The recent article in NY times, “How Yoga can wreck your body” has stirred up a lot of dialogue in the yoga community. On one hand I am glad that this article came about as it has necessitated an open conversation, on the other hand I think that it may deter some people from trying Yoga when it could actually be beneficial for them.
It is important to point out that the practice of Yoga goes back to thousands of years and was traditionally meant to be an individual practice where the teacher imparted the knowledge to the student based not only on the physical needs but also on the mental, emotional, psychological and spiritual needs of the student. Needless to say that the evolution of asana practice (Yoga poses) in a group setting is a far cry from its original intention.
The asana practice on the mat is a significant yet a very small part of Yoga. So equating the asana practice to the whole of yoga is a misrepresentation. The physical part has risks with it as any other physical exercise has when done ignoring the body. However, tuning into our body and honoring our body during our practice can never harm us. It is not Yoga if we are not mindful to the body. We have to stop being so fascinated by the Yoga postures. There are endless ways to awaken each part of the body and bring balance.
Ultimately, what we seek is happiness and freedom from suffering. There is no bigger block to happiness than ill health. The asana practice is means to an end. It is a tool to unite us with our deeper self where we find ultimate peace and happiness. Feeling well in the body can allow us to move beyond it and connect with our deeper self.
Below are some tips that you may follow to develop a safe and enjoyable Yoga practice:
- Adopt a beginner’s mind. Each time you practice, practice as if this is your first time. Our body changes from day to day and so do our needs. Tune in to the body that day and see what you need. Understand the basics first. Understand your own unique strengths and weaknesses, get to know the problematic areas in your body. Become aware and learn to honor where you are at. Yoga may look simple, but it is not easy. Build a solid foundation of knowledge of alignment before getting into challenging classes or poses.
- Learn to listen to your body. Tuning in to your body and honoring its signals will ensure a safe practice. In any yoga class, your body, not the teacher, is the real guide to what is best for you. If something doesn’t feel right, ease out of the pose. If something feels like a strain, you’re pushing too hard. If you feel fatigued, relax back in child’s pose or simply sit down and rest.
- Do not compete with your neighbor. Although it is natural to be impressed and awed by someone who can do the advance postures, it may not be safe to compete with them. Be inspired and know what is possible. Explore safely what is possible for you. Ultimately, your physical safety is your responsibility – take it into your own hands. Some people naturally are physically more able to do than others. Not everyone can do all the poses. More is not better, only better is better.
- Find a middle ground. Real growth happens in the middle path, never in the extremes. Doing too much would be to push into challenging postures in spite of the strain, pain or fatigue that one may experience, doing too little would be barely even trying. Find a place in the middle. It is a point of steady pleasantness in the body. Always start with 20% effort. Then find a sense of ease in this effort. When you come to the first level of resistance in the body, back off and breathe into it. Let the tension soften, and then move further.
- Pick the right teacher and class. Practicing with the right teacher is one of the most important aspects of your practice. It is important that the teacher has training and experience in alignment and is able to teach students of all fitness levels including those with physical limitations.
Size of the class is equally important. In a large yoga class, it is not physically possible for the teacher to pay attention to every student regardless of her knowledge and intention. It is best to avoid large classes esp. if you have physical issues going on. I highly recommend individual session with an experienced teacher esp. if you have physical issues. Here the teacher can give you do’s and don’ts that are specific to your condition.
Remember the practice of asanas is not about what it looks like, it is about what it feels like to you. Honor yourself, honor your body and moreover honor your experience.