The Art of a Safe Sustainable Yoga Practice – Part 2

In the previous post I discussed some of the key factors that I believe can predispose a student to getting injured during practice. These included conditions such as practicing with speed and momentum, not paying attention and allowing Type A personality traits such as competitiveness and striving to remain unchecked on the mat.In this post I want to dive a little deeper into some of the qualities and conditions we need to cultivate in order to keep our practice safe. In short, how do we create a safe sustainable yoga practice?

 

Learn and honour your body’s biomechanics

There are important ‘best practices’ when it comes to elements of postural alignment which we would do well to honour when it comes to maintaining a safe yoga practice. For example, the knee joint is a synovial hinge joint – its main function is to flex (bend) and extend (straighten) the leg. There is a small amount of lateral (side-to-side) range of motion but it is limited, and generally to keep the knee joint and surrounding tissues healthy it’s wise to avoid too much of this side-to-side movement. You may be familiar with this idea in poses such as Warrior 2, where the teacher tells you to keep your bent knee pointing in the same direction as your 2nd/3rd toes. If you allow the bent knee to drift inwards as it often wants to do, you risk damaging ligamentous tissue and the inner meniscus of the knee.

 

Another important alignment principle you might be familiar with is to ensure that the front heads of the shoulders don’t droop towards the floor in poses like chaturanga. If allowed to do so this can put excessive strain on the front capsule of the shoulder leading to strain and injury.

 

Whilst I appreciate not everyone is an anatomy geek, knowledge is power and it’s a good idea to educate yourself and become familiar with your body’s natural biomechanics in order to keep yourself safe and injury-free.  If you do feel pain in any yoga poses this should not be a case of ‘no pain no gain’.  Instead it is a likely result of increased load on certain structures or muscles, which should not be taking the brunt of the pose.  If you are feeling pain within your practice, ensure that you address this with your teacher or health professional with an understanding of injury and biomechanics.

 

Cultivate a ‘flow’ state

It’s all too easy to get stuck in a rut with yoga practice, to find yourself going through the motions and slipping into autoilot. In many ways from an evolutionary perspective, autopilot allows us to get a lot of amazing things done with relatively little effort or brain capacity. Think about driving your car – when you first learn to drive, you have to think about every action, but as you become more familiar with driving the whole process becomes more seamless and fluid. In fact this sense of effortlessness is often something we’re told to seek in our yoga practice and is often considered a marker of a more ‘advanced’ practice. To me however there’s a troubling link between autopilot and injury.

 

Research done into the ‘flow state’ – that wonderful place of presence where we are wholly absorbed and immersed in what we are doing – shows that optimal performance occurs in the meeting point between our abilities and difficulty level. This correlates with Patanjali’s words of advice ‘sthiram sukkham asanam’ – the practice of asana should consist of the perfect balance between both effort and ease. If the yoga practice is too effortless, it’s all too easy for the mind to sink into lethargy and distraction. Too difficult and we tend to get frustrated and lose enthusiasm. Needless to say both ends of the spectrum leave us wide open and vulnerable to injury.

 

Therefore to stay present in your practice and out of autopilot find just the right level of challenge to keep your body and mind engaged. Introduce an element of novelty into your practice – try new transitions, explore different postures, add some other elements such as breathwork or meditation, practice with a different teacher and investigate another style of yoga. Not only will this keep your practice fresh and interesting but it will also make you less vulnerable to the kind of mistakes and injuries that mindless autopilot makes more likely.

 

Using breath as a barometer

There’s a reason yoga teachers keep harping on about the breath. Your breath is an incredible guide to the state of your nervous system, your mental and emotional realm, and to the level of physical intensity you’re experiencing.

 

One of the things that I think it’s helpful to clear up is that your breath will and should change during your yoga practice, depending on the physical demands you place on your body. I don’t believe it’s a particularly realistic or worthwhile endeavour to try to keep the breath the exact same pace, rate and depth throughout the entire practice. For example, your breathing will speed up most likely in backbends and high demand poses like arm balances, and your breath will probably slow down during forward bends and restorative postures. This is entirely normal, natural and to be explored and celebrated.

