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Four risks that come with modern forms of yoga – and how to prepare for them

Yoga instructor Tracye Warfield, right, participates in a yoga class in Times Square during the 13th annual Solstice in Times Square, Sunday, June 21, 2015, in New York.

Julie Jacobson/AP

When something has been around longer than chocolate, has more followers than Oprah Winfrey's Twitter account and is as good for the soul as a compassionate TED talk, how can it be bad? For thousands of years in India, the practice of yoga has been a respected tool for health and vitality. But as we turn up the studio temperature to exactly 40.5 degrees Celsius, add the "power" to our yoga and balance frantic cycling with downward dogs in something called "Spynga," we must be aware that new, modern forms of yoga come with associated risks.

Here are four common risk factors and the best ways to prepare your body for class.

1. No assessment: If muscular balance is the destination, then the initial assessment is the dot on the map that reads "You are here." Without a starting point that identifies existing asymmetries, "balancing the body" with equal work may reinforce past deficits and move your body in the wrong direction.

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Fix: Find a professional to give you a detailed musculo-skeletal assessment and provide you with a plan that reflects your postural imbalances, stability and mobility deficits, compensatory patterns and level of core function.

2. Forcing the stretch and not preparing the fascia: Fascia is a tough sheet of tissue that binds all your muscles together. It is often affected by the strains and stresses of both chronic activity and sustained positions of inactivity such as sitting. This can lead to decreased flexibility and increased pain. According to a March, 2013, study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, releasing problem areas with an acute bout of foam-rolling on the quadriceps was an effective treatment to enhance range of motion without any decrease in muscle performance.

Fix: Get to the gym or yoga studio ahead of class to foam-roll specific areas of restriction on your body. Find and hold sore spots for 30 seconds or more.

3. Weak stabilizers: The National Academy of Sports Medicine identifies a distinction between muscles we use for stability versus those we use for movement. People who lack the proper development of key stabilizers compensate by relying on movement-based muscles to perform both tasks at the same time. This can lead to eventual dysfunction and injury.

Fix: Twice a week, isolate the muscles of the deep core, glutes, posterior shoulder, deep neck and foot. Use slow tempo resistance band exercises combined with static holds and isolated core movements.

4. Prior injury: Understanding your past injuries and being aware of what movements cause discomfort is essential for getting the most from yoga. For example, lower back pain in someone with a posterior disk herniation can often be eased by spinal extension in a cobra, whereas those with facet joint arthritis or spinal narrowing can hit the roof in the same position. Consult with the proper health-care professionals to prepare yourself for injury-free practice.

Fix: Know your limitations and take control. Here is a quick list of injuries and movements that could cause problems.

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  • Spinal stenosis, facet joint arthritis, spondylolysis and spondylolisthesis: Avoid back bends, side bends to the affected side, one leg standing poses with spine extension and twists.
  • Posterior lumbar disk herniation, SI joint pain and ligament sprain: Avoid forward bend, twisting, seated with forward bend or twist, posterior pelvic tilt.
  • Migraines, rotator cuff injury, scapular weakness: Avoid most arm balances, inversions and downward dog.

Health Advisor contributors share their knowledge in fields ranging from fitness to psychology, pediatrics to aging.

Alex Allan is a registered kinesiologist based out of PhysioPlus Health Group in Toronto.

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