I love when people stay after class to ask me questions. They’re always thoughtful questions that show a real inquisitiveness about the practice. I thought today I’d give you three examples that just came up in the past week. Maybe you’ve had some of these thoughts too:
1. Why do we hold Pigeon Pose longer at the end of class? I thought this was a really interesting question. Certainly the length of time you hold each pose is in part, determined by the style of class you’re taking. In a Yin class, for instance, the nature of the practice is to hold poses for several minutes on each side. However, in a vinyasa class or flow class, you’re moving from pose to pose pretty quickly. When you get to the end of class, those poses are held for a few minutes. This was at the heart of her question: why is that?
If you think of the class itself from an energetic point of view, you can use the visual of an arc, or bell curve, to illustrate the level of energy required. The beginning of the class is a warm up and as the curve moves upward, the level of energy required increases. The pace increases, the length of time we hold each pose decreases and we’re using more energy to move through the practice. We reach a pinnacle of sorts; it might include a peak pose and/or a few backbends and then from that point, the pace slows a bit and the poses are held longer. We are on the downward slope of the curve now and the energy of the class decreases as the poses are held longer.
So, why is this? Well, if you think of it from an energetic point of view again, you’re giving people a ramp up to a point where they are expected to do more, be more connected to their body and their breath and use greater effort. It’d be hard to expect that kind of energy expenditure from them right at the start and it might leave them feeling jittery if every class ended on a huge energetic high note. So, one of the reasons we frequently build class sequences like this is to give people time to warm up to the idea of moving at a faster clip.
So now that we’ve given people a chance to warm up and then work at a higher energetic level, why do we slow things down at the end? We do this for a lot of reasons, some energetic and some physiological. When we take people through a yoga sequence, we’re working their muscles, their cardiovascular system and a host of other biological systems as well (endocrine, digestive, etc.) As the pace of the class increases, so does blood pressure, heart rate, breathing rate, sweating, and effort expended by the muscles. When we get to the latter half of the class, we want to give all those systems a chance to restore to normal levels. (this is why leaving class before shavasana can be jarring to the body). We hold these final poses as a way to restore, both energetically and physiologically, so that when we leave, we feel restored, complete and whole again.
The other aspect to think about is that in order to stretch more than just muscles, but to get to deeper levels of connective tissue, tendons, ligaments and fascia (which is actually more on the surface- just under the skin), we need to hold poses a bit longer. Typical flow classes do a good job of stretching muscle but the sustained holds in yin classes and other restorative classes that are standard fare are predicated on the idea that these aspects of the body respond better when stretched gently but with more sustained pressure versus a quick push. This speaks also to another thing to consider as you’re in your final poses of practice: don’t check out. These poses, while restful and restorative in nature, are not a license to flop into the ground. They still require proper alignment, attention to detail, rhythmic breath, any appropriate modifications and props as needed in order to get the most out of the pose.
2. I just started to recover from ( fill in the blank ) injury. I’m here for the first time after (fill in the blank) weeks. How should I approach my practice? The time when you return to yoga after an injury, big or small, can be a tenuous time. You’re excited but cautious and don’t want to re-injure yourself. Of course the nature of your exact injury will make a huge difference but one thing to use as a barometer is how you feel doing “activities of daily living (ADL).” These are just the day to day things like walking, lifting things, driving, twisting (perhaps in the context of turning around) weight bearing on the hands, knees and legs and the big one- sleeping. Do you have pain that still wakes you up at night and requires meditation for relief? If you are feeling fairly good doing your ADL’s, and you’ve been cleared by your physician, then it’s most likely reasonable to try to start your yoga practice again. However, there are a few things to keep in mind:
- The nature of your injury and your recovery path may make some modifications necessary. The most common one is a lower back injury might involve avoiding forward folding. There are lots of others but generally, your yoga teacher, physical therapist and physician can give you an idea of what movements to avoid.
- Start with a yoga style that make sense. While you might love heated power yoga, perhaps for your first few weeks back, it makes more sense to try something a bit more restorative in nature.
- Share with the teacher that you’re returning after injury.
- Rest as much as you need to rest.
- Modify as you need to modify and use props generously.
- Try one class, maybe two and then watch your body for signs that might indicate you’ve done too much. Only add additional classes each week if your recovery time is unremarkable.
Again, these are general guidelines and you should always start with your physician for guidance.
3. I’ve been practicing 5 days a week for a few weeks now and I’ve felt fine. The last few practices though, I’ve left feeling sore and just a bit “off.” Should I be concerned? When we really get into the rhythm of a regular practice, amazing things can happen to our body. We feel lighter, our muscles respond to the regular stretching, we may feel less stressed and reactive overall. I can speak from my own experience of going away to trainings and practicing twice a day for a week and can admit that I feel better than ever before.
One of the interesting things about yoga practice is it’s quite a mirror for the transience in our bodies overall. However, we’re not always aware of that aspect of our being until we try to put it through the paces of a yoga practice every day. Sure, we may feel “not so hot” some mornings when we wake up and may notice our lower back more on some days versus others, but generally we just move past these transient episodes. However, when we’re into a regular practice (or even a regular running or other kind of exercise schedule) we may notice just a general variability in our bodies more. Also, one factor to consider is that we may be pushing too hard and our body is starting to give us the message that we need to back off. This might mean cutting back one day and seeing how we feel. It might mean we also look at our nutrition and sleep schedule to see if one of these things needs to be adjusted to accommodate for the greater demands we’re putting on our bodies. Also, we may need to just do a mental check to be sure our increased schedule of practice is fueled by a healthy desire and not one that is unhealthy or in a sense, punishment for something else.
Remember that no question about yoga is silly or the answer obvious. Take time to speak up and share your thoughts so your practice can blossom in a healthy way.