The Art of a Safe Sustainable Yoga Practice – Part 1

Yoga is well documented as being one of the safest forms of movement out there. Many students, like me, come to yoga looking for a way to help them manage and rehabilitate a pre-existing injury. Others of us use yoga to help prevent injury occurring in the first place – its no coincidence that many top athletes rave about yoga. That said, injuries sadly do occur in yoga and I’ve become fascinated with how and why injuries happen on the mat. More importantly, how does one cultivate a safe sustainable yoga practice?

In Part 1 of this article we’ll explore some of the factors that I believe may predispose you to injury during practice. In Part 2 we’ll then identify and explore the essential ingredients necessary for creating a safe and sustainable yoga practice.

 

Yoga and Injury Risk Factors

 

Type A personality

It’s sometimes said that whatever you bring on to the yoga mat is what you feed. Many of the traits typical to a Type A personality such as ambition, striving, perfectionism and competitiveness can get us into very hot water when bought into the yoga practice. These qualities create an underlying tone of aggression and pushiness that when left unchecked leave us vulnerable to injury because we are unwilling or unable to heed the body’s feedback and respect its boundaries.

 

I believe if we are honest about many of the injuries that we incur in yoga, we will see that a certain amount of egoism lies at their root. We were trying too hard and were too busy trying to get somewhere.

 

The antidote to this is we need to keep asking ourselves what is it we are ultimately seeking from this practice? What qualities are we looking to foster and grow? Is it really about getting into the splits or is this pose trying to teach us the greater lessons of humility, honesty and self-respect?

 

Speed and momentum

Movements done with momentum are some of the more risky manoeuvres because they lack the fine motor control and finesse that more controlled movements possess. Momentum usually implies speed which in turn means less control, again increasing the risk factor. Kicking into handstand therefore is always going to have a higher element of risk than pressing into handstand, particularly if the kick uses a large amount of momentum and swing.

 

When we move slowly on the other hand, we develop greater strength and we can identify more easily where strength may be lacking. This is one of the main reasons that I encourage students to learn to move slowly and steadily in their practice particularly during transitions. It’s no coincidence that injuries are more likely to occur when going into or out of a pose. Often we are so intent on getting from a to b, from trying to get somewhere, that we simply rush through the transition rather than regarding it as an intrinsic and meaningful part of the experience.

 

Inattentiveness

What makes yoga yoga and not simply Eastern calisthenics? I would argue that the whole foundation of yoga depends upon our ability to be present. Attention is a skill and a birthright – we’re all born with the ability to be present but we need to practice it regularly in order to maintain the habit. It is this awareness that transforms and elevates yoga from a simple stretch class to something more akin to a moving meditation. In terms of injury prevention, attentiveness is critical because it’s usually when we’re on autopilot and not paying attention that mistakes happen and injuries occur. When our minds are drifting off we often miss important cues from the teacher, and we’re much less tuned in to the feedback from our bodies and breath. Our ability to discern what we need in any given moment is compromised and we may not realise we’ve overdone it until it’s too late.

 

Ignorance

In this context ignorance has more to do with a lack of self-awareness than insufficient knowledge. In Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras ignorance is considered one of the key obstacles, or Kleshas, that lead to suffering along the yogic path. When it comes to injury prevention, the key to a safe and fulfilling yoga practice is to be honest about your current strengths and limitations and tailor the practice accordingly.

 

The physical yoga practice is really a lesson in finding and maintaining equilibrium. In each asana we practice to strike the perfect balance between strength and stability on the one hand, and softness, and flexibility on the other. If you have too much stability you can become rigid, tense and your joints lack appropriate range of motion. If you have too much flexibility and softness, then you lack the necessary support to maintain joint integrity and alignment.

 

We also commonly see a combination of these two presentations, where certain joints display increased movement, whilst those above and/or below remain stiff and unmoving.  This places the hypermobile joints at more risk of injury and the stiffer joints are predisposed to becoming pain generators due to the lack of movement.  We need to remain aware during practice to try and counterbalance between these extremes and allow for more even movement throughout the body.

 

Students therefore need to develop a certain level of self-awareness so that they can adapt the practice to their needs. Some practitioners need more strengthening; others need more lengthening and stretching. Often it’s more complex than that – one part of your body will need more stability, whilst another area will need more work to open up and create space. The important thing here is to know yourself. From that place of deeper understanding and humility, only then can you create a practice that will truly serve you.

 

 

3 Favourite Yoga Poses For Runners

As we draw into sporting season here in Sydney, some of my private clients are preparing for running events and have been asking for more specific cross-training yoga practices! Here are just three of my favourite multi-tasking yoga poses for runners that I recommend. They focus on releasing some of the common ‘problem’ areas, namely hamstrings, hipflexors, quads, calves, shins, ankles and feet!

Toe squat

Benefits:  I once heard this pose referred to as ‘broken toe’ pose and whilst its definitely up there as one of yoga’s less comfortable positions, it is extremely helpful for stretching out not only the toes but the whole sole of the foot. It’s a great pose for both preventing and relieving the early onset of plantarfasciitis. It also gives the quads a light release and maintains healthy range of motion in the joints of the ankles, knees and hips.

