Physical therapist explains ‘safe yoga practice’

When we talk about yoga, we inevitably at one point talk about injuries. There’s almost no seasoned yogi who hasn’t had the one or other nagging pain in the body. Usually it’s just a matter of time until the pain goes away. Sometimes it doesn’t and then the physical therapist, chiropractor or osteopath comes into play. 

So you’ve been paying a lot of money for yoga classes, and now you pay for medical treatment? How ironic is that?! Fact is: Medical practitioners see more and more – young and supposedly strong and healthy – patients walking through their doors, complaining about hip, knee and shoulder pain, caused by yoga.


Eye candy – but also sweet for everyone’s spine?

Maybe it’s because today more people than ever before are practising yoga (simply resulting in an overall higher number of injuries), or maybe it’s because yoga gets more of a media star treatment due to all the celebrity and Instagram yogis, or maybe it’s all got to do with William Broad’s awareness-rising NYT bestsellerThe Science of Yoga – The risks and the Rewards’ – I don’t know.

In this recent interview, physical therapist Phil Rolfe highlights some of the key things every yogi needs to be aware of:

I see patients injure themselves specifically their back and pelvis doing yoga […]. I often see pelvic and lumbar dysfunction, which can be thought of as an asymmetric presentation of the lumbar vertebrae often including the pelvis. […] I also see, with yoga patients who are experiencing back or pelvic pain, a shutdown of their local stability system, along with joint hypermobility.

Ultimately our bodies need a balance of strength and flexibility […]. I consider excessive flexibility to be risky and may lead to a length tension ratio problem: too much length in a muscle reduces the tension that helps maintain normal joint mechanics. […] the threat of excessive flexibility needs to be considered with regard to the peripheral joints, as well as the spine.

Flexibility: I don’t recommend attaining or striving for excessive flexibility. This would remove the body’s soft tissue restraints, muscular and ligamentous, such that joint stability may be compromised. It would be a rare occurrence that large amounts of flexibility are functionally necessary.

Strength: With regard to the spinal column, […] strength is not equal to stability. In my experience with yoga, the functional strengthening component is excellent, the lengthening or flexibility aspect is great as well – in moderation; but there is no spinal stability work to keep the spinal segments safe. […] it would be prudent to consider stability training for yoga practitioners; certainly if they are experiencing spine pain.

These are Phil Rolfe’s 3 tips for a safe practice:

Excessive flexibility should not be the goal of the yoga practitioner.

With back pain, strength does not equal stability.

If it hurts, don’t do it. Pain can inhibit the stability system.

What’s the most challenging posture? I believe it’s Savasana – taming the monkey-mind!


The wonderful Sivananda yogi Nicky, currently teaching in Kathmandu

Do you modify postures in a group class? Have you experienced any pain doing yoga and how did you work with it?

Please share your experience in the comments! Have a wonderfully safe practice,

~ Andrea

8 replies »

  1. It`s always difficult for me to figure out if the pain is “wrong pain” or “the pain caused by activating and using muscle where I didn’t use normally”…..However I have got so much pain on my spine itself and now I’m having a pause from studio……


  2. Many yoga poses are linear compartmentalized positions based on trying to pull on muscles and ligaments to create flexibility. Why do yoga poses use right angles and straight line templates? We are made of curves. WE need to stop flexing the spine under tension and trying to keep our knees straight in forward bends. The forward bending action will stress the necessary ligament tension in our sacrum, hips and sit bones when we flex the spine without bending the knees. Try to walk without bending your knees to understand the dynamics. Straight knee forward bends undo the necessary tension in the posterior spine and sacral/ hip ligaments needed for upright posture. Forward bends and balancing poses that reverse the natural lumbar and cervical curves of the spine are at the root of yoga injuries. The spinal column should never be flexed under pressure doing crow pose variations and the forearm stand in the photos looks like an inverted slouch. How will this help posture that is shortened in the front? We must ask ourselves if the yoga poses we are doing are helping us be aligned or are they reinforcing bad posture?The blind spot in yoga practice is that the human body is a tensegrity structure made of curves. We are not static like a building. Pulling on our parts makes no sense. As the article says, flexibility is over-rated. See for more information on how to create aligned posture not aligned poses.


  3. Excellent advice! I am a practicing yogi for almost 8 years and this year I am going for my yoga instructor certification… 200 hours of yoga and more. I have always even in wieght training said to clients; if it does not feel good don’t do it! Try a modified version or a less intense version of the exercise and build towards attainable goals! Yoga can be uncomfortable but never painful!


  4. Thanks for the great info. One of the best ways for me to practice yoga safely is to recognize pain in any yoga pose and then slowly back off whenever there is pain. I think a lot of injuries occur because people push through pain, thinking that it is simply a good stretch or thinking that the pose itself is supposed to be painful because it is a difficult yoga pose. When in fact no yoga pose should be painful 🙂


  5. I have to say it’s really refreshing to read Phil Rolfe’s comments regarding flexibility! I’m not particularly flexible – being this way kept me from feeling confident and capable in class, however I have now learnt to accept and work with my limits and as such have developed a much deeper practice.

    You’ve inspired me with this one, I’m going to get the old notepad out 😉


  6. Thank you for this. It is very helpful, especially “flexibility should not be the yogi’s goal”. This will make me think next time I am in a wide angle forward fold and going for it. One of the challenges is to really understand where my edge is and that my edge changes every practice.


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