 

That said we are looking for a fluidity to the breathing experience, and any obvious strain in the breath can serve as a useful signal that we are straining and at risk of losing our equilibrium. One of the most common and potentially risky things I see in practice is when students hold their breath. This introduces an element of tension and stress in the body-mind as well as a reduction in sensitivity that makes it more likely we’ll overdo it in practice.  So if you’re ever in doubt as to whether you need to back off, check in with your breath it will tell everything you need to know.

 

Another cause of increased tension on the body is a prolonged and ‘forced exhale’.  Occasionally if your teacher is cuing breathing, their rhythm may not match your requirements, and you may end up straining to try and match the cues.  Try and ensure instead that you alter the breathing rate to one which does not feel forced or strained and instead use your teacher’s cuing as a guide of how to sync the movements and breath up.

 

Become your own teacher and practice alone sometimes

As a yoga teacher, I am so happy when a student says that they feel confident and equipped with enough knowledge and information to start supplementing their teacher-guided practice with practice at home.

 

If we’re always following somebody’s else’s instruction and guidance, we stunt our growth and capacity for tuning into our own needs.  The lack of verbal instruction in a self-guided home practice provides an experience of space and silence that opens up the possibility for hearing the voice of intuition more readily.  In this way our practice becomes a more honest and authentic representation of who we are, with none of the practice-as-performance mentality that can sometimes creep into a group class if left unchecked.

 

Ideally students are encouraged in class to develop their own level of discernment and inner listening skills so that they feel able to take what they learn in a group context into the privacy of their own practice to further explore and experiment with. From that place students become their own best teachers and to me not only is that a sign of an advanced and maturing practice, from an injury prevention perspective, its probably one of the most powerful practices you can do.

The Art of a Safe Sustainable Yoga Practice – Part 1

Yoga is well documented as being one of the safest forms of movement out there. Many students, like me, come to yoga looking for a way to help them manage and rehabilitate a pre-existing injury. Others of us use yoga to help prevent injury occurring in the first place – its no coincidence that many top athletes rave about yoga. That said, injuries sadly do occur in yoga and I’ve become fascinated with how and why injuries happen on the mat. More importantly, how does one cultivate a safe sustainable yoga practice?

In Part 1 of this article we’ll explore some of the factors that I believe may predispose you to injury during practice. In Part 2 we’ll then identify and explore the essential ingredients necessary for creating a safe and sustainable yoga practice.

 

Yoga and Injury Risk Factors

 

Type A personality

It’s sometimes said that whatever you bring on to the yoga mat is what you feed. Many of the traits typical to a Type A personality such as ambition, striving, perfectionism and competitiveness can get us into very hot water when bought into the yoga practice. These qualities create an underlying tone of aggression and pushiness that when left unchecked leave us vulnerable to injury because we are unwilling or unable to heed the body’s feedback and respect its boundaries.

 

I believe if we are honest about many of the injuries that we incur in yoga, we will see that a certain amount of egoism lies at their root. We were trying too hard and were too busy trying to get somewhere.

 

The antidote to this is we need to keep asking ourselves what is it we are ultimately seeking from this practice? What qualities are we looking to foster and grow? Is it really about getting into the splits or is this pose trying to teach us the greater lessons of humility, honesty and self-respect?

 

Speed and momentum

Movements done with momentum are some of the more risky manoeuvres because they lack the fine motor control and finesse that more controlled movements possess. Momentum usually implies speed which in turn means less control, again increasing the risk factor. Kicking into handstand therefore is always going to have a higher element of risk than pressing into handstand, particularly if the kick uses a large amount of momentum and swing.

 

When we move slowly on the other hand, we develop greater strength and we can identify more easily where strength may be lacking. This is one of the main reasons that I encourage students to learn to move slowly and steadily in their practice particularly during transitions. It’s no coincidence that injuries are more likely to occur when going into or out of a pose. Often we are so intent on getting from a to b, from trying to get somewhere, that we simply rush through the transition rather than regarding it as an intrinsic and meaningful part of the experience.

