Guest Post: How to Stay Healthy in Your Yoga Practice
One of our incredible teachers, Izzy Shurte, has shared her thoughts with us on injury prevention and body awareness for yogis. We hope you find it helpful!
As I have experienced injury as a result of my yoga asana practice, keeping myself safe and helping my students to stay safe in my class is something I’ve given considerable thought to over the years. I find it helpful to normalize injury as an inherent part of a dedicated yoga practice. I don’t know of any serious practitioners who are rolling out a mat five or more days a week that haven’t encountered an injury of some sort over the years, but with a bit more focus on presence and increased body awareness we can help minimize this potential. Just like athletes who demand a lot from the body, a person practicing asana daily is going to encounter repetitive use injuries and uncover the natural misalignments and asymmetry in our flawsome bodies. Responding to pain with mindfulness and compassion, allowing the body to rest and heal and then beginning again with greater attention to detail is a beautiful teaching that can deepen one’s practice.
In Patanjali’s yoga sutras we learn heyam dukkham anagatam, or “suffering that has not yet come can be avoided’, so it is important to become aware of patterns of thinking and behaving on the mat that can lead to injury and therefore suffering. After all, the function of yoga is integration, not disintegration. Searching for guidelines to avoid unnecessary injury in practice, it seems that Patanjali’s Yamas & Niyamas, or Restraints and Observances, and the first two limbs in his comprehensive Ashtanga system of yoga is a good place to start.
Ahimsa, or non-harming, is the first and therefore most important instruction. If nothing else, it is essential that we are not causing harm to others or ourselves in our yoga practice. Ahimsa requires awareness of feedback from the body by way of sensation, so that we can appropriately locate our edge in a posture and not surpass it. Muscles that are overstretched are prone to overuse injuries such as tendonitis (think yoga butt, that high hamstring ache at the sitting bones) and in time lead to instability issues (think SI joint issues).
Satya invites us to observe and honor our truth. Often times this is done through speech, but another way we can honor truth is by finding the most authentic and safe expression of postures. This can mean backing out of postures when we encounter false territory and also honoring the truth of our skeleton, muscles, and ligaments. No two bodies will have an identical expression and this diversity is authentic and beautiful.
Asteya, or non-stealing, and Aparigraha, non-greed, function in a similar way on the mat. When we strive for a pose that does not suit our body or spirit, greed overwhelms our mindfulness. In our haste to “get there” alignment suffers and we override feedback from the body. When the body is ignored it has a way of turning up the volume until we listen by way of pain and or injury.
Relating to the issue of striving on the mat is Samtosha, or contentment. If we can cultivate contentment for the reality of our bodies and minds as an alternative to striving, it can paradoxically catapult us deeper into the practice. A muscle that feels safe and relaxed is more likely to lengthen. When we’re not pushing, we surprise ourselves with progress rather than forcing, which leads to injury.
Brahmacharya literally means the highest way, and also refers to wise use of energy. Attending classes that are beyond your energy reserves, or expending all of your energy early on in a yoga class can leave you feeling depleted and distracted. When we’re tired, we get sloppy. I’ve heard it said that folks most often injury themselves getting out of a pose, not setting it up. The breath provides clues for us as to our pranic capacity. If the breath becomes shallow and labored, we are overwhelmed and not using our energy wisely. In these moments it best to take rest or titrate the pose, backing out some percent until the breath can return to normal.
Tapas, or austerity, reminds us that not all discomfort is bad. The burning and trembling in our thighs in chair pose tells us that we are growing stronger. Tapas also invites us to study optimal alignment in our asana practice. When we learn how to do postures the “right way”, we often find it is much harder. For example, learning to keep the shoulder girdle stable in chaturanga, rather than dipping low, is hard uncomfortable work that leads to a much stronger and sustainable practice. Avoiding this discomfort and just going with what feels easy, leads us rely on muscles that are over developed and ignore muscles that are weak and therefore in need of attention.
Sauca, or purity, is applicable to the mat by way of Sankalpa, or intention. When we come to practice yoga of any sort, we begin by locating an intention or driving force behind the practice. When we select an intention that is pure or free from the stain of egoic impulses it has a protective effect. Likewise, no matter how healing a practice is if undertaken with a harmful intention, the results will be painful. This is the problem of the dirty or poisoned pot, as illustrated in this traditional metaphor here:
Isvarahh Pranidana, or literally making a gift of your energy to something greater than the small self, is another powerful check for the ego on the yoga mat. When you’re practicing to make you a better friend, citizen, parent, partner, et cetera, the approach to postures is very different than say, practicing a pose for an Instagram picture. Practicing with generosity or even gratitude in mind is another powerful antidote to striving and therefore keeps us safe.
Swadyaya, or self-study, is the piece that unites all of these principals. If we’re not engaged in a meditation on the self while on the mat we’re just posing. When we study our habits of body and mind, we can make conscious choices that can leads us away from suffering. When we’re checked out, we get sloppy and injury happens.