Protecting your body from Yoga? May 12 2015 1 Comment

There has been much discussion and advertising of late for workshops focussed on 'safe alignment' and 'how to practice without injury', 'protect your body during your practice' etc. Which for me has raised a few questions...

Whilst I understand the need of a Yoga teacher to expand their offerings to their Yoga community and to continue to express fresh perspectives on their Yoga practice. I also applaud the Yoga teacher who wants to educate their students on the mechanics of Asana. What I don't understand is what type of Yoga is being taught that requires you to 'recover', 'heal', or 'protect yourself' from it?

I have read recently quite a few discussion from Yoga teachers and students alike asking 'how do I heal my wrists?', 'how long does it take to heal an SIJ injury' and what are the best therapies to get me back into my 'normal' practice?

Having spent over a decade in the Natural Therapies industry - specifically in the field of Musculoskeletal Therapies I am feeling like perhaps some of these students and teachers alike are missing the point. If your 'normal' practice puts so much strain on the finer joints and ligaments of your body that It causes pain, discomfort or injury you need to not be seeking a therapy to heal you but to reassess the practice you are undertaking on the mat and avoid ever getting to that point.

The first Yama of the Yoga Sutras is Ahimsa (Sanskrit: अहिंसा). A term that means 'compassion' and 'not to injure'. The word is derived from the Sanskrit root hiṃs – to strike; hiṃsā is injury or harm, a-hiṃsā is the opposite of this, i.e. cause no injury, do no harm. This observance not only applies to our relationships with others and the outside world but also to our intimate relationship with ourselves. If you are pushing too far, taking yourself beyond your limits too quickly and without mindfulness and control of course you are bound to injure yourself. No-one can go from 0-100 without expecting there to be wear and tear on the body. If you have never done a handstand before in your life and you decide one day to spend 20mins a day every day throwing yourself into handstands the body does not have time to prepare for this. The wrists will suffer under the strain as the musculature has not had time to build and stabilise the joint. Just because you can 'do' something does not necessarily mean that you should. You also need to be asking yourself why it is sooooo important that handstands are part of your personal practice? There are literally 1000's of Yoga Asana - why have you focussed so heavily on one or two that the continual repetition of is damaging your body?

Social media has a lot to do with this new emerging trend but for the most part Yoga teachers themselves need to take some of the responsibility. The 'style' that we chose to study and teach is a personal decision but it is also important to understand who your style is suited to. Are you teaching Yoga for every body, every day or are you teaching Yoga for the already fit, Yoga for the 20 something hypermobile?  Who are your students and what are your expectations of them...?

I recently dropped in on a class of 'Yoga' that was more akin to a display of acrobatics than Yoga and the requests of the teacher for the level of the student in the room were outrageous. Just because you bring your hands to prayer position at the beginning and end of what you are doing on a Yoga mat does not make it Yoga. As teachers it is our responsibility to guide students through a safe and holistic practice that teaches the students about their body and breath. Not asking them to perform advanced asana just because we can do it and it makes us feel important to demonstrate. There is a time and place for this type of Yoga but it is not in a room filled with every day you and me. If the class moves so fast through their series of Asanas that you can not focus on your breath or alignment let alone being mindful of your body, how on earth can you be making sure that you are stabilising your joints, relaxing not forcing... sorry but I just don't get it.

There are 5 things that I believe to be the most important aspects of any Yoga practice aside from Vedic teachings and Yogic philosophy.

Breath; There needs to be focus and emphasis on the breath - for without the breath it is no longer Yoga it is just exercise. Yoga teaches us that Prana or life-force can only be extracted from the air when absorbed through the epithelial cells in the nose. It also teaches us that there are a finite number of breaths in each life. Each is precious and to be measured. If you are breathing rapidly during your practice and through the mouth you are not practicing Yoga.

Introspection; your practice should allow you time for quiet enquiry and introspection. You are your greatest teacher if only you would allow the time to listen.

Mindfulness; is your practice just another routine in your life that you've got down pat and your movement through this routine is so automatic that you are missing the point. Have you stepped your Yoga practice up to the same level of involvement and activity as everything else you do in your life so that is no longer Yoga - its a multitasking, box ticking - 'nailed it!' session? Learning to be present during your practice is the best part.

PNS involvement; if your practice is not switching on your Parasympathetic Nervous System and switching off your stress response then the deep healing can not occur. You might as well be doing something else.

Variable and individualised; every single person on this planet is built differently. Structural anatomy differences mean that not all aspects of every Asana are available to every person. Mass Yogic prescription does not work and leads to injury we know that. Your practice must reflect you and where you are at in any one time. There are varying modifications and levels to each practice - a good teacher will give you these and let you decide for yourself how far to take your body. I have also been to classes where no modification has been given and you can either do it or you cant which means that you either participate in the class or spend most of it in child's pose resting..... how is this helpful, holistic or progressive. The students either give up and never come back or their ego pushes them to try and in the trying injure themselves.

Now I'm not saying that from time to time you won't injure your body. For some people this is part of the discovery of the outer limits of your practice and something to be learnt from. What I am saying is that you need to find a style that suits your body, a teacher who is genuinely holistic in their approach and mindful of the needs of the entire class. At the end of the day your teacher does not have to live in your body and when that body is old and weary and the cold aches those damaged joints your teacher will not be there to soothe those aches away. Let your teacher guide you but let your own heart always be the final authority. And as always Pade Pade one step at a time - Yoga is supposed to be for everyone, every single day of your life. It is a prescription for healthy living, not a fad. If what you are doing now seems extreme, if you can't picture yourself doing it when you are 60 or 70 then it probably isn't very sustainable and perhaps you need to rethink your motivations and approach.

Stay safe Yogis, be discerning and empowered in your own journey.