 

Inattentiveness

What makes yoga yoga and not simply Eastern calisthenics? I would argue that the whole foundation of yoga depends upon our ability to be present. Attention is a skill and a birthright – we’re all born with the ability to be present but we need to practice it regularly in order to maintain the habit. It is this awareness that transforms and elevates yoga from a simple stretch class to something more akin to a moving meditation. In terms of injury prevention, attentiveness is critical because it’s usually when we’re on autopilot and not paying attention that mistakes happen and injuries occur. When our minds are drifting off we often miss important cues from the teacher, and we’re much less tuned in to the feedback from our bodies and breath. Our ability to discern what we need in any given moment is compromised and we may not realise we’ve overdone it until it’s too late.

 

Ignorance

In this context ignorance has more to do with a lack of self-awareness than insufficient knowledge. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras ignorance is considered one of the key obstacles, or Kleshas, that lead to suffering along the yogic path. When it comes to injury prevention, the key to a safe and fulfilling yoga practice is to be honest about your current strengths and limitations and tailor the practice accordingly.

 

The physical yoga practice is really a lesson in finding and maintaining equilibrium. In each asana we practice to strike the perfect balance between strength and stability on the one hand, and softness, and flexibility on the other. If you have too much stability you can become rigid, tense and your joints lack appropriate range of motion. If you have too much flexibility and softness, then you lack the necessary support to maintain joint integrity and alignment.

 

We also commonly see a combination of these two presentations, where certain joints display increased movement, whilst those above and/or below remain stiff and unmoving.  This places the hypermobile joints at more risk of injury and the stiffer joints are predisposed to becoming pain generators due to the lack of movement.  We need to remain aware during practice to try and counterbalance between these extremes and allow for more even movement throughout the body.

 

Students therefore need to develop a certain level of self-awareness so that they can adapt the practice to their needs. Some practitioners need more strengthening; others need more lengthening and stretching. Often it’s more complex than that – one part of your body will need more stability, whilst another area will need more work to open up and create space. The important thing here is to know yourself. From that place of deeper understanding and humility, only then can you create a practice that will truly serve you.

 

 

3 Favourite Yoga Poses For Runners

As we draw into sporting season here in Sydney, some of my private clients are preparing for running events and have been asking for more specific cross-training yoga practices! Here are just three of my favourite multi-tasking yoga poses for runners that I recommend. They focus on releasing some of the common ‘problem’ areas, namely hamstrings, hipflexors, quads, calves, shins, ankles and feet!

Toe squat

Benefits:  I once heard this pose referred to as ‘broken toe’ pose and whilst its definitely up there as one of yoga’s less comfortable positions, it is extremely helpful for stretching out not only the toes but the whole sole of the foot. It’s a great pose for both preventing and relieving the early onset of plantarfasciitis. It also gives the quads a light release and maintains healthy range of motion in the joints of the ankles, knees and hips.

Variations: To relieve some of the intensity, you could lift you hips away from your heels so you’re just standing on you knees.

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Runners hamstring stretch with foot pointed or flexed

Benefits: Great release for hamstrings, calves, shins, and outer hips (depending on the variation you do, see below). If you have very tight hamstrings this is one of the safest variations as you can use plenty of height under your hands in the form of foam blocks or books to help you find pelvic neutral and length in your lower back.

Variations: Two variations include flexing the toes of your front foot back towards the knee to stretch out the calf and Achilles tendon (pictured), or you can point through the foot, big toe to the floor, to release the front of the foot and shin. Combined this can be a useful preventative measure towards shin splints which occur as a result of imbalances in the muscles of the lower leg.

Another variation is to flex the front foot and then turn the thigh and foot outwards on a 45 degree. This will transfer the stretch towards the outer lateral part of the front leg, getting into outer hamstrings, ITB and TFL.

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Low lunge with calf stretch

Benefits: This unusual variation of a lunge is a great multi-tasker as it targets the hip-flexors and quads of the back leg, and stretches the inner groin, hamstrings, calf and Achilles tendon of the front leg. The knee of the front foot comes way over the toes, at the same time try to release the heel of the front foot down towards the floor. Let your hips lean forwards to really to access the front of the hip release.

Variations: This pose should be done cautiously if you have knee sensitivities, you can pad up the back knee with a towel or cushion for support, but if you feel any pain in the front knee you might prefer to practice this as a regular lunge with the front knee and heel stacked.

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