I can remember a time, many years ago, when I practiced yoga five times a week. I gave up running, gave up going to the gym and fell under the spell of the idea that yoga was all my body needed. I embraced it fully; the mind/body aspects and especially the physical practice. I pushed myself to practice daily, made going to yoga regularly my spiritual refuge and looked to go deeper into each pose. Even with my academic and work-related background in anatomy and rehabilitative medicine, I put some of that to the side as I felt that yoga was a safe practice and one that would not lead to any problems.
Over the years and especially with my focus on the anatomy of yoga as my speciality and my passion, I’ve shifted my view significantly. Overall, I firmly believe that yoga as a movement practice is a great way to keep the joints, muscles and connective tissues healthy (along with a HOST of other benefits to the mind) but strongly believe that two things are critical:
- that yoga is part of an overall exercise and movement strategy versus the ONLY thing someone does for exercise;
- that yoga is practiced in a way with moderation as the overarching theme versus pushing yourself to the extreme.
Now, this may seem to be common sense but as someone who has cervical spine/neck/shoulder issues from years of overdoing neck extension (luckily, that’s my only issue) and someone who has been teaching for over 10 years and seen this “overdoing it” in action in my students, let me share with you some suggestions to help you practice yoga safely for the long term:
- Variety. Have variety in what you do for exercise. Make yoga part of your overall exercise strategy not the only thing you do. Yoga is great because it allows us to move through all planes of movement. This is quite different from running, let’s say, where we’re primarily moving through the front to back plane. But as with many things, too much of any repeated movement can wear and tear on the muscles, joints and connective tissues unless it’s done with healthy awareness and knowledge. Plus, having variety in your movement practices allows your body to experience other actions, for your body and mind to develop different skills and for your interest in exercise to be variable rather than dependent on one type of movement.
- Work within a healthy range of motion rather than to your personal physical limit. You might think you need to be a medical professional or physical therapist to know what this means but let’s just think about it in a basic way: if you can do a pose and consider the action of the pose from a percentage standpoint, do it at 60 or 70% versus 100%. Now, this doesn’t mean you’re not fully committed to the pose, fully aware and present and that you’re not looking to create healthy alignment. It simply means that if the primary action of the pose is X (let’s say lengthening the hamstrings in Downward Dog), then hold off a few degrees or about 20% when you’re in it. Now, you might say, “How can I know how far I am in the pose? Well, there are lot of ways. Can you hold the posture more than a few seconds? If not, you’re probably past your healthy range. Are you still breathing comfortably? Do you feel sensations in the muscle itself that signal that you’re pushing beyond the muscle’s physical limit? Do you feel pain? Any of these are signs that you’ve gone too far.
- Examine your reasons and motivations for how you approach your practice. For many new students that I chat with before their first class either in their life or with me, often the primary reason they cite for coming to yoga is “they want to be more flexible” from a physical standpoint. Being flexible is a great idea but it’s also a fantastic idea to be stronger and to gain strength. It’s all relative and in many ways, one of the biggest variables you should factor in is where you sit on the “range of motion” scale. If you’re very muscular and don’t do a lot of work to create length, then yes, building flexibility is a great goal and it would stand to reason that you need to increase your range of movement in many of your joints. If you’re a dancer and have danced all your life, you’re also very strong but might need to work on backing off and limiting being at the end of your range in every movement. If you’re someone who is coming back to exercise after injury or time off, you might end up pushing yourself because you think that’s the fastest way to results. Remember, healthy muscles needs BOTH strength and length to be healthy. Think about it; if you didn’t have good balance between the two, your body would lack the appropriate amount of tension to hold you up. There more too it than that, but that’s a basic way to think about it. With too much of either quality, the body is either too stiff or too fluid.
- Don’t sit in your joints or hyperextend them. This refers to something I see quite a lot in class. I believe it comes from a few things: people who are extremely flexible (hypermobile); people who are unaware of a safe way to move through a yoga practice or people who are motivated to push themselves to be more flexible (as I described above). Examples of this include locking your knee on the standing leg in a balancing pose, locking your front knee in Triangle or Twisting Triangle, bouncing into your hip and knee joint as you take a low lunge with the back knee down or up and overarching your back in a Crescent Lunge. There may be more examples but those are a few.
- Don’t fling your head back or leave it unsupported in poses where your head is “out in space” like Triangle, Side Angle or Plank (just to name a few). The cervical spine is a delicate structure in that the vertebrae that comprise it are smaller than the other vertebrae and its main job is to support the head, along with the surrounding muscles. Because our activities of daily living have us turning our heads and moving them up and down so much (especially because we’re looking at our phones so much) it’s wise in yoga practice to take on a more moderate approach to neck movement. So, in a pose like Upward Dog, look forward not up. In a pose like Camel, keep your chin tucked. In poses like Plank and the others I mentioned above, support your head with the muscles of your neck rather than letting it droop and hang down.
- Be honest with yourself about what motivates you to practice and treat your body with compassion and love. This last one is so important. How you do anything in your life is often infused with the energy that’s behind it. If you’re trying to beat your body into what you think is “healthy” take a moment to ask yourself what’s behind that thought. Take time to educate yourself. Seek out different teachers for all the exercising you do, from yoga to personal training to running coaching. Read books, articles, blogs and take online courses on human movement. The more you understand about the body, the more you’ll be an educated consumer as you partake in all the wonderful options out there for exercise, including yoga.
If you’re a yoga teacher or you practice yoga and you want to learn more about anatomy, visit my online classes page. There, you’ll find classes you can download for just $10 a piece and I’ll walk you through the anatomy as you practice. You can see them here.
If you’re a teacher and you’d like some tips on how to build sequences, download my free template on this below:
Thanks for reading and feel free to comment below!