Are You Doing Too Much Yoga? Here’s How to Tell (and Why It Can Be Risky)
Too many days in a row of too-intense practice or classes that are too difficult are both ways you can overdo yoga.
A single yoga class can leave you feeling energized, stronger, and calmer, all in one go.
“After practicing yoga, many of us notice that our minds feel clearer and calmer and there seems to be a little bit more energy available to us,” says Baxter Bell, MD, a yoga instructor based in the San Francisco Bay Area, who has an individual yoga therapist certification from the International Association of Yoga Therapists (C-IAYT) and is an experienced registered yoga teacher with a 500-hours-of-teacher-training credential from the Yoga Alliance (eRYT 500).
“It can be a wonderful tool for managing the stress in our lives,” he says.
But, depending on the type of yoga you practice and how often, experts say you can overdo it.
There are many types of yoga, from the physically demanding “power” classes to yoga nidra — which is about as close as you can get to taking a nap while practicing yoga (it’s sometimes described as “yogic sleep”). If you’re in good health, it’s probably safe for you to do a moderate amount of yoga every day, especially if you do a variety of different styles, says Dr. Bell.
But because most styles of yoga involve a physical component, you can definitely overdo it when it comes to the demands you’re putting on your body physically if you’re doing a practice that is too advanced for you or one that's too intense (without adequate rest), he says. “It’s about balance — if we do too much, we can run into problems such as injuries, and if we do too little, we may not get the benefits we’re looking for,” says Bell.
So, how exactly can you overdo it when it comes to yoga? And how do you know when you are pushing your yoga practice too hard?
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How You May Be Overdoing It With Yoga
Here are a few signs of an unhelpfully extreme yoga practice.
Yoga Is Getting in the Way of Your Sleep, Social Life, or Other Things That Keep You Well
“You don’t often hear anyone say: ‘Oh no, I’ve been meditating too much lately,’” says Judi Bar (C-IAYT, eRYT 500), the yoga program manager at Cleveland Clinic Wellness and Preventive Medicine. “The truth is, we don’t do that part of our practice often enough.”
Though it's rare, according to Bell, you can overdo the meditative aspect of yoga if the practice is interfering with your sleep, your social life, your work, or your other responsibilities.
You’re Pushing Yourself Too Hard Physically and Skipping Rest Days
Bell understands the tendency to push oneself. “When I first met yoga, back in the 1990s, I was a rock climber, a road cyclist, a triathlete, and a physician. I didn’t have a lot of free time, so I was jamming as much as I could into the little time that I had and that often left me exhausted.”
Pushing yourself too hard physically can come in the form of a very physically demanding practice you do for several days in a row with no rest, says Bell. Or maybe you (like Bell previously) have a yoga practice that's too intense given all the other physical activity you’re getting. Overdoing it physically can be taxing for the body and lead to pain and fatigue in the various muscles and joints you’re using, upping the risk of problems like overuse injuries, he says.
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You’re Taking Classes That Are Too Advanced or Too Intense
Classes that are above your level or ones that are too rigorous can cause you to overdo it and risk injury, Bell says.
If you’re a yoga novice, find an entry-level class in whatever style you’re interested in doing, suggests Bell. “Many classes with descriptions like ‘core power yoga’ or ‘power vinyasa’ are intermediate or advanced in level,” he says. “Vinyasa” means movement paired with breath, and it's often taught at a faster pace.
“If you’re younger and healthier, you’ll probably have greater ease in adapting and enjoying some of the more physically demanding styles of yoga, but even in that case it’s a good idea to start with a beginner-level class,” he says.
Also consider your fitness level. If you’re at a lower fitness level or if age or a health issue limits your physical abilities, look for a class at a pace that feels right for you and isn't too strenuous, says Bell.
The Signs That You’re Pushing Too Hard in Your Yoga Practice
The single best way to know if you’re pushing your body beyond your limits during a class is to pay attention to your breath, says Carol Krucoff (C-IAYT, eRYT 500), the author of Yoga Sparks: 108 Easy Practices for Stress Relief in a Minute or Less. You should not be huffing and puffing so much or so strained that you can’t focus on breathing, she says. That’s not to say you can’t push yourself physically in yoga or work your muscles, but you don’t want to be breathless, she says.