Variations: To relieve some of the intensity, you could lift you hips away from your heels so you’re just standing on you knees.

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Runners hamstring stretch with foot pointed or flexed

Benefits: Great release for hamstrings, calves, shins, and outer hips (depending on the variation you do, see below). If you have very tight hamstrings this is one of the safest variations as you can use plenty of height under your hands in the form of foam blocks or books to help you find pelvic neutral and length in your lower back.

Variations: Two variations include flexing the toes of your front foot back towards the knee to stretch out the calf and Achilles tendon (pictured), or you can point through the foot, big toe to the floor, to release the front of the foot and shin. Combined this can be a useful preventative measure towards shin splints which occur as a result of imbalances in the muscles of the lower leg.

Another variation is to flex the front foot and then turn the thigh and foot outwards on a 45 degree. This will transfer the stretch towards the outer lateral part of the front leg, getting into outer hamstrings, ITB and TFL.

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Low lunge with calf stretch

Benefits: This unusual variation of a lunge is a great multi-tasker as it targets the hip-flexors and quads of the back leg, and stretches the inner groin, hamstrings, calf and Achilles tendon of the front leg. The knee of the front foot comes way over the toes, at the same time try to release the heel of the front foot down towards the floor. Let your hips lean forwards to really to access the front of the hip release.

Variations: This pose should be done cautiously if you have knee sensitivities, you can pad up the back knee with a towel or cushion for support, but if you feel any pain in the front knee you might prefer to practice this as a regular lunge with the front knee and heel stacked.

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Top 5 Reasons Why You Should Consider Taking a Private Yoga Lesson

The way yoga is taught today couldn’t be further removed from its traditional roots. Back in the day, yoga was handed down from teacher to student usually in one-on-one settings or small individualised groups with common aims. Taught in this way, sequences and practices were highly specialised, safe, logical and custom-made for the individual.

 

Fast forward today, and teachers have their work cut out for them, with a huge diverse range of levels, physical constraints and injuries presented in each class. It’s become a real, and dare I say, virtually impossible feat to teach a public yoga class that will cater to all students various and unique needs.

 

That is why I’m such an advocate of students investing some time in private sessions with a teacher. Many of us see the logic in investing time and money into additional training to improve our technique and skill, whether its at the gym with a personal trainer or with a coach to improve our tennis game. Why wouldn’t we do the same for yoga, particularly if its something we enjoy and we plan to spend some time doing? The benefits increase exponentially if you identify with any of the following statements:

 

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You are a beginner….

As a beginner it can be really intimidating to step into a group class. So many instructions, so little time! I would encourage every beginner to have a private session first (just as you might have an induction when you start at a gym), if for no other reason than to keep you safe and injury-free, and to ensure that you’re first class is a little less overwhelming and intimidating.

 

You are injured…

Yoga done mindfully and with awareness is one of the safest forms of physical movement out there, but it really pays to see someone for a private if you are injured. Certain poses or practices are contra-indicated for specific injuries and should be avoided altogether. Yoga also has extraordinary rehabilitative qualities and can go a long way towards restoring musculo-skeletal balance. An experienced teacher will tell you what to skip in class, what beneficial poses to do instead and what poses to adapt or modify, creating a practice that will help fast-track you on the path to recovery.

 

You are an Ashtanga/Flow/Vinyasa junkie…
One of the riskier elements of more fluid styles of yoga is the repetitive nature of certain movements and the potential for wear and tear on vulnerable joints such as the knees, shoulders, lower back and wrists. Many of the injuries I see in yoga come from repeating the same poor alignment habits over and over again. Almost everyone can benefit from a chaturanga tune-up, and seasoned practitioners can learn from going back to the basics of alignment in oft-repeated poses such as downdog, updog, warriors and plank. Even the most skilled sportsmen will continue to work alongside their trainer to develop and refine the basics of their craft, so if you’re a repeating a lot of the same sorts of movements it’s really important you get these checked by a trained eye.

 

You are working with a chronic health condition…
With any health condition you will have very specific needs and requirements that are best addressed in a one-on-one setting. A qualified teacher can help create a practice that addresses these needs, keeps you safe and provides you with a logical sense of progression and growth. We also often forget that yoga has so much more to offer us than just physical postures. There is a huge array of therapeutic practices and techniques spanning back thousands of years that are now being scientifically proven to have wonderful healing properties – think meditation, guided relaxation, breathwork, mudra and mantra. If you are working with a health condition this is also rich territory to explore and again best suited to the quiet, compassionate space of a one-on-one session.

 

You are looking to advance/ re-inspire your practice…
I’ve often likened my relationship to yoga practice like any long-term relationship. There are times when the passion is alive and flourishing, and then other times where things feel a little stale and in dire need of spicing up! I’m a big believer in a steady, long-term sustainable yoga practice and I think this can only happen when you constantly revisit the intentions behind your practice, and look for new sources of inspiration, whether that be exploring a new style of yoga, delving into the philosophical teachings of yoga, or having a list of ‘project poses’ that you’re working on. Private yoga sessions can be a wonderful place to explore ways in which you can continue to grow your practice, giving you a clearer insight into where you want to go and the steps to get there.

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