While I may be partial to men with big biceps, I don't necessarily want them for myself. What I do want is to be a lean, mean, skinny machine, which is why I love yoga. I've been doing it for years.
And while I've achieved a bendy body thanks to the countless downward facing dogs I've done, it turns out there is such a thing as being too stretchy. To wit: Last week, I threw out my back while doing a simple Cobra pose. Did I mention I'm at the ripe old age of 28?
Santa Barbara, Calif.-based fitness trainer Scott Crawford says in his experience, women who do yoga excessively are more susceptible to hurting their backs, which could mean anything from a twinge to a spasm, a sprain, or worse. That's a big no-nomaste to me.
In order to protect your spine, Linda Rowe, DC, ERYT, a chiropractor and master yoga trainer in Dallas, says you have to prevent it from moving in ways that compromises its disks, joints, ligaments, and surrounding muscles.
Instead of giving up on my stretch-aholic ways altogether, I asked Rowe to tell me which 5 yoga positions are most likely to cause injury, and what to keep in mind to stay safe. Read her advice before you roll out your mat.
STANDING FORWARD BEND (UTTANASANA)
A move so easy your grandmother could do it -- right? That may be the case, but even something this simple can put unnecessary pressure on your back. "Many people maintain straight legs when they do this pose, which locks your pelvis and makes it harder to rotate forward," says Robin Rothenberg, a Fall City, Wash.-based yoga therapist. "That means that all of the force of your flexing movement comes into your low back, compressing the area as you bend."
To correct this, lightly bend your knees and focus on rotating your body forward from your pelvis. Keep the stretch feeling balanced through your hip, hamstring, and lower back. "This releases the intense strain on your back and allows for a more even and safe extension of your body," she says. Be sure that you keep the natural curve of the spine as well. If you're completely rounded, it's a sign that your core hasn't joined the party.
We've seen you -- pushing up on your arms and into the floor so that you can mimic the exaggerated arch of this pose's namesake serpent. While the graceful position is pretty easy on the eyes, it's not difficult to see how hard it can be on your spine.
All the force you are exerting to arch your back concentrates at a narrow point in the lumbar spine, causing a compression injury and most likely, a very sore back.
Though this may fly in the face of what you've always known a cobra to be, don't put any substantial pressure on your hands when you are moving into this pose, says Rowe. Allow your body to bend from your mid-back, instead of lower down. Make sure you feel your body lengthening from the front, pulling through your shoulder blades as you move into your arch. "This posture should be easy and comfortable, and it's more important to do it in a way that protects your body than to match the picture in your mind of how it is supposed to look," she says.
When your body is not prepared for an arch in your back that is accentuated with force from the lunge of the warrior pose, you could experience hyperextension of the lower back, says Rothenberg. You'll likely just feel a pinch in your back, which is a good reminder that your core is not engaged, but this could also contribute to back muscle contractions that deliver nagging back aches or even a narrowing of the space between the joints in your spine, which could inflame the nerves.
Pull in and up through your abs to soften the arch in your lower back. You may feel less stretch, but you'll guarantee more stability, she says. If you want more stretch, stabilize first, and then deepen the lunge.
Just like the cobra, this pose must be initiated from the mid-back instead of the lower back to prevent the potentially dangerous "crunch" that can happen if you don't keep a supportive form.
Rowe recommends the following: Kneel with your hips stacked over your knees; initiate the arch through your shoulder blades; keep your chest up and maintain length in your lower back; remember your head should naturally come back to a comfortable position -- throwing it back forcefully to get a faster, more significant arch will only add stress to your back.
When you're confident that your position is a safe one, keep your hips pressed forward and reach your hands back toward your heels (or rest them on a set of yoga blocks on either side of your feet). Don't worry about adding this final step if you feel doing so will compromise your form though.
For 2 more yoga poses that can seriously hurt your back, click here.
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