Yoga made a notorious splash years back when The New York Times reported that yoga practitioners were landing in doctors’ offices — seemingly in droves — complaining of hip injuries in particular.
It’s become typical to point fingers at extremely deep asanas that demand incredible, contortion-level ranges of motion. But as a teacher, trainer and studio owner of many years, I’d like to point out a handful of far more commonplace poses that can cause an equal amount of damage when not executed with care.
I am so not here to conjure up fear. I believe whole-heartedly in the yoga practice. That’s why I’m choosing to share some things I wish my students knew.
If you’re a teacher, I recommend paying special attention to the cues for activation at the end of each section.
5 Yoga Poses that CAN Lead to Injury - And How to Make Sure They Don't!
1. Side Angle Pose / Utthita Parsvakonasana
This is so much less about what the alignment looks like and more about what is happening internally — at the level of muscle engagement. (For the record, it would be possible to keep healthy engagement even in a deep lunge, but the average practitioner will benefit from specific cues to make sure that happens.)
One of the most common issues I see in classes is that students tend to lose leg activation in side angle pose.
In an effort to go deep and touch the ground, the practitioner will sink quite low and stop firing the quads. This is problematic because — when it’s not supported by surrounding muscles — the hip ligaments then bear the burden of the body’s weight.
Your ligaments do a lot better when they are bolstered by the quads, hamstrings, and glutes. Don’t be a victim of “bone dumping”.
To keep engagement of the leg muscles in side angle pose:
- Back off a little bit so you can feel exactly what activation feels like. There will be a buoyancy and perhaps some fatigue in the quads or butt or hamstrings.
- Go deeper slowly. Try to notice if there’s a moment when you pour your weight into the hip. If that happens, back off again and try keeping engagement when you re-enter.
- Connect to your feet in a big way. When you push hard with your feet, you’ll be waking up the quads and helping your hip to defy gravity without dumping.
2. Warrior 2 / Virabhadrasana 2
Some people can knock their knees in in Warrior 2 for years and years without ever suffering consequences in the knees or hips. Others aren’t so lucky. Here’s what’s going on:
In order to point the knee forward, the outer hip muscle, the gluteus medius, must kick on! For many of us, the glute medius gets a bit lazy and doesn’t fire unless we really think about it. Weak glute medius muscles in this case can lead to medial knee wear and tear and, down the line, hip and back issues. Luckily, the fix is easy!
Below are the cues I believe help most:
To keep glute medius activation in Warrior 2:
- Think about the inner knee moving forward. This cue can work better than trying to point your knee to an arbitrary place like the mid-foot or second toe.
- Intentionally kick on your outer hip. Think about abducting your thigh bone (pulling it out to the side). I like hip-related cues here because that is where the action has to take place (the movement in the knee is just a result, ya feel me?).
3. Bound Angle Pose / Baddha Konasana
In this first pic, I’m just chillin’ totally passive in baddha konasana. Now, I’m not necessarily going to injure myself doing this today — and btw there is a lot of benefit to doing passive poses sometimes.
The trouble arises when the yoga practitioner falls into the trap of only practicing passively. It’s important to incorporate a lot of active work into the yoga practice — especially in poses that appear to be “just stretches”.
The active work builds stability in the joints, which is especially important when yogis expect to reach very deep ranges of motion.
To make a passive pose active:
- Think about kicking on the muscles on the other side of the stretch. When the inner thighs are stretching, as in this example, try firing the muscles on the outer hip. (Again, we meet the glute medius! Have you noticed how important this muscle is for joint health?)
- In forward fold, since the back body is stretching, the front body (hip flexors) would kick on.
- In a backbend, since the front body is stretching, the back body (glutes, spinal extensors…) would activate.
- Notice the moments in your practice when you “check out.” Sometimes that level of relaxation is called for! But for our purposes, try doing a practice where you stay engaged in all poses, even the juicy ones.
- Dangling in forward fold? How about sandwiching your belly toward your thighs?
- Chillin’ in folded pigeon? Try closing the gap between your belly and the mat.
4. Tree Pose / Vrksasana
Much unnecessary wear and tear in the yoga practice can be traced back to a lack of engagement, and the single-legged balance poses are no exception.
It is possible to “dial in” your standing balances, like tree pose here, nearly all of your yogi life. However, by doing that, we create imbalance, friction, and weakness in the hip joints.
Luckily, the fix is easy when we bring attention to it:
To engage the hip in standing balance poses:
- Instead of thinking about alignment (like “hip over ankle”), think about your energy moving inward + upward. Draw all of your energy into the center and then imagine it climbing upward like beans on a beanpole, only the beanpole is your spine.
- Once again, draw attention to your outer hip; contract intentionally. You won’t always have to squeeze your buns when doing a standing balance, but doing so will create activation in the glutes and glute medius, essential hip stabilizers — making the pose feel better, lighter, taller and ultimately healthier for your hips.
5. Circling Your Arms Down to Take a Vinyasa
Never mind static poses, dynamic transitions present a whole new frontier of potential injury.
When you are circling your arms down from a standing position into a vinyasa, it is easy to lose engagement in the muscles of the front leg. I admit I did this for years before I caught myself and started relishing the intentional muscle firing the whole way down.
At risk is, again, the hip joint. When you stop firing the quads for knee extension, you end up dumping weight into the hip ligaments. If you’re very flexible, you might not even notice you’re doing it — that is until problems start to develop.
Protect the joint by keeping the legs strong until your hands are firmly on the ground.
To keep the legs engaged when you circle down for a vinyasa:
- Push the ball of your front foot hard into the mat. Try feeling (even savoring) its connection to your quads, which are responsible for keeping your knee in a degree of extension.
- Push the heal of your front foot hard into the mat. Trying observing its connection to your glutes and hamstrings, which activate eccentrically to keep your leg at roughly a right angle.
- If you notice yourself losing engagement often… Try keeping your hip higher than your knee. We tend to prize flexibility at the expense of stability and joint health, so don’t fall for that trap. Stay nice and high and buoyant in the hip the whole way down.
Stay buoyant, my friends
Yoga doesn’t need a bad rap in orthopedic circles. With a little attention to muscle engagement, we can stay strong and limber for years to come.
Thank you for reading!
Leigha Butler is a long-time YouTuber, yogi, momma, vegan, and lover of wellness. She brings her former life as an Environmental Lit teacher to bear on her writings — with the goal of uplifting people and planet.
You can practice with her weekly from the comfort of your home. Sign up for free trial on her membership site, LBY.