In the coming week, countless people will make New Year’s resolutions to exercise more. And, if trends hold, the most common focus of that will be yoga, the practice of which, according to studies, has grown 50 percent in the past five years.
There are many good reasons to pick yoga for your resolution. It releases tension, prevents injury, creates more flexibility, adds strength and balance and calms the mind. But what these new yogis might not be aware of is that, despite its reputation as a gentle, low-impact practice, it also carries risks. It can exacerbate carpal tunnel syndrome, add instability to joints and contribute to strains, sprains and tendinitis.
A study published in 2016 in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine reported that since 2001, injuries per 100,000 yoga participants have nearly doubled, going from a rate of 9.6 percent to 17 percent.
That doesn’t mean that you should steer clear of yoga. But you should know the risk factors so you can avoid them.
Overuse injuries like tendinitis and sprains are the most common problems, said Dr. Bobby Chhabra, an orthopedic surgeon with the University of Virginia Health System. Yoga usually doesn’t cause the injury but can exacerbate it, he said. For example, wrists that spend the day in an extended position at a keyboard and then are forced to extend even further in positions such as downward dog, upward dog and chaturanga (a type of pushup) can be particularly vulnerable to tendinitis and carpal tunnel.
People with arthritis need to be extra cautious when it comes to yoga, because arthritic joints “can really flare up during yoga and result in a week to 10 days of pain,” he said. Yogis with arthritis could consider a gentler form of the practice or at least avoid overloading arthritic joints to prevent further inflammation. People with osteoporosis should avoid forward bends and twists.
Another group that should be extra cautious are people with hyper-mobililty, which means their joints are very flexible.
“You don’t want to have mobility without stability,” said Chris Estafanous, a physical therapist. “That increases your risk for injury.”
This particular group needs to work on the strength part of yoga, not the deep stretching, he said. That starts with being careful about choosing a class and teacher.
“I recommend investing in a few private sessions with a yoga instructor to figure out what your body needs and what type of class is appropriate,” Estafanous said. “Not all yoga is created equal.”
Alyson Shade, who owns Realignment Studio in Washington, D.C., recommends that anyone who is new to yoga or who has injuries and other limitations talk to the teacher before class. “Having that one-on-one conversation is important,” she said.
But don’t rely on just the instructor, whose attention is divided among a whole room of people. Pay attention to your body and how it’s responding.
“You have to be smart about it. If a pose bothers you, don’t do it,” Chhabra said.
Shade suggests that newcomers focus more on how a pose should feel, rather than how it should look. Your downward dog might be pretty, but what’s important is what you are feeling: a stretch in the calves and hamstrings (good) or shoulder pain (bad).
In general — and this is true for all fitness regimens — thoughtful progression is key. Don’t jump into a class with lots of push-ups or arm balances if you are new to yoga. If you do too much, too soon, you’re flirting with trouble.
Which leads us to the last tip: Yoga shouldn’t be competitive. Don’t worry about what the rest in the people in the class are doing; focus only on yourself.