Unexpected Ways Yoga Prevents Injury

Unexpected Ways Yoga Prevents Injury

Thanks to the growing popularity of yoga asana practice, we hear more and more about yoga injuries. As with any physical activity, there are risks involved, but what sometimes gets forgotten in the controversy is how yoga can prevent injury. Those of us who love yoga already know that regular practice boosts circulation, joint lubrication, mobility, balance and coordination. But it also offers other, perhaps more unexpected, ways to avoid injury, especially chronic injuries created slowly over time.

1) Variety.

Our lifestyles involve repeated patterns of movement. Most of us sit or stand in the same position for hours at a time, use our phone or computer the same way, get in and out of our car the same way. Even those of us who are active don’t always escape forming movement habits; many sports involve repetitive movements in limited range of motion.

There’s nothing wrong with this in the short-term, but if left unchecked, postural and movement habits can create imbalance in the body. Some areas of soft tissue become weak or inhibited, while others become tight or irritated. Over time, these biomechanical imbalances have the potential to create chronic over-use injuries and even wear unevenly on our joints.

Our bodies work most effectively when they are exposed to varied movement directions, speeds and loads; that’s where regular yoga asana practice can help. Yoga includes a huge variety of positions, including those not frequently taken in daily life, like backbends and side bends. Most styles of yoga also offer varied movement speed, from flowing with the breath, to standing still and strong, to melting into long-held stretches. To vary muscle load, yoga offers an ever-changing orientation to gravity, mixing one- and two-legged standing poses, planks and side planks, arm-balances, inversions, seated and supine poses.

In short, the varied movement patterns of yoga asana can help balance out the discrepancies created by our work, sports, and postural habits – creating more resilient soft tissue, and reducing our risk of chronic over-use injuries and uneven wear and tear on our joints.

2) Early Warning Signs.

We sometimes talk about pain as being a warning sign from the body, but often by the time we feel pain or notice dysfunction it’s too late to address the cause without taking precious time away from our work or sporting activities. As far as warning signs go, pain is a red light; in chronic and overuse injuries there will often be a few orange lights along the way.

That’s where regular yoga practice plays a key role. The introspective focus of yoga trains both proprioception (awareness of where our body is in space) and interoception (awareness of sensations within our body). Improved proprioception helps us avoid hazards and obstacles but interoception might play an even more vital role in injury prevention – creating the awareness we need to notice early warning signs before they turn into injury.

During yoga we are encouraged to pay attention to subtle details of our experience. We notice discrepancias in strength, stability, or range of motion between left and right sides of a pose. We identify postures or movements that feel unexpectedly difficult for us, areas of chronic tension, or little niggles that only appear in certain positions or situations.

The non-competitive environment of yoga encourages us to progress patiently, building strength or range of motion in a sustainable way. But even if yoga alone can’t address these early warning signs, it does bring them to our attention before injury occurs, giving us an opportunity to take action before it’s too late.

3) Training the Relaxation Response.

Many of the practices of yoga – including restorative and yin poses, mindfulness and meditation, most pranayama techniques, Yoga Nidra and savasana – teach us how to deliberately relax. This allows us to influence the autonomic nervous system, which governs the fight or flight response through its sympathetic subdivision, and the relaxation response through its parasympathetic subdivision.

Even thousands of years ago this was considered an important skill, but these days we are exposed to more stimulus than ever before. Life moves quickly; our cellphones and computers expose us to more information than any generation before us, we have electric lighting to keep us awake long after the sun goes down, and we fuel this frenetic activity with caffeine, sugar and other stimulants. Living in physiology evolved to handle just a couple of stressors a day, we are spending more and more of our time in the heightened state of the sympathetic nervous system.

Learning how to deliberately down-regulate the nervous system from fight and flight toward the relaxation response helps us recover from the inevitable stresses of life. It decreases resting muscle tension, increases tissue repair, and over time reduces inflammation. All these factors combine to allow low level tissue damage to be repaired before progressing into injury.

Any time we challenge our bodies we run a risk, however small, of causing damage, but regular yoga practice offers plenty of benefits to outweigh this risk. As yoga practitioners, if we emphasize variety, cultivate the introspective focus we need to notice early warning signs, and balance stimulation with more calming and soothing practices, we not only reap the benefits of yoga practice, we might even prevent injuries from occurring.