Getting Started with Yoga Part 3: 3 Rules to Stay Safe in Your Yoga Practice
How do I know if I’m doing yoga right?
This is a question many a lone home yoga practitioner will ask themselves, and not just once but several times, sometimes throughout one practice.
So, for today’s post, I will focus on asana, the physical practice of yoga. Though the term “yoga” has (in the west especially, but not exclusively) come to be synonymous with asana, it is essential to know that yoga is so much more than that. To reduce yoga to just the physical practice would be akin to saying all of Indian cuisine is just curry, or Japanese cuisine is just Sushi, or British cuisine is just baked potatoes. It is reductive, exclusive, and does a massive disservice to the plethora of practices beyond asana that benefit everyone – more on that in future posts.
For now, let’s focus on staying safe in asana. Why is this important, though?
How sun salutations rendered me unable to walk for a week.
Let me take you back a few years to June 2014. There was much hype in the yoga world, it seemed, about completing 108 sun salutations (a 12-pose sequence that you will see in most asana classes) to commemorate the summer solstice. This takes on average about 90 minutes, and so seemed fairly doable on a gentle early summer evening after work. Oh, how wrong I was.
Even after a few years of (inconsistent) practice, this one evening would prove to be one of many lessons in learning to listen to the body, not the ego. Around salutation number-what-felt-like 537 (but was probably more like #20) I was sweating like a swamp animal in heat. By around #40 I had blisters developing underneath my big toes and my knees were beginning to sing. When the instructor called the halfway mark at #54 I cursed in ways unbecoming of a yoga practitioner and more akin to a drunken pirate. By #90 my arms were giving out in my ardhomukhasvanasana, or downward-facing dog. By #108 I was sobbing and the solstice was the furthest thing from my mind. I crawled to the bath feeling very sorry for myself. The next morning I couldn’t walk. And it stayed that way for a week.
So how does this all relate to safety in yoga?
I won’t be going through any specific asana in this post. Instead, I will be giving generalized guidelines. What I learned in that instance (and many more to follow as I am a bit of a slow learner) include the following:
1. Having strong and steady foundations are key
I was in no position to be attempting 108 salutations. I had not yet mastered the correct form for several of the poses in a sun salutation, so doing 108 of them in the wrong way meant I was over-exerting muscles that should not be over-exerted. Building foundations in asana is your surefire way to find other poses more accessible. Learning and then relentlessly practicing safe alignment that suits your unique body proportions is key.
2. Modify, modify, modify
My ego was in no way going to switch out a downward-facing dog for a table-top position. No way. It was what my body needed though. Nor should I have been doing a full chaturanga (like a plank to a push-up into an upward-facing dog). This was too much for my shoulders to bear, especially as I was front-loading my weight onto my shoulders (dipping my shoulders lower than my elbows), and sticking my bum up into the air like some sort of duck looking for fish underwater. I should have dropped my knees down first, then come to my belly, and substituted an upward-facing dog (urdvamukhasvanasana) for low-cobra (bhujangasana). Or, better yet, skipped that transition entirely.
3. Listen to the aches and pains.
Learning the difference between pain and discomfort takes time. But it’s necessary work in asana, so you can avoid injury if it’s the former, and avoid fear if it’s the latter. What do I mean by that? Pain is considered sharp, sudden, and almost causing a quick intake of breath. Anything like this and immediately back out of whatever pose you’re doing. Rest a bit, take note of what you’re feeling and make a sensible decision whether to continue on or take savasana (corpse pose). The same goes for light-headedness or dizziness – sit or lie down until you feel better.
If, however, what you’re feeling is discomfort, such as that brought up by stretching gently into a muscle that may have not been used all that much recently, or when holding a pose leads to shaky legs and burning resentment towards your teacher (we’ve all been there), then pause and consider if this is more of a mental block than a physical one. Over-stretching is a thing and does not come recommended at all. Oftentimes, though, we tend to fear the agitation that a stretching sensation, or muscle shakes, can bring up, and we retreat before discovering what our body is capable of. I will add here, though, that the purpose is NOT to grimly emulate what your teacher may be doing – pay attention to the signals from your body and stop, even if that means your splits are less splits and more scissors or your downward dog requires blocks and bent knees – it’s your body, your practice. The key is to tune in and listen to the body, not the ego. As I always say in class, focus on the feeling, then go from there. Not being able to do what is often wrongfully referred to as “the full expression of the pose” does not make you a bad yoga practitioner. Not listening to your body’s signals doesn’t either, it just makes you an injured one.
Learning how to safely set up your home yoga space so you can focus on the feeling during your asana practice is also key. If you haven’t already, fill in the form below and get access to my FREE guide that goes through the steps needed to set up your home yoga practice space.
So, that’s it for this week – short and sweet. Stay tuned for next week’s final post in the Getting Started with Yoga series where we will talk about some useful resources to help with studying yoga – for those days when you don’t have time to practice asana but still want to get your fix (or you’re laid up in bed because you pushed it too hard that one time doing 108 sun salutations and now you have all the time in the world to read, watch and listen to all things yoga).
Until then, much love,