By definition, yoga is all about focusing on the breath, she says. “If you’re shaking and if your breath is very labored, that’s not yoga,” says Krucoff.
If you do find yourself out of breath during yoga, it could be a sign that you’re doing postures you’re not ready for, or that the class is not a good fit for you, she adds.
Pain and a lot of soreness is another red flag you may be overdoing it with yoga. Even the most well-intentioned yogis may feel like they’ve overdone it a day or two after a yoga class, especially if they are a beginner, says Bell. “I tell my new students to notice how they feel a couple hours after class, right before bedtime, and the next day,” he says.
If you have some (but not debilitating) soreness in lesser-used muscles that fades away over the course of a day or two, that’s probably a normal and healthy response to your body being challenged, says Bell. “If you’re actually experiencing more of a pain sensation that doesn’t disappear after a couple days, then you may really have overdone it,” he adds, and you should seek medical evaluation.
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What Are the Risks of Doing Too Much Yoga?
Because there is a physical aspect of yoga, it can be overdone and lead to more serious injuries, just like any other form of physical activity, says Bell.
“I have had people I know tear their hamstring tendons doing fast vinyasa flow practices and develop some chronic ongoing pain in that area. There are reports of neck injuries from the practice of full inverted poses, such as headstand and shoulder stand,” he says.
According to a survey of 1,336 yoga teachers published in the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, excess effort is one of the most common causes of injury during yoga. The instructors reported that the most common injuries involved the neck, lower back, knee, shoulder, and wrist.
Another study, published in November 2016 in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine, examined yoga injuries that sent people to the doctor between 2001 and 2014, and found that sprains and strains to the chest, back, the shoulders, and the abdomen were the most common (and the cause of 46.6 percent of yoga injuries).
Doing too much of just one style of yoga can worsen existing injuries or cause a new one, says Krucoff.
Overdoing hot yoga — which is typically practiced in rooms that are between 90 and 105 degrees — may cause dizziness, nausea, or fogginess that can come from either dehydration or an electrolyte imbalance, says Bar.
“One of the benefits of hot yoga is that your muscles warm up faster, but one of the disadvantages is that sometimes when you’re in a hot class you truly don’t know if you’ve pulled something or injured a ligament. Unlike muscles and tendons, ligaments aren’t meant to stretch,” she says.
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Expert Tips for a Healthy Yoga Practice
All three experts agree that the key to a healthy and happy yoga practice is balance. To avoid overdoing it (or to get back on track if you are pushing yourself too hard with yoga), here’s what the experts recommend.
- Try a mini-practice. Try devoting short sessions of 15 or 20 minutes to your practice, says Bell. “Even if you do this every day or with just one or two days off a week, the risk of overuse from postures would be relatively low,” he says. And it’s a great way for beginners to get into it, he adds.
- Listen to your body. Make sure you’re not ignoring very clear signals from your body, says Bell. “If it feels like you’re really straining, your muscles are shaking dramatically, or you can’t maintain good alignment, you should come out of the pose for a few moments. You can always get into the pose again if [the class is] holding it for a little longer,” he says.
- Explore less physically intense forms of yoga. If you often do a lot of power or hot yoga, Bar suggests trying a restorative yoga class or a yin yoga class, during which you’ll hold poses longer. “The names of some of the classes can be a little elaborate, so you may want to inquire with the studio or the teacher if you’re not sure what the class will entail,” she says.
- If you are practicing a physically demanding form of yoga, take days off. “If your practice is focused on a goal, such as building strength or becoming more flexible, consider giving yourself a day of rest in between classes,” says Bell. By giving your muscles a little bit of time to repair, you can actually build more strength, he says.
- Start to explore the philosophies of yoga. Diving into some of the underlying philosophies, including concepts such as nonviolence, could be enlightening, says Bell. There’s more to the practice than just pushing yourself physically, and exploring those other areas can help you not overdo it. “Try to find ways to be more generous and gentler with yourself,” he says.
- Consider taking a private or small group session with a yoga therapist. They can help give you adjustments and guide you into starting a practice and how to increase the intensity safely. You may even be able to get yoga therapy billed through your physical therapist with a proper prescription for rehabilitation from your doctor.