Maintaining correct form is essential not only for building a solid yoga practice but also because improperly doing the same yoga poses repeatedly — even the most basic ones — can lead to strains, sprains and chronic aches.
As for doing yoga only at home with no supervision? That can be a recipe for disaster.
"Yoga is really about getting to know your body," says Christine Burke, co-owner and director of Liberation Yoga in Los Angeles. "A lot of us don't have that awareness of what something is supposed to feel like when it's right."
That can make going from bad form to good form sometimes feel uncomfortable, she says. Occasionally the body must get used to the new position before the resulting aches and pains go away.
We talked to three yoga teachers about the most common mistakes students make while doing basic poses. They explain the potential harm and offer easy ways to correct improper form.
The body bends at the hips in an upside-down "V," with arms straight, hands on the floor and heels pressing toward the floor. The head is aligned with the spine.
Don't: Drop or hang into the shoulders. People do this in an attempt to truly stretch, but it prevents the joints from stacking properly and puts stress on the shoulders, elbows and wrists.
Do: Lift the shoulders and slide the arms forward a little, taking some of the pressure off the shoulders. Also, open the hands and press them into the floor. (Curling the fingers up will put the pressure right back into the wrist.)
— Christine Burke, co-owner and director of Liberation Yoga, Los Angeles
With the body lying on the floor, the legs are stretched back with thighs and feet touching the floor. Back is arched and chest is lifted, supported by the hands, which are underneath the shoulders.
Don't: Let the upper and lower body move toward each other. The cobra is a backbend, but the upper and lower body should be moving in different directions. Otherwise, the lower back will compress, causing immediate pain.
Do: Root the legs on the ground and move the chest away from the pelvis. Backbends are supposed to be extending, so the hips shouldn't be pushed toward the chest; instead, the legs should be extended away from the chest, toward the knees. The shoulders should be back, with the backbend felt in the middle and upper back.
— Anthony Benenati, founder of City Yoga, West Hollywood, Calif.
The body is in a modified lunge position, with the front leg bent and the back leg straight. Arms are straight and parallel, reaching upward, palms together.