let’s face it, your neck is precious and isn’t designed to hold the weight of your body upright.
To receive the benefits of Headstand without the associated risks to your spine, practice Tripod Headstand (Sirsasana II) with the support of blocks under your shoulders to take all of the weight off your head and neck.
As a teacher, nothing makes me cringe more than a student throwing themselves up into Shoulderstand at the end of practice. The pose requires an extremely open upper back and strong shoulder placement that arguably very few (even advanced) students can perform safely without flattening their neck and placing extreme pressure on their cervical spine. Just like in Bridge Pose, there shouldn’t be a single vertebrae touching the floor in Shoulderstand but instead a small tunnel of light under the curve of your neck, enough space to slide a few fingers between your neck and the floor.
Modify Shoulderstand by stacking blankets and bringing the tops of your shoulders to the edge of the blanket roll with the base of your skull on the floor—keeping the natural curve of your neck.
Lotus Pose requires an outstanding degree of external hip rotation, which is anatomically impossible for some bodies to achieve, and should never be forced. The knee, a considerably less protected joint than the hip, takes the torque when the external rotation of the hips can’t be achieved.
While Half Lotus Pose is a safe option for some, students with limited hip rotation should sit in Sukhasana with the support of blankets.