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.