The first time I ever saw a real yogi from India was in Columbia, Missouri, 1962, and he stopped his heart on the seminar stage. He did that himself, as a demonstration of that ability to control functions of the body which were thought at the time to be out of conscious control.
He couldn’t get his heart going again. After a doctor who happened to be in the audience for the seminar came up on stage and started his heart for him, the yogi apologized for “showing off”.
Way Number One: No showing off. This is known as EGO in yoga circles and exists at all levels, both teacher and student. Comparing ourselves to the person on the mat next to us? Yikes. And— teacher pushing people further into poses is simply ego.
Way Number Two: Over 40 years of age?: No inverted postures. The big reason for this is the long lasting neck, shoulder, and arm pain issues created easily by this. Less usual reasons for this including going blind with possible retinal detachment from increased pressure in the head and stroke, thoracic outlet syndrome, and the list goes on. These inverted postures are not worth the risk.
Way Number Three: Know where the first barrier to the movement is. Do not go immediately beyond it. Find it and wait. It will ease, go to the next barrier. Do not do this more than 3 times, this going to the next barrier. The other side will probably have different first end points or barriers to the stretch. This will drive your yoga teacher crazy. However, it will ultimately give you greater stretch gains.
Way Number Four: Everyone has a little “shelf” in the neck where one vertebra goes forward of the one below it. Do not bend the neck into extension such as in the “cobra” that creates more of that sharp break. Use axial extension with a gentle arching into extension. (best known as the “skyhook”, axial extension is done by elevating the head without tucking or jutting out the chin)
Way Number Five: Don’t do “hot” yoga. The ligamentous stretches that are possible in heat can be extremely damaging to the ligaments. They are what hold you together, in large part, and will allow you to have skeletal misalignments when they are too lax afterward. As always, the injury may not show up for several days, then giving sharp pain and limitation.
Way Number Six: Learn to do extensions with length in the spine. (axial extension all the way down to the tailbone.) Whatever part of the spine extends the least, and usually that is the thoracic spine, do not go further into extension than that will go. You can crush fracture your thoracics if you force them into further extension.
Way Number Seven: Do not do yoga with bound strength—tense tight muscles. You can pull yourself apart easily. Think of strength with flow. For instance, make sure you are not binding at the diaphragm front OR back. For instance, it is easy to breath only allowing one part of the diaphragm to have flow. This sets you up to pull apart your lower back.
When yogistas have a series with me, we work on their poses to refine them so that they are not injurious.
At the bottom of this page is a recent somewhat flamboyantly warning article about yoga practice. There are some mistakes in it, but overall it works for me and the experiences I have had trying to repair damage for yoga practitioners and teachers.
This is NOT to say, Don’t Do Yoga! It remains a truly important way to get in touch with your body and bring it and your mind together in a practice which is repeatable and has longevity functional returns that are big for your middle and old age.