This is an important discussion. As with any other physical activity, yoga has varying degrees of difficulty and not every body is suited for all challenges. Sometimes our bodies (or our minds) are simply not ready for a posture.
I have been practicing yoga for 19 years and teaching for 13 years. There are many poses I have not attempted (and likely will not attempt), and I certainly won't teach them to my students. I know my body, I am aware of its limitations. I know my students, and I know their bodies. I dedicate the first part of each of my classes to a discussion of my students' current physicality, which lets me know how the class should progress that day.
Overall, yoga is an enriching activity with a myriad of health benefits. If you're concerned about pushing your body to your limits or possible injury, talk to your yoga teacher and your doctor. Be comfortable on your mat, be able to achieve the poses, be present in the moment within your body's limits. Most importantly, establish sound practices to ensure that yoga nurtures your body.
Here are nine principles that will help you avoid "wrecking" your body:
Ahimsa. One of the tenets of yoga is ahimsa, meaning “non-violence.” A true yoga practice involves non-violence in thought, word and deed. This means practicing positive thinking, kindness in communication with others, and a loving approach to our physical selves. From both the teacher and student perspective, ahimsa is a key element to a safe yoga practice.
Awareness. By being truly aware of our bodies—and honest about limitations, our physical histories, and the tendencies of our egos—we will know what style(s) of yoga and practice are appropriate to our physical situations.
The Breath. Breathing goes hand-in-hand with awareness. If we are "in tune" with our breathing, we can recognize when the breath is being disrupted or challenged. This is a signal to ask yourself whether you need to ease off or come out of a pose.
Find the right teacher and class. There are many styles of yoga and even more teaching styles. Finding a qualified teacher (or teachers) who you trust, who you feel comfortable asking questions of, and who you can ask for modifications, is imperative to developing your yoga practice.
Know the Foundations. Regardless of which style of yoga we practice, taking the time to really learn the foundations of the practice and the correct alignment or framework for each pose is vital.
Let go of the ego. Just as there are always people who can run faster than us, there will be people who can do postures with ease that we can only dream of doing. Yoga is not a competition (with others or even within our own practice). There should be no place for “pushing” or “rushing” in a yoga class.
Be present. Acknowledge that our bodies are constantly changing. Knowing and accepting our bodies for how they feel today goes a long way towards a safe yoga practice.
Slow down. If a sequence of poses is going too fast, and either our alignment is compromised or we feel uncomfortable moving through the postures, we always have the option to slow it down. We don’t have to practice every posture in a class, and when we slow down our practice we enhance our awareness.
Union. Yoga means "union"—of the mind, body and spirit. Yoga is not merely a physical practice, and if we remain conscious of this concept—the idea of wholeness and unity in the body—we are less likely to “wreck” our bodies.
Yoga is not for everyone. Some people are interested in and physically suited for kickboxing or swimming or ballet. Others are not. Same with yoga. In fact, there are some people who have pre-existing physical issues that rule out many yoga poses entirely. If you choose to practice yoga, and if you institute sound practices that suit your body, yoga will do you more good than harm. Both teachers and students must step up and take responsibility for creating safe and healthy yoga